Our Opinion: Infill plan top priority; do it right
The gap between "haves" and "have nots" is widening in Portland.
The Residential Infill Plan, now before the Planning and Sustainability Commission, is one of many measures the City Council must tackle to change this trajectory.
However, this plan will forever change the face of Portland. With that in mind, it's more important to do it right than to do it quickly.
For context: In just a decade since the Great Recession formally ended, housing prices and rents in Portland's closer-in neighborhoods have spiraled out of reach for many young and middle-class families. We've seen what can happen in other cities if we continue along this path: Single-family neighborhoods within five miles of downtown will become enclaves of largely white, well-educated and affluent homeowners. Meanwhile, much of the middle and working classes, including many people of color, get relegated to outlying neighborhoods or suburbs, and are forced into hour-long commutes that worsen traffic congestion for everyone.
In its current form, the Residential Infill Plan is projected to spur the development of 24,000 more housing units in triplexes and fourplexes in neighborhoods around the city over the next 20 years, plus 3,000 more accessory dwelling units.
This is not a panacea.
But the plan wisely includes incentives to assure that many of those units are affordable and accessible to people with disabilities or in wheelchairs.
But here's where we start scratching our heads: When did the infill plan go from density-along-transit-corridors to density everywhere?
The answer is: Planners decided that corridor-heavy density just wouldn't add enough units to fill the need. The housing shortage is so huge, we need to incorporate every neighborhood.
This was a sea change from longstanding city policy. We have to ask: Does the new, one-density-size-fits-all proposal take into account issues like street parking? Impact on schools? Water and sewer facilities? If not, it sure should.
And: Has anyone in the city run the computer models on going back to the transit-corridor plan, but adding the size incentives of the new version (to avoid the McMansion problem)? How many new units would that create? If that study hasn't been done, it should be.
The switch from transit corridors to everywhere is a done deal at the Planning Commission. But that plan still has to go back to the City Council. There's still time to make sure these questions have been asked and answered.
We agree that a radical shift is needed to provide more housing in Portland. That was underscored by a report last week from ECONorthwest and the Value of Jobs Coalition that showed how much Portland's cost of housing has outpaced growth in income in recent years. Making matters worse, ECONorthwest projects that the recent boom in high- and mid-rise apartment construction is ending. That means the creation of missing middle housing — the duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, cottages and accessory dwelling units — is vital.
As the discussion continues, let's tone down all the hyperbole, personal attacks, NIMBYism and charges of racism that have distracted from the debate. Let's acknowledge that past zoning and other practices often were adopted with racist motivations. Let's agree that all neighborhoods must help to accommodate newcomers if we hope to limit sprawl, maintain a semblance of diversity and protect our precious farms and forests.
And to be honest, let's admit that the brunt of new development from the Residential Infill Plan, as currently written, will actually come in lesser-off neighborhoods — reducing potential redevelopment in the very neighborhoods that are most vocally opposed to the plan.
Portland planners have heard some of these arguments before, back in the 1990s, when the city boldly led the way in allowing an accessory dwelling unit on most city lots. The sky did not fall. In fact, some of the most brisk development of such units has been in Portland's more affluent neighborhoods.
Let's have a healthy civil debate when the Residential Infill Plan comes before the City Council, to make sure it achieves its laudable goals.
Portland faces some stark choices about which direction it wants to go. And one thing is certain: The cost of doing nothing is too high.