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Activists push for shorter buildings, more parking as plans for apartment, retail complex move forward



COURTESY OF URBAN ASSET ADVISORS - A preliminary drawing from SERA Architects shows the proposed four-story apartment and retail complex that Urban Asset Advisors is planning for the corner of Southwest 33rd Avenue and Southwest Capitol Highway in Multnomah Village.The Multnomah Neighborhood Association isn’t after a fight, chairwoman Carol McCarthy says — but the group may have found itself in the middle of one, nonetheless.

“We’re a friendly neighborhood,” she says. “We just want to preserve what we love.”

For McCarthy and many Multnomah residents, that means opposing Urban Asset Advisors’ planned four-story apartment and retail complex at the corner of Southwest 33rd Avenue and Southwest Capitol Highway in the Village.

Preliminary sketches of the building show plans for an estimated 70 market-rate residential units — 35 studio, 17 one-bedroom and 18 two-bedroom apartments; two ground-floor retail spaces — one an estimated 2,500 square feet, the other an estimated 1,600 square feet; and roughly 43 parking spaces, with the option to add up to 17 tuck-under spaces through a potential easement with the adjacent property owner on the west side of the building.

While the area’s zoning allows developers to build up to four stories high, neighbors at the forefront of a campaign to “save Multnomah Village” believe it doesn’t fit with the Village’s small-town character.

In recent months, the neighborhood association has voted to oppose buildings higher than three stories in the eight-block Village core along Southwest Capitol Highway, to advocate for at least one parking space per housing unit, to appeal for review if the City approves the developers’ plans, and to establish a legal fund to support activism for this and other land use issues.

They’ve gathered nearly 2,000 petition signatures to limit development height and mandate more parking spaces in Multnomah Village, and have written two letters to the Mayor and City Commissioners, urging them to intervene on the building’s design.

And while response letters McCarthy received from both Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s offices have said state law would prohibit such an intervention, the chairwoman says she’s still hopeful that the City Council will offer protection from what she and her fellow activists see as “out-of-scale development.”

“I think that the city code allows them to intervene, and I think they do value this charming, quaint, small section of Multnomah,” she says.

When neighbors rally

The Multnomah neighborhood has long been active on issues of development.

Neighbors protested in 2002 when another developer revealed plans for a four-story building. In 2013, they pursued legal action after the city sold the Freeman Water Tank property to Renaissance Homes without notifying the neighborhood. (See “A History of Activism in Multnomah Village” below.) They’re currently working to delay demolition of homes that some residents believe are affordable and valuable to the community.

These neighborhood campaigns involve hours of research and coordination — all unpaid work — usually from just a few advocates and neighborhood leaders who provide a voice for the votes tallied at neighborhood association meetings. And despite neighbors’ best efforts, often this advocacy work runs up against City regulations, or simply comes too late to affect development decisions.

The process could be discouraging, as former neighborhood association chairwoman Martie Sucec knows well after seeing neighborhood advocacy work fall flat.

“I think that when the neighborhoods all across the city try to exert some influence, sometimes the effect of that influence isn’t seen or people feel defeated,” Sucec says.

But she’s also seen instances where neighborhood advocacy may have indirectly affected an outcome. The Umpqua Bank building was ultimately reduced to three stories, for example, and the neighborhoods’ loss of the Freeman Water Tank lot led to legislation that ensured a more transparent process for the sale of surplus water bureau properties.

“It may not have the effect you want immediately, but it may have an effect,” Sucec says. “That’s why I think it’s good for neighborhoods to get out there and express themselves and write the Council and do things like this (building height and parking) petition.”

Often, topics like the planned development can cause neighbors to realize what they value about their neighborhood — and spur them to get involved. According to Sylvia Bogert, the executive director of Southwest Neighborhoods Inc., the incoming development may have made some neighbors more aware of the area’s zoning code.

“All of a sudden, a code language became visible,” she said. “They understood what it meant and the impact that it was going to have. ... I think that’s when people really started to pay attention.”

Breaking down the code

CONNECTION PHOTO: KELSEY O'HALLORAN - An apartment and retail complex planned for the corner of  Southwest 33rd Avenue and Southwest Capitol Highway has spurred activism from some neighborhood residents.When a proposed development is in line with city code, sometimes no amount of activism can keep it from being built, City representatives say.

The site of the planned complex is zoned “CSd,” or storefront commercial with a design overlay, which allows developers to build up to 45 feet high and all the way out to the sidewalk. The zone applies to most properties in the eight-block corridor along Southwest Capitol Highway, from the viaduct to Southwest Miles Street.

The zone’s design overlay designation requires developers to either meet specified Community Design Standards or undergo a design review process through the Bureau of Development Services, which takes a more critical and holistic look at the building’s design and how it matches its surroundings. During the June meeting of the Multnomah Neighborhood Association, Urban Asset Advisors founder Tim O’Brien indicated that he and his team plan to follow Community Design Standards.

According to the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s website, the storefront commercial zone is “intended to preserve and enhance older commercial areas that have a storefront character,” with the idea that “new development in these areas will be compatible with this desired character.”

While the wording is seemingly in line with the Multnomah Neighborhood Association’s desires to maintain the area’s charm, McCarthy and many of her fellow neighbors believe the zone’s 45-foot height allowance puts the Village’s character at risk.

In her letters to City Council, McCarthy explained that the Community Design Standards “simply do not ensure the enhancement and continued vitality of the area, as is evident throughout the City on properties developed under these standards without design review.” She formally requested that the City Council intervene and require design review of the project.

McCarthy also cited design overlay code title 33.420.041, section G, which deals with instances when design review is required. The code reads: “Where City Council requires design review of a proposal because it is considered to have major design significance to the City. In these instances, the City Council will provide design guidelines by which the proposal will be reviewed, and specify the review procedure.”

But according to Kimberly Tallant, a supervising planner for the Bureau of Development Services, this was an incorrect reading of the code.

“This is to accommodate the situations where in a land use review, City Council requires a condition of approval requiring future development to go through design review,” Tallant said by email.

And because Urban Asset Advisors’ planned development falls within the zone’s requirements, the City will likely be unable to take any regulatory action to limit the building’s height, says Matt Grumm, a policy manager for Saltzman’s office.

“The current rules are what they are,” he says.

Neighborhood associations would likely have better luck if they advocated for zoning changes in the next Comprehensive Plan. The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is scheduled to release the full recommended plan for review in August, and the City Council plans to hold public hearings on the recommendation this fall.

“That’s where any changes that people might want to see would probably happen,” Grumm says.

Even so, high-density development is occurring citywide, and Multnomah may be no exception, says Jean Hester, a senior planner for the Bureau of Development Services.

“I understand that there are special things about Multnomah Village,” she says. “But what would be the special thing that would override every other situation like this?”

Not only do city codes allow for the development, but state law could actually prohibit the city from stepping in to require design review, as Hales and Saltzman pointed out in letters to McCarthy in July.

“State Law requires that the City provide a two-track system for properties with a ‘d’ overlay zone,” such as the planned development, said Dan Saltzman in his letter. “This two-track system must offer a ‘standards track’ (in this case, ‘Community Design Standards’) with clear and objective standards as an alternative to requiring projects to go through a discretionary design review process. State law also dictates that if needed housing is being proposed, developers must be allowed the option of using the standards track.”

Saltzman, who was recently appointed to oversee the Bureau of Development Services, encouraged McCarthy and the Multnomah neighbors to weigh in on the Community Design Standards in the zoning code, which the bureau is in the process of rewriting.

He also suggested that McCarthy and her fellow residents contact state representatives to push for changes to the “two-track system.”

“For example, you could advocate to have it changed so that projects over a certain size threshold (even if they are providing needed housing) would no longer be eligible for the ‘standards track’ and must go through a discretionary design review process,” Saltzman said in his letter.

Both Saltzman and Hales urged McCarthy and her fellow residents to continue to be active on issues that affect their neighborhood.

“Your involvement in the Comprehensive Plan Update and Mixed Use Zones Project work underway is important,” Hales said in his July 29 letter. “I continue to be concerned with how we balance growth and the preservation of Portland neighborhoods. Your input helps me calibrate that balance going forward.”

A different route to change

If neighbors were to work with the City to change zoning codes for Multnomah Village, any updates would likely come too late to make a difference on this particular development. Urban Asset Advisors plans to close on the property in October and start construction in May 2016.

That’s why former Multnomah Neighborhood Association chair Moses Ross says neighbors should instead try to negotiate directly with the developers, though he’s concerned about “the lack of neutrality” he’s seen at recent neighborhood meetings.

“The neighborhood association was created specifically to act as a mediator,” he says. “In this instance, we have squandered this opportunity.”

He pointed to the motions passed at recent meetings to oppose the building, which he called “unrealistic” for the developers.

“If we’re looking at (the developers) as adversaries, why would they want to negotiate with us?” Ross says. “They’re not going to; they’re going to follow the letter of the law.”

O’Brien, who attended several neighborhood association meetings and presented his plans at the June meeting, has encouraged neighbors to contribute their ideas for the building throughout the design process. While he still regularly meets with neighbors who seek him out individually to share their ideas, he says he has no plans to attend future meetings.

“I’m not really open to meeting with the neighborhood association anymore,” he says. “We’re of the mindset (that) they’re just going to continue to be unsupportive.”

He says his architect is drawing up a more in-depth round of sketches, and O’Brien and his team are focusing on closing on the property. He says he’s taken neighbors’ input on the building’s materials, such as its brick exterior and pedestrian-friendly courtyard.

O’Brien says he’s still considering stepping back the building’s fourth story by six to eight feet to break up the building’s upward mass and make it appear shorter along the street’s skyline. He’s weighing the option and how it could affect the building’s architectural aesthetic, waterproofing and financial potential, as it would cut down on apartment space.

“We’re definitely looking at it pretty seriously,” he says.

If all goes as planned, the building could be completed by May 2017.

In the meantime, McCarthy says she and her fellow neighborhood activists will continue pushing back on the development. At press time, the neighborhood association had applied for a Southwest Neighborhoods Inc. sponsorship account to raise funds for work on land use issues such as the development.

The SWNI finance committee and board were scheduled to review the application at the end of August. If both groups approved the application, the neighborhood would be able to start fundraising.

McCarthy admits that she’s an optimist, but she’s also confident that the City and community will help the neighborhood preserve the eight blocks along Southwest Capitol Highway that she sees as significant and unique.

“We value what’s here and we love living here; that’s what motivates us,” she says. “If we don’t do anything, then we know what will happen.”

Contact Kelsey O’Halloran at 503-636-1281 ext. 101 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

A HISTORY OF ACTIVISM IN MULTNOMAH VILLAGE

Urban Asset Advisors’ planned four-story apartment and retail complex isn’t the first Multnomah development to spark community involvement. The neighborhood association has long fought to preserve the area.

The Umpqua Bank building

A lot at 7837 S.W. Capitol Hwy. — which has housed Umpqua Bank since 2011 — became a source of neighborhood controversy in 2002, when property owner Eric Jacobsen revealed his plans for a four-story building. Neighborhood, historical and business associations all felt the building would be out-of-character with its surroundings.

Neighbors protested, petitioned and urged the City to limit the building’s height. While the Portland Design Commission ultimately approved Jacobsen Real Estate Group’s plans, the building was never constructed because building engineers discovered that hooking up electricity would pose expensive logistical problems for the company, The Southwest Community Connection reported in 2010.

The developer later refiled designs with the City and constructed a three-story retail and residential building, which included a set-back top floor that blended in with the other two-story buildings on the street.

The Freeman Water Tank property

The sale of the .76-acre Freeman Water Tank property in 2012 also ignited neighborhood involvement. The Multnomah, Ashcreek and Crestwood neighborhoods formed Woods Park Advocates in an attempt to reverse what many residents felt was a hasty sale of the forested property to custom home builder Renaissance Homes.

According to Southwest Neighborhoods Inc., the neighbors raised and spent $15,323 on attorneys and legal fees in an attempt to halt the sale. Moses Ross, who chaired the Multnomah Neighborhood Association at the time, says the group filed a lawsuit and pushed for a temporary injunction to halt the property sale.

While they were ultimately unable to reclaim the property from Renaissance, the activism did affect the sale process for other water bureau surplus properties, Ross says.

“We may not have had the best resolution, but we created an environment where the City had to change their policies,” Ross says. “No other neighborhood will have to go through what we went through.”

Now, before listing a surplus property for sale, the water bureau must post the property on its website, place signs on the property at least 45 days in advance, extend the surplus opportunity to the local neighborhood association and run a public notice in a community newspaper.

2035 Comprehensive Plan

In February, Multnomah Neighborhood Association chairwoman Carol McCarthy told The Connection that she was concerned about the proposed draft of the 2035 Comprehensive Plan, which identifies Multnomah Village as a neighborhood center and could allow it to be zoned and developed accordingly.

 If Multnomah Village is designated as a neighborhood center, which on some draft materials has been shown to have a half-mile radius, McCarthy said she worried that neighborhood lots could be zoned as “mixed-use” and make way for more development. She pointed instead to a neighborhood corridor, which she said could allow mixed-use zoning in the business district and potentially maintain the current neighborhood zoning.

In her recent letter to City Council regarding the planned Urban Asset Advisors development, she said, “Despite numerous requests and communications with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability on this matter, no one has received a single response, explanation or acknowledgement from BPS. Thus, we may also require your intervention in this matter.”

Mayor Charlie Hales, in his response letter, said the Planning and Sustainability Commission considered the request, discussed it in a work session in January and directed City staff to retain the “center” designation.

Residential demolitions

The neighborhood association also advocates against the demolition of what some residents see as affordable homes with significant character. Eight homes are currently slated for demolition in Multnomah, McCarthy says, and in some of these cases, the neighborhood has requested a demolition delay of up to 60 days — which could give them time to vet other options with neighbors, property owners and the City.

Sometimes, the City approves these delay requests from neighborhood associations, McCarthy says, but in other cases the demolitions are allowed to go on as scheduled.

— Kelsey O’Halloran

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