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Coming wave of micro apartments will increase Portland's density, but will renters give up their cars?

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The footprint Thurman development is bringing micro apartments to Northwest Portland--50 units, shared kitchens, no on-site parking and rents significantly less than for studio apartments. Footprint CEO Cathy Reines predicts fewer than ten of the buildings residents will have cars.Explaining her view on parking in Northwest Portland has become an agonizing process for Northwest Portland resident Jeanne Harrison.

Harrison, co-chairwoman of the neighborhood transportation committee, for more than a decade was the city of Portland’s senior transportation planner. She took the lead in drawing up parking policies for the city — policies aimed at getting more Portlanders to give up their cars and accept a style of urban living based on using mass transit.

But in March, Northwest Portland’s neighborhood representatives started to tackle the problem Southeast residents battled last year — a proliferation of new apartment buildings without off-street parking. In Southeast, the developments were confined by city rules to major commercial streets such as Division. A quirk in those rules, however, leaves Northwest Portland much more open to such developments. Only in Northwest Portland, in Gateway and downtown can developers widely choose to build apartment buildings without providing parking.

Last month, Northwest’s neighborhood association, the NWDA, presented the city with a position paper asking that new apartment buildings be required to provide at least some off-street parking for residents. That is precisely the type of regulation that Jeanne Harrison worked against in her years guiding city policy. But Harrison signed on.

Ten years ago, Harrison says, she believed that apartment buildings without parking made sense because mass transit would become more available and convenient. That, she says, was the basis of policies she authored that allowed parking-free developments. But it hasn’t happened.

“You shouldn’t have to look at your watch or look at a schedule,” Harrison says of the city she envisioned when writing regulations she knew would make it tougher on inner-city drivers. “You should be able to walk to a corner and within five minutes a bus comes.”

Exacerbating the problem, she says, is that banks have become willing to finance large apartment buildings that don’t provide parking — something at which they previously balked.

So now, an anguished Harrison supports measures to limit the development of apartment buildings without parking. For those who have followed city transportation issues during the past decade, that’s a major turnaround.

In fact, Harrison says, mass transit availability has declined in her neighborhood and around the city over the last few years, as TriMet revenues have decreased. As a result, all those apartment buildings without parking aren’t necessarily attracting tenants without cars, as had been the plan. And the cars those tenants drive are competing for street parking spaces.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Footprint CEO Cathy Reines says prospective tenants are already calling about the 200-square-foot micros shes building on Northwest Thurman Street just off 23rd Avenue. Footprint has filled 18 micro apartment buildings in Seattle, and Reines expects the Portland market to follow a similar path.

Majority of residents own cars

Throughout Northwest Portland, 1,475 new apartments have been built in the last three years or are under construction, according to a survey by NWDA board member Ron Walters. In the past two years, Walters says, only about a third to a quarter of those apartments have come with on-site parking.

Last year, a spate of no-parking development on Southeast Division Street pushed residents to lobby City Hall for relief. As a result, the city adopted an ordinance that basically requires new developments on commercial streets to provide parking for one fourth of its apartments.

A recent city survey of eastside apartment buildings that don’t have parking showed that 72 percent of the tenants owned cars. According to city planner Matt Wickstrom, the survey also found that most of those tenants did not drive to work or drive much at all, just like their Northwest Portland counterparts. But they still held on to their cars.

And the same issues facing Northwest Portland will soon confront many Portland neighborhoods as developers turn to a different apartment model that allows them to build in any area of the city without including parking: micro apartments.

These tiny units cost developers just a fraction of what it would cost to build full-scale apartments. Because micro apartments often have shared kitchens or other communal facilities, developers are able to avoid regulations requiring on-site parking — anywhere in the city. That saves a bundle in construction costs — building in parking spaces can cost developers $20,000 to $50,000 per space.

Proponents of micros say they are a welcome addition to the city landscape. The rent is cheaper, so people can live in neighborhoods they otherwise could not afford, say proponents. They are, some say, a solution to the city’s critical shortage of low-rent apartments, and a major advance in the sustainability movement.

But micro apartments also could ratchet up the competition for scarce on-street parking spaces if their residents don’t buy into the smaller footprint lifestyle philosophy completely. In other words, if the residents keep their cars.

Micro apartments require downsizing

Micro apartments currently are being developed in Northwest Portland, the Hollywood District and downtown. But one, the Freedom Center, is already operating, having opened last year on Northwest 15th Avenue.

Vanessa Chaple and Jay Rosado share a Freedom Center apartment. Most evenings you’ll find them eating takeout dinner in the building’s lounge. The choice, Chaple says, came down to a dining room table or a bigger bed. They chose the bed, and the communal aspect of eating meals in the lounge, with its big-screen TV.

Last year the couple was living in Miami in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,200-square-foot apartment. Next year, they probably will return to Florida after Chaple finishes school at Old Town’s Oregon College of Oriental Medicine. Rosado works nearby at LA Fitness. But Rosado says they couldn’t find anything close to their $900 a month rent in Northwest or the Pearl. For a year or a little longer, Freedom Center works for them. In the long run, Chaple says, “We need space.”

Kristi Bryan travels a lot for work, so she was willing to live in a micro apartment after selling a much larger Lake Oswego condo. Downsizing hasn’t been a problem.

“All I really wanted was my piano, my bed and some plants,” Bryan says. “I like not having stuff.”

Bryan says she has no problem finding street parking in

the still underdeveloped Northwest corner of the Pearl, even overnight.

University of Oregon student Maddy Belval wanted to bike to school in Old Town. Two hundred-seventy-five square feet at $800 a month in the Pearl seemed a reasonable tradeoff to be able to do that. She says she spends little time in her apartment, mostly just for showers, sleep and an occasional meal. An advantage?

“The apartment doesn’t get messy,” she says.

Many short-term residents

But even with her away-from-home lifestyle — she says she spends a lot of time at her

boyfriend’s house — Belval still has a car. She pays about $100 a month to park it at a surface lot underneath Interstate 405, across the street from Freedom Center. Belval says she’s friendly with six of the building’s residents, and half drive cars. Building management says that seems about right.

Management has kept tabs on how many of the Freedom Center tenants buy monthly parking privileges at the surface lot: eight. The Freedom Center has 150 apartments, so that means its tenants park somewhere between 60 and 70 new cars on the street each night.

Most of the renters at the Freedom Center describe themselves as in transitional stages of life, and numbers supplied by management back that up. More than half the tenants leave at the end of their first lease. Some leases are for six months, though the average is a year. That’s part of the building’s appeal, says developer Mark Madden.

“A shorter term, with less materialism commitment that they can move out of pretty freely,” he says.

Many micro apartments, such as those being constructed on Northwest Thurman Street by Footprint Investments, come fully furnished. Cathy Reines, chief executive officer of Footprint, says her micros typically rent at 60 to 70 percent of what a studio apartment would rent in a neighborhood and that the average income of her Seattle micro renters is about $40,000 a year.

The average age at Freedom Center is 29. The building is full and by summer, Madden says, there should be a waiting list. Madden says that if he’d gone to the expense of putting in parking, the apartments would rent for more, and he still thinks the stalls would mostly be empty — just like the lot across the street. As long as tenants can find street parking, few are going to pay $100 a month or more for dedicated spots, in a building or in a lot across the street.

High costs exclude young

Seattle is a decade ahead of Portland in terms of accepting micro housing, says Clark Williams-Derry, deputy director of the Seattle’s Sightline Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable urban living. Seattle has seen at least 3,000 micro units built in the past few years, all without on-site parking.

Sightline is big on the idea of encouraging city residents to live with smaller carbon footprints, and without cars, specifically. But Williams-Derry sees the micro housing battle as much more than a dispute about on-street parking rights. He thinks what’s really brewing is a culture clash.

In Seattle and Portland, available low-rent apartments are both expensive and rare, Williams-Derry says. Many of the people, mostly young, who are choosing micro apartments are stepping up from sharing housing, even doubling up in bedrooms. Neighborhoods such as Northwest Portland, he adds, are mostly populated by residents who are Baby Boomers or older.

“What we’re really talking about is a place where a lot of older folks don’t necessarily realize how hard young people have it these days,” he says.

Requiring parking in a micro apartment, and thus forcing developers to charge more for rent, Williams-Derry says, excludes most young people from neighborhoods such as Northwest Portland and the Pearl. In his view, that is not how cities are supposed to work.

“Really, the question is, can you expect to be able to live in one of the few dense vibrant urban areas west of the Mississippi and expect it not to change?” he says. “Cities are always dynamic. They always change. There are two choices. (Current residents) have to accept that they are excluding people from their neighborhood in order for them to maintain a lifestyle, or things will change and one of those things that will change might be it will be more difficult to park.”

“I’m glad there are young people out there who want to live light,” says retired transportation planner Harrison. “That’s great.” But Harrison takes issue with what is taking place at Freedom Center. “I don’t see how you can live light and own a car. To me that’s not living light,” she says.

Even buildings that provide spaces are adding to the street parking woes, Harrison notes. She says some Northwest Portland apartment buildings are renting parking spaces to nonresidents because tenants would still rather pay $60 for an annual street parking permit than $1,000 or more per year for an indoor spot.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Freedom Center business manager shows off a 279-square-foot apartment at the Freedom Center that includes a bathroom and kitchen. Some building residents eat their meals in the communal lounge, and many stay a year or less, temporarily sacrificing space for location.

Parking attitudes ingrained

Harrison recalls attending an eastside neighborhood meeting in her role as city transportation planner where a man stood and said, “Anybody who parks in front of my house, I’d shoot him.” Harrison used to live in the Cully neighborhood where a woman who lived across the street would scream at anybody who parked in front of her house.

“Maybe thinking is changing, but I think that’s still ingrained in people in Portland,” she says.

On the other hand, Harrison says she knows people in Northwest Portland who buy $60 annual street parking permits but some nights can’t park closer than two or three blocks from their homes. Add more apartment buildings without parking and those neighbors might be paying for permits and parking a half-mile or more from their homes.

In the end, a conflicted Harrison admits that her practical point of view comes in conflict with her sense of what is fair. “For buildings that are going to have 70 percent or even 50 percent of their people owning cars, is it fair for them to be using up a public space for parking?” she asks. “If it’s fair for a current resident in a house with no parking to park on the street, why wouldnt it be fair for a new resident?”

Capping permits could solve parking problem

The new wave of micro apartments expected to sweep through close-in Portland neighborhoods poses a complex parking problem. But it may have a fairly simple solution— that all sides in the parking conflict appear to accept.

The Northwest Portland Neighborhood Association fears that these tiny-unit apartment buildings that don't provide parking will attract scores of tenants with cars they need to park on the street. They have asked the city to require parking in all new apartment buildings.

Developers of the micro apartments say they are marketing their units mostly to people who want to live with a smaller footprint — so most won't have cars.

Urban living density advocates say building apartments without parking is the only way to deliver low-rent housing that will allow younger residents to live close in.

But this year the city is expected to fully implement the part of its Northwest Portland parking plan which requires almost all the neighborhood's residents to buy $60 annual passes if they want to park on the street. The Tribune asked the major players how they would respond to putting a cap on the number of street parking permits granted to each new micro apartment building.

“I think that's a great idea,” says Ron Walters, until recently president of the NWDA, who serves on the neighborhood association's transportation, planning and parking committees. Walters would go a step further and require new apartment buildings to come with their own transportation plans, spelling out how developers expect their renters to move about the city.

Cathy Reines, chief operating officer of Footprint Investments, developer of the Footprint Thurman micro apartments in Northwest Portland, says she'd support capping parking permits for her buildings (her company has 18 micro apartment buildings renting out in Seattle and she expects to build a number in Portland). Reines says she anticipates no more than five or 10 renters will have cars at the 50-unit Thurman Street development. A city transportation rule limiting the number of on-street parking permits dedicated to her building to 10 permits or so would work, she says.

In fact, Reines says she would be interested in incentives if her building kept its parking permits below their allotment. If, say, only five renters at Footprint Thurman sought city parking permits, the building could be rewarded with some sort of public transportation incentive.

Sightline Institute Deputy Director Clark Williams-Derry, whose Seattle think tank is a proponent of building apartments without off-street parking in dense neighborhoods, says he could support the parking permit limit for new micros.

“It obviously favors existing residents over new ones. … That's not the greatest outcome,” Williams-Derry says. “But if it's a way to navigate the politics and provide more inexpensive housing options for people who need and want it, it's not the worst outcome.”

Which leaves the Portland Bureau of Transportation to weigh in. “I think it's a really interesting proposal,” says Leah Treat, the bureau's director.

Treat says she's in favor of approaching on street parking, including permits, as a supply and demand commodity. She'd even consider using the cost of the annual residential parking permits to free up curbside spaces.

“If people want to be able to park on their specific block, if there is an expectation, a desire that somebody should be able to park within a block of their house, we should price it appropriately to make sure that happens,” Treat says.

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