Krogh: Portland blew last chance at fostering 'missing middle'
What is "missing middle" housing? That term has become commonplace lately, but many don't really understand what it is and why it has become so important.
The "middle" simply refers to residential uses within the range of single-family houses and higher-density apartment buildings. Such middle-density residential structures include duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, rowhouses, townhouses, clustered housing, and smaller apartment complexes, which could include garden apartments, courtyard apartments, or small apartment buildings of over four units in total.
Why is this "middle" missing? When Oregon cities were working in the 1970's to create or update their comprehensive plans in compliance with the 1973 adopted Statewide Planning Goals, they were supposed to assess housing needs and provide for a variety of housing types and price ranges per Goal 10 (Housing). In the Portland area, Metro was designated to oversee goal compliance; for elsewhere it was the State Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC).
But guess what? In Portland and many other cities, this just didn't happen.
You can see this by looking at development patterns. Higher-density apartment buildings along busy arterial streets butt right up next to single-family houses with few middle-density residential structures (duplexes, triplexes, townhouses, etc.) acting as a transition between the high- and low-density uses. What so often happens with zoning is to apply it based on existing development patterns but to neglect including transitional areas to accommodate medium-level growth needs. This has occurred in Portland and other cities around Oregon.
An example of an idealistic zoning pattern that demonstrates density transition is the concentric circle theory. The center bullseye is high-density downtown or commercial/mixed use areas with medium density the next ring out, extending finally to low-density houses. This concept works the same along transit streets. Portland, however, has had the tendency to apply higher-density zoning along arterial streets with no middle density as a transition to nearby houses. And Portland's gentrification activities have eliminated much middle-density potential while also creating considerable displacement.
Portland's flawed housing need assessments, and a lack of direction to go back and correct the flaws, have largely put Portland into the situation it is now. Portland now proposes to mandate middle-density housing within single-family neighborhoods in a hope that 20 years in the future, redevelopment in these areas will solve the missing-middle problem. And that is where the Residential Infill Project (RIP) and Speaker Tina Kotek's HB 2001 come in.
Unfortunately, these programs will not only create a new mixed-density "hodge podge" zone, but will also undermine the planning processes first established by SB 100 and its Statewide Planning Goals (not to mention necessitating new infrastructure planning). without providing anything more than speculation that the new housing will be equitable, adequate or affordable.
Of note, Speaker Kotek has also proposed HB 2003, which requires cities to redo their housing needs assessments and provides specific guidance. The question then becomes, why should Portland go ahead with RIP and the state go ahead with HB 2001, when only HB 2003 proposes to solve the overall problem of identifying and satisfying housing needs? Isn't that putting the cart before the horse? And what about alternatives to these? More citizen involvement and transparency is really needed. Even the Minneapolis proposal didn't go this far.
David Krogh is a retired planner. He lives in Southwest Portland.
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