FROM THE EDITOR: City struggles with density; remains oblivious to parking issues
How do you feel about having people living in a little house in your back yard?
Portland has been struggling with the "Residential Infill Project" for quite a while yet. They thought they had gotten a handle on it, then a new mayor was elected, and changes were requested. So now there is a new "public discussion draft", on which public input has been sought. The comment period was short, and it will be interesting to see what comes of that.
But, key points appear to be that – to discourage unpopular "McMansions" in neighborhoods with conventionally-sized houses – new size restrictions are proposed for homes in the R2.5 and R5 residential zones, which are common in Inner Southeast Portland, and the height of structures in all zones will now be measured from the low point of the lot rather than the high point, as before.
But the price to be paid for that, in the name of increasing density to accommodate the new residents to the area who continue to flock to the Rose City and are expected to continue to do so in the future, is permitting more "Accessory Dwelling Units" (ADUs) on residential lots. At the moment, residents are generally allowed one. The proposal is to allow two, for extended family or for rentals, though probably not for short-term rentals. And to allow more duplexes (which can have one ADU on the same lot) – and triplexes on corner lots.
One little fly in the ointment concerning building the ADUs (sometimes called "granny flats") that has emerged is that although the City of Portland really wants these to be built to accommodate more of the population inflow, Multnomah County has been considering these to be "major improvements" to the property, and reassessing the value of the property (and the consequent property taxes) much higher than they have been for a given piece of property, under the property tax limitation measure. "If you build it, taxes will increase a lot." Be prepared for that.Meantime, the city has been encouraging the building of apartment houses, and north Westmoreland – zoned for high density apartment buildings as a result of a 1990's promise by TriMet of having a MAX station nearby – has resulted lately in an explosion of apartment houses, with more to come, despite the fact that TriMet not only changed its mind about the "Harold Street Station" it promised, but subsequently developed amnesia about that promise itself.
Currently the MAX whizzes right by those new apartment buildings, but if you want to catch the train you'll have to hike to the Bybee Bridge or to the Holgate Station (or take a bus there, TriMet cheerfully suggests). The city has noticed the change of plans by TriMet, and is now proposing to downzone north Westmoreland back to what it used to be – which is why developers have been scrambling to build apartment houses north of Reedway where and while they still can. Some big ones are planned along the west side of Milwaukie Avenue in the near future.And all those apartment houses (many large ones have been built, and more are planned, in both Westmoreland and Sellwood) have created a real problem for residents near them. Most have little or no parking; the city encourages that, because they want people to stop buying and driving cars. (They don't seem to mind the tax revenue from the auto dealers, though.) Robert McCulloch, former Chair of Southeast Uplift, calls this sort of thing "aspirational zoning" – rather than zoning to accommodate what people actually do, zoning to try to force residents to do what they'd rather not do.
But, it is not working. Street parking has become quite dense around and near these buildings, and residents are increasingly not able to park in front of or near their homes. The city has suggested a paid permit system for residents to park a limited number of cars on the street; if the Rose City does not acknowledge that people are still buying and using cars, including all those renters, it may have to turn to permits (and then the renters will have no place to park!).
Not only are there a lot of cars parked on the street around and near the new apartment buildings, but clearly some of them are new cars – they still have registration stickers on them. The renters are still buying cars (and the lack of a Harold Street Station for MAX is encouraging them to do so in north Westmoreland). Parking remains a knotty issue in Portland.The last issue the city is wrestling with, concerning density and housing, is "affordability". Those of us who first rented in Portland at $125 a month forty years ago certainly gasp at rents that are ten times that, and more; but realistically almost everything seems to cost ten times what it did forty years ago!
So how is "affordability" defined today, and how can the city encourage cheaper accommodations – without encouraging slums? Incentives are being offered to developers to build some of their apartments to be "affordable", with lower rents for those who meet a low-income test. But these "affordable" units can often be "transferred" to developments away from the "most desirable" areas, so they may be of little help to those wishing to live close-in to downtown in Inner Southeast.If any of these issues are of interest or concern to you, whether you are a property owner or a renter, we suggest you get involved in your own neighborhood association (we told you how to identify yours, on this page in the last issue of THE BEE), and in particular its Land Use Committee. This is your most direct neighborhood conduit to the planners working on all this at City Hall.