Neighborhood activists face maze of issues as they try to save old homes from demolition, infill development

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO BY JONATHAN HOUSE - A house on Northeast 44th Avenue recently was torn down to make way for a larger one, something many Portlanders oppose.Neighborhood activists trying to stop residential demolitions and infill projects are running into bureaucratic obstacles — both at the city and within their own organizations.

Representatives of Portland neighborhood associations and others want the City Council to prevent existing homes from being torn down and replaced with larger ones. They are joined by preservationists alarmed about historic properties being purchased by developers. But the coalition has not yet convinced the council to take immediate action. And its own attempts to draft a proposal for council have run into delays and scheduling problems.

“There are so many things going on at once,” says Al Ellis, a former president of the Beaumont-Wilshire Neighborhood

Association, who has taken the lead in organizing the activists. “Some neighborhoods are trying to save houses, some neighborhood associations won’t meet for awhile, and there are several historic preservation organizations to coordinate with.”

Ellis had originally hoped the activists would draft a proposal during a so-called demolition summit held on Sept. 9. But so many people showed up to testify about problems that organizers changed the agenda to allow everyone time to speak.

Two follow-up meetings are scheduled. One, set for Sept. 29, is intended to prioritize the proposals that are being discussed. The next, scheduled for Oct. 7, is intended to adopt a final proposal to be submitted to the council. Both start at 7 p.m. at Grant Park Church, 2728 N.E. 34th Ave. They are free and open to the public.

Land rules, demolition split

In the meantime, activists are frustrated that the city has not acted already. Dozens of them packed the Council Chambers on July 31 to complain that demolition and infill projects are destroying the character of their neighborhoods. At the end of the meeting, Mayor Charlie Hales said his office would make a proposal in the foreseeable future. But he then deferred to Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who is in charge of the Bureau of Development Services, the agency that issues demolition and construction permits. It has an appointed board called the Development Review Advisory Committee (DRAC) that is studying some of the issues. Fritz wants the advisory committee to come up with its own recommendations, a process that could take until at least the end of the year.

Fritz also says that some of the issues raised by the activists, such as replacing one older house with two or more new ones, must be addressed by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, which is overseen by Hales.

“The mayor is in charge of land division rules. I’m in charge of the demolition process, and making sure applications are approved if they meet the land division rules, denied if they don’t,” says Fritz.

According to both Hales and Fritz, issues under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability could be addressed in the ongoing comprehensive land-use plan update process. The update, which is intended to govern growth in Portland during the next 20 years, was drafted by BPS. But it is not scheduled to be considered by the council until next spring, which is again too late for the activists.

“Substantive reform needs to be accomplished in a timely manner,” says Ellis. “We can’t wait for this to be resolved for a couple of years or longer.”

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO BY JONATHAN HOUSE - An anti-demolition sign sits on the front yard of Erin and Doug Clark's house on Northeast 35th Place, next to house that was demolished.

Dozens of proposals

There is no doubt that residential demolitions and infill projects are increasing as the economy recovers. Last year, the Bureau of Development Services issued more than 270 residential demolition permits. This year the number is expected to easily top 300, and that doesn’t include remodeling projects, in which most of a house is torn down and replaced without a demolition permit, as allowed by city policies.

Developers say such projects are only responding to market demand. Portland’s close-in neighborhoods are becoming increasingly popular, and many people want and can afford a new house. Justin Wood, associate director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Metro Portland, says the city is doing a good job meeting the demand for smaller homes by encouraging the construction of apartment and condominium buildings. But that still leaves a market for larger single-family detached houses in existing neighborhoods, he notes.

That was confirmed by a recent housing preference study commissioned by Metro, the regional elected government. It found that 80 percent of Portland-area residents want to live in a single-family detached house. According to the Residential Preference Study for the Portland Region, only 13 percent prefer an apartment or condo, and just 7 percent prefer a single-family attached home, such as a rowhouse or townhouse.

Although Fritz insists DRAC will address many of the demolition-related issues, several activists testified during the July 31 council hearing that it is dominated by developers. That is because DRAC was originally created to address technical issues within BDS, such as problems with the permitting process, not bigger policy concerns.

After the hearing, at the direction of the council, Fritz added three new members to the DRAC subcommittee reviewing the demolition-related issues. They are intended to help the subcommittee better address some of the issues raised at the hearing. New members are Gwen Millius, a member of the Design Commission, and Jessica Engeman and Caroline Dao, both of whom serve on the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission.

Ellis says the additions are welcome, but notes that DRAC itself is still dominated by developers, which could be why activists are intent on coming up with their own proposal for the council to consider.

The process is not going as smoothly as hoped, however. For starters, it has been unclear who the activists speak for. Although many of them serve on neighborhood association boards, only a handful of boards have adopted formal positions on the demolition and infill issue. They include the Beaumont-Wilshire Neighborhood and the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association, where many of the projects are occurring. Most other neighborhood associations have not yet taken a formal stand, however.

Ellis says the activists hope to solve this problem by creating an organization called United Neighborhood Associations for Reform. It will communicate with all neighborhood associations in the city and bring them into the process, Ellis says.

Another problem is the large number of proposals the activists are discussing. Ellis believes their proposal needs to be limited to a handful of achievable reforms. But, after the Sept. 9 summit, one of the participants made a list of all the proposals offered by those who testified, coming up with 31 different ones, ranging from demolition delays on all homes 50 years and older to the creation of a rehabilitation tax credit. Ellis received emails with additional proposals in the days following the summit, too.

Ellis wants the activists to prioritize their proposals at the Sept. 29 meeting and then approve a limited number for presentation to the council at the Oct. 3 meeting. He admits that some neighborhood association boards will not meet to discuss the issue until after the first meeting, however, making it difficult to determine their priorities.

“We are committed to pressing forward,” Ellis says.