Portland mulls building review reform to spur development
Portland's rules for approving new construction could be streamlined under a proposal that would also limit public input — including on affordable housing projects and those rising up to seven floors above many bustling thoroughfares.
Since 2016, consultants, multiple city bureaus and public commissions have been cooking up the hefty plan known as the Design Overlay Zone Amendments, or DOZA, which had its first showing at City Hall during a virtual meeting on Wednesday, May 12.
"We are proposing a higher level of review for larger projects and a lower level of review — or an exemption entirely — for smaller projects," said Lora Lillard, a Bureau of Planning and Sustainability senior planner. "We are pivoting from a design overlay that focuses on buildings as objects that need to fit in with other objects, to buildings that are designed for people and in harmony with nature."
The proposal would allow projects not in downtown and up to 75 feet tall, or roughly seven stories high, to dodge the city's discretionary Design Review process in favor of a "plan check" which would simply measure whether the blueprints met a set of objective, number-based building standards.
Large affordable housing projects — defined as those with city-subsidized units with rent affordable for those making less than 60% of the median family income — would be offered a similar choice: Review by Bureau of Development Services staff rather than the appointed Design Commission, whose members are not shy about sending architects back to the drawing board if the commissioners don't like the details.
But unlike staff decisions, design commission meetings are by default open to the public, and developers can appeal Design Commission rulings to the City Council.
"Why would we not want to expedite building housing that people can afford to live in?" said City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. "The need is significant and the pipeline is small."
As it stands, the current threshold for developments seeking to avoid a more subjective review process is 55 feet of height. And so it should remain, said Julie Livingston, chair of the Portland Design Commission.
"All members of the Design Commission have opposed this proposal for 75 feet since it was recommended because of its deleterious impact on context, community character and community involvement," she said.
Livingston also opposed the exemption for larger affordable housing.
"People who want to use BDS to shave money and time off entitlements for affordable housing developments should look at the expense and time to secure a building permit," Livingston said.
Other notable changes listed in the DOZA proposal include:
• Tweak the membership of the seven-person Design Commission, with one seat each to be reserved for an expert in sustainable building practices and natural resources.
• Codify that the Design Commission cannot require builders to shorten buildings or reduce their floor area beyond what is required by law.
• Exempt small projects from design regulation, such as awning alterations or skylight additions in the Central City, or single dwelling units outside the downtown core.
The City Council is expected to introduce possible amendments to the DOZA proposal on May 26, with public testimony to be taken on the amendments on June 10.
What's a design overlay?
While Portland's four-volume Design Overlay Zone Amendments contain enough minutiae to send a SimCity gamer straight to heaven, it can be a bit of a head-scratcher for everyone else.
In essence, DOZA refers to zones where architects follow special rules. These zones are not new; they have guided development downtown since the 1960s and were expanded to other hotspots citywide in the '90s.
The changes on the table actually erase a few design zone areas, as city planners say they are not needed in the single-dwelling-only swaths of Sellwood-Moreland, Hillsdale, Macadam, Floyd Light Middle School and North Prescott. A single dwelling is defined as having no more than four units of housing.
But the areas where the rules do apply will host 60% of the new housing projected to be built by 2035, a city report says. They include the Central City, Northwest District, Macadam, Hillsdale, Multnomah Village, West Portland and Raleigh Hills — as well as St. Johns, Lents, Midway, Gateway, Hollywood, Kerns, as well as the nexuses of Kenton-Lombard, MLK-Alberta, Belmont-Hawthorne-Division and Fremont-Williams.
"DOZA decreases the time it takes for projects to get approved. It also decreases the cost of the development itself," said city Principal Planner Sandra Wood.
Follow me on Twitter
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.