Tigard takes first step toward smart zoning option
The City of Tigard is to be applauded for seeking community comments on proposals to address the lack of so-called "missing middle" housing.
That includes accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, also known as "granny flats." Think of that apartment built over the garage, or in the backyard or basement. Additional dwelling units allow one residential lot to become two abodes. It creates smaller, more affordable housing (hence the term "missing middle") which is missing in Washington County.
The Oregon Legislature has mandated that cities provide clear and objective standards for such smaller housing options. Tigard has stepped up to the plate.
We encourage every city in the county — and Washington County, in its vast unincorporated urban areas — to do the same or better.
A quick history on urban zoning: Before the 20th century, the concept didn't really exist in America. If you owned the land, you could build whatever you wanted. Poison-spewing factories cheek-by-jowl with neighborhoods and schools? No problem.
(It's silly, but think of Gary Larson's famous "Far Side" comic strip featuring Ed's Dingo Farm next door to Doreen's Nursery and the caption, "Trouble brewing.")
Zoning began to come into vogue in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 20th century: sometimes for very good reasons (quality of life, safety) and sometimes for very bad reasons (racism and redlining).
The upshot of it all is: In the 21st century, we are used to strict zoning rules that say: Thou shalt put downtown commercial businesses here, light industrial there, the houses over there, etc. Also, this neighborhood is set aside for apartments and duplexes, and that neighborhood for big houses on wide-open lots with garages and driveways.
That's a Post World War II urban design that won't cut it in the 21st century. It's the design that makes it necessary for a huge percentage of people in Washington County (and Oregon, and the United States), to get up every weekday morning, drive to work across a city or county border, clog city streets and freeways, and drive back home again.
It's the reason we are spending millions of dollars in the next few years to repair Oregon highways and streets (thanks to the 2017 Oregon Legislature). It's the reason we'll be asking voters to OK a potential $2.86 billion light rail line between Portland and Tigard-Tualalatin in 2020. It's the reason the cities of Beaverton, King City, Hillsboro and Wilsonville are asking Metro, the regional government, to expand the urban growth boundary, that invisible barrier around the 'burbs, beyond which urban development is not allowed.
By and large: We do not live where we work, and we keep low-, middle- and upper-income homes neatly separated.
Also, we rely on the free market to dictate the kinds of new homes that are built (big, single-family residents), while city, county and state policy focuses strongly on ways to create more very-low-income housing, such as shelters, or dwellings for people at zero-to-20-percent of median family income.
Neither the free market nor the praiseworthy effort to address extreme poverty addresses the "missing middle" housing for first-time homeowners, or empty-nesters, or those people working their way out of poverty.
Allowing for more accessory dwelling units would begin, in a small way, to address the issue.
It's also a step toward remembering why zoning is important, but why the concept has to be tempered.
Think of some of Portland's older neighborhoods, like St. Johns or Sellwood. It's still possible today to see the remnants of a less-stringent era in zoning, with a small cluster of apartments next to a duplex, next to a four-bedroom home, across the street from a school, a diner and an auto garage. Mind you: The two Portland examples above aren't served by light rail or the Portland Street Car. If they were, they'd be even better examples of the smart, relaxed mixed-use neighborhoods of old.
Where could we find that sort of development in the future?
How about the Tigard Triangle, the under-developed sector between Interstate 5, Highway 99W and Highway 27? It's highly likely that the Southwest Corridor Light Rail line will run through there eventually. Right now, the triangle (which has about the same footprint as downtown Portland) consists of huge box stores and endless parking lots. Imagine it as mixed-use neighborhoods with jobs and housing for all income levels, schools and parks, grocers and stores, bike paths and light rail, sidewalks and green spaces.
That could be the model for the rest of Portland. It could be the model for the nation.
And Tigard's decision this month to consider relaxing zoning rules might, 100 years from now, be remembered as the first baby step on the route to sane, simple, solution-oriented zoning.