Paul and Gail Parker said "no" to The Man.
They bought their five-acre lot in the Deer Hill area (about a half-mile north of Cedar Mill Elementary School) in 1991 for $359,000. Then it was a dead-end street with only two other houses visible and no lights at night.
Three grown kids later, they are semi-retired — except for the fact that they have become full-time developers of their own land. Five years ago, developers got wind that these empty nesters might be interested in selling. They knocked on the door and they called. Paul still has a folder with the letters they were sent. The top offer was from DR Horton for $3.7 million.
"Paul said 'Holy crap!' We went for three days in shock," Gail said.
On Google Maps, the plot shows up as a clear rectangle, with three buildings on it, surrounded on all sides by suburban housing.
The Parkers knew if they took the money they would have to move, and that the lot would be subdivided like the others around them. It probably would have the maximum number of homes built on it — around 28.
Development started early
They decided they wanted to stay put and sell some of the land around them to create a "pocket neighborhood" of seven or eight lots. They wanted well-designed, medium-size homes in a vaguely mid-century modern style. They also are in a "significant natural resource area" with woods and a small wetland, which they wanted to protect. They assumed a developer would pave over it.
"The neighbors are grateful we didn't sell out and have it all cut down," Gail said. "I did go door to door, and the fact that we're living here means we give a damn."
Looking back, they saw it coming.
"The Monday after we moved in, they started felling trees on the boundary to build Forest Heights. It was done by (developer) Homer Williams and owned by the king of Nauru, an island of guano in the Pacific Ocean," said Paul, amused.
Then came the Fleetwood and Mill Crest subdivision next door. For years, they watched as the land was developed around them, with houses eight feet apart, separated by six-foot-tall cedar fences. As builders took out trees and built homes, their own stand of trees no longer had protection and was flattened like pickup sticks by the Columbia River Gorge winds.
He explains their goal.
"The overarching picture is: We wanted to find a way to develop this land thoughtfully and with consideration for the neighborhood, and that includes the critters and the birds and the deer. So, we looked at whether there were developers who would be a good fit for that. And in the end, we decided that even though we didn't know how to do it, we were the best fit."
Money isn't everything
They will sell the lots for $325,000 to $425,000 each.
"We know we would have been better off to sell and get out," Gail said. "It's costing us a bundle, if you just look at the money. But we paid $359,000 for this; we don't need to be greedy."
So, they set about what has been a three-year slog of dealing with planning permits, engineers and building contractors. They have the clout of being their own general contractor, but they outsourced the project management side to David Evans Associates.
"They're doing the Nike project," Gail said, noting their professionalism.
This is desirable, low-tax, unincorporated Washington County, and the Parkers say the neighbors have resisted being annexed into a city such as Beaverton. "Ten minutes from downtown Portland, 10 minutes from Silicon Forest," said Paul, using 1990s minutes.
Isn't there a lot of risk, being a general contractor?
"Not so much risky as expensive," Paul said. "Whoever has to do it has to put in money.
"But we've been saving all our lives. We knew the civil engineering firm would be crucial, and we wanted an established firm."
They plan to sell their home and downsize, renovating the large granny flat next door. Their new home will be closest to the 2.75 acres set aside as a nature reserve, as if protecting it from further development.
Their current home has a magnificent feeling of comfort. Logs burn in the stove, a cat prowls, clocks chime. There are family photos on the grand piano and art everywhere. The bathroom is wallpapered with covers of The New Yorker going back to when it cost 50 cents. The end is nigh though: The huge dining room table is covered in survey charts and architect plans.
As it stands right now, the utilities are in and builders from Brian Clopton Excavating are laying an access road.
"A project is only going to be as good as the contractors who participate," Paul said. "Brian Clopton, they really care, it's not just a paycheck to them."
Added Gail, "We've got one guy; he could serve tea with his backhoe."
Parker said he expects to start selling lots in April but doesn't expect anyone to move in before the end of 2020, since they have to design and build their own homes.
"The big picture is how difficult but worthwhile it is to build a small subdivision that doesn't simply max profits and density, but doesn't lose sight of making a fair return on investment. It's tricky."
"Is it worth it?" Paul asked."No. We started three years ago and we're six years older!
"We don't have the expertise, but we have found contractors and local government willing to do what they can to help us succeed. We don't feel we're fighting the people or that we're being exploited. We made our mistakes, but people at Washington County and Clean Water Services have stepped out to help us. It's just difficult to do."
He added, "If you treat it as a learning experience, it's been easy to learn. You've got people throwing information at you."
Gail was a certified financial planner for 20 years. Paul worked in housing policy for decades at what is now Home Forward, and as an executive for nonprofits. Although he was in housing, his knowledge of development was minor. So although they had some skills, the pair had to develop a network pretty rapidly to get anything done.
"Mostly we did it by talking to people. We were lucky people were willing to share knowledge and information. I'd talk to friends from housing authority," Paul said.
Gail added: "Our fight to preserve the wetland and concern about the trees put us in touch with people who knew about wetlands, people like Sustainable Forestry, and that established a network."
"I hope we don't seem kooky; we're pretty level-headed," Paul said. "There just seemed to be a way to do this that was a little bit different, and will add value to the neighborhood."
"We care about the land," Gail said, "and we know it's going to be developed, and if we take the initiative it'll be a little more caring of the land than cut and fill and shrub it up. That's another expression I've learned. Shrub it up!"
Creating a legacy
Their builder of choice is Don Tankersley Construction, which has built homes for top architects such as Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works, as well as the Bow String Truss house for WPA in Northwest Portland. Currently Tankersley is building a home that looks part spaceship, part ship, for a couple in Port Townshend, Washington.
"It's such a beautiful piece of property," Tankersley said. "The natural landscape, the trees, the relative flatness. You're so close to downtown and yet you get such a feeling of nature. I expect once we get started there will be a lot of demand."
Local architect Rick Potestio already has done some schematic drawings of the type of house that might work there. Buyers of the lots can bring their own architect, but he hopes to curate things a little bit to keep it close to the mid-century Eichler style you see in Palm Springs, California.
"If we can keep it cohesive, low, horizontal, set into the landscaping and flowing out, so it's not a big front porch facing the street, it will be respectful of the other homes and the landscape," he said.
Houses take 10 to 14 months to build, depending on complexity. Tankersley doesn't have a contract, but hopes to build at least three of them.
"I just said all along if it's Paul and Gail it'll be good for me. They'd like to see a bespoke, cohesive neighborhood. They know my work and have gotten to know me," he said.
Tankersley has 22 staff. A typical team is a project manager, a project administrator, two carpenters and a site assistant. They usually park a trailer to be on site every day.
"We often joke, we fill in the gaps between the subs," since there's always something left undone, between, say, the concrete pour and the framers moving in. They always do windows and siding, "things that are dependent on the water management" so that they can be sure the homes don't leak. "We make sure we've created a path for the water to go," Tankersley said.
Problems often arise when an architect wants to try something different. "Like a stucco transition to the windows," he said. "The stucco guy has strong ideas, and I have a suspicion it's because it's the easy way. Then we go back to the architect and bring all the options, and see which one fits the budget. I feel like I've been interning in an architect's office for the past 27 years.
"Sometimes you have to say 'No, that won't work,'" he added. "If it doesn't look good in five years you've failed."
He's not a big fan of 8,000-square-foot homes, which just feel like a succession of empty rooms.
"I don't think that's good for anyone. My goal is ultimately to create some legacy, build something that's going to outlive us all. Speaking for the entire team, we want to build a legacy to be proud of. This could be a real important piece of the story of Portland, Oregon."
Paul Parker comes from the cathedral town of Lincoln in England. "In Europe we visit 500-, 800-year-old-buildings that still function," he said. "Buildings shouldn't be disposable."
He sees Gail and himself as temporary stewards of the land. However, he shies away from the word legacy.
"We're not leaving a legacy, but I do want to leave something that people look back on and say 'People were trying to do something thoughtful, elegant, responsible and in tune with what we knew in 2019.'"
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