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PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Dozens of Southwest Portland residents protested against the rezoning concept during the annual Multnomah Days parade in Multnomah Village on Aug. 20.The heated controversy over increasing density in single-family neighborhoods is finally headed to the City Council after months of study, debate and planning.

Supporters believe rezoning neighborhoods to allow small-scale multifamily dwellings will increase livability, create more housing, and preserve farm and forests outside the urban growth boundary as the city grows.

“We are in favor of the proposed changes allowing both additional units and a range of housing types in residential areas. The increased density, especially in inner neighborhoods and in centers and corridors, will help make walking a good transportation option for a wider range of Portland’s residents,” says Oregon Walks, a pedestrian advocacy group.

Opponents argue the change will destroy the character of existing residential neighborhoods without guaranteeing that many people can afford the new housing.

“This proposal would radically increase density in areas of the city that are currently zoned for single-family homes and would further encourage the demolition of viable, existing, and affordable residences,” says the board of the Beaumont-Wilshire Neighborhood Association.

The proposal — developed by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability — has been the subject of community meetings, online surveys, and letter-writing campaigns. It will be discussed by the council for the first time at a work session Tuesday morning, Nov. 1, followed by public hearings Nov. 9 and 16.

If the council agrees to move forward with the proposal, it cannot be finalized until late next year, at the earliest.

Limiting McMansions

The proposal was developed as part of the Residential Infill Project, which Mayor Charlie Hales created two years ago. It includes recommendations ranging from limiting the size of new homes to rezoning nearly two-thirds of the city’s single-family neighborhoods within a Housing Opportunity Overlay Zone.

The goal is to encourage the construction of more duplexes, triplexes, four-plexes, accessory dwelling units, garden apartments and cottage clusters. They are intended to help Portland absorb the 123,000 new households expected here by 2035.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - The construction of large infill houses sparked protests that led to recommended size restructions the City Council will consider.Most of those who have already weighed in on the proposal support at least some of the recommended restrictions on the size of new homes. They include lowering rooflines and requiring that setbacks better match adjacent houses. The new maximum size would be 2,500 square feet, which is just over one-third of the 6,750 square feet currently allowed.

For example, in an Aug. 9 letter to the project, the historic preservation organization Restore Oregon said it supports “(t)he limited size of infill housing that would avoid out-sized McMansions and create a more harmonious sense of continuity.”

Not everyone is convinced the restrictions go far enough, however.

“The allowable building size is greater than roughly 80 percent of the existing housing stock. The proposal does nothing to reduce the scale of buildings, except for constraining a few very large houses, and will certainly accelerate demolition and displacement in the most vulnerable neighborhoods at all levels,” says Rod Merrick, an architect who serves on the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association board.

But there are even deeper divisions over the most controversial recommendation — rezoning nearly two-thirds of existing single-family neighborhoods to allow more so-called missing middle housing. The proposal exempts the David Douglas School District in East Portland because its schools do not have the capacity to absorb the new students that additional housing would attract.

The rezoning recommendation is supported by some developers, affordable-housing advocates, land use watchdogs, and a handful of neighborhood organizations.

For example, on Aug. 15, Ruth Adkins, policy director of the Oregon Opportunity Network, wrote: “Oregon ON’s position, as an endorser of Portland for Everyone, is that we need a broad range of housing types, prices, and sizes in all residential neighborhoods.”

But the rezoning recommendation is opposed by some historic preservationists, grassroots neighborhood activists, and far more neighborhood associations.

And the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission wrote on Aug. 15, “(W)e have serious concerns about this project and do not support the current proposal because it will promote increased demolition and the concomitant erosion of neighborhood character.”

Emphasis shifts midstream

Hales created the Residential Infill Project in response to growing complaints about the increasing number of older and smaller homes being demolished and replaced with large new ones. As part of the project, a 26-member Stakeholder Advisory Committee was appointed to help the staff draft recommendations to ensure such replacement houses better fit into the scale of existing neighborhoods, among other things. The committee includes developers, land use watchdogs, affordable housing advocates, and representatives of neighborhood associations, such as Merrick.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: STEVE LAW - Some people argue that more 'missing middle' housing such as the duplexes in the Hasting Green project in South Tabor are part of the solution to Portland's housing crisis.But as the work began, the debate over the lack of affordable housing in Portland heated up. Some affordable housing developers and others proposed building more missing middle housing, which, they argued, would cost less than the large replacement homes.

Doing so would require rezoning portions of the city’s existing single-family neighborhoods, where multifamily housing is currently prohibited. The idea was embraced by some developers and land use watchdogs on the project committee, and by a majority of the City Council. It included a policy in the update of the Comprehensive Plan approved earlier this year to allow such housing within a quarter-mile of MAX stations or major transportation corridors.

A split over missing middle housing

Some support expanding the project’s mission to include more affordable housing.

“The greatest asset of our city is its people, and our city is at its best when we can offer abundant housing of all types so that everyone can have a decent and affordable place to call home,” the Cully Association of Neighbors wrote on July 12.

Others question how many Portlanders will actually be able to afford the new missing middle housing.

“While the city has seen substantial increases in the annual production of dwelling units, there is an equally dramatic decrease in the range of households able to afford either existing or new units. Simply increasing the allowable supply of housing has not demonstrably increased affordability, given the current housing market,” the Bosco-Milligan Foundation/Architectural Heritage Center wrote.

And some were even upset the project expanded its purpose.

“Basically, what began in response to grassroots anguish over demolition and inappropriate residential infill construction has morphed into a recommendation for major erosion of single-family zoning in Portland,” the Irvington Neighborhood Association Land Use Committee wrote on Aug. 15.

Affordable housing developer and committee member Eli Spevak calls the proposal “a grand bargain.”

“In exchange for more front doors, you get less massing of houses in almost all of the city,” says Spevak, also a member of the Planning and Sustainability Commission.

After the November hearings, the council is expected to send the proposal back to the Bureau of Planning and Sustainabilty to be drafted into City Code revisions. The Planning and Sustainability Commission that advises BPS will then hold one or more hearings on the proposal before sending it back to the council for more hearings and approval.

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