Debate over density could determine what kind of city Portland becomes
The debate in Southwest Portland over whether higher density is our destiny is coming. It's going to be intense.
More people are moving to Portland since during the years after World War II and they need a place to live. The City of Portland is moving towards changing the rules that dictate what kind of housing can be built where. Changing them so that, in some cases, where once only a single-family home was allowed, as many as four smaller houses could be built.
Such a policy would increase housing density.
Here in Multnomah, we've been getting ready for this debate ever since those red, white and blue "Save Our Neighborhood" signs started popping up everywhere a few years ago. But now, just as a decisive vote by the City Council is imminent, those signs are gone and Don'tRezoneUs.org is as dead as a MySpace page. More on that in a moment.
Jim Redden of the Portland Tribune, whose coverage is essential if you're interested in this debate, reports that Mayor Ted Wheeler says he's ready to bring the debate over density to City Council for a vote. Finally.
When Redden reported last summer that Wheeler wouldn't bring the Residential Infill Program (RIP) to Council, the word "contentious" was used a few times. "Contentious" is a few shades more intense than "lively" when describing a debate. Meaning, perhaps, that the mayor would rather have that debate now when there's a better chance of finding three votes to overhaul how Portland regulates what is built where. There's going to be a lot of citizen engagement on this issue, attracting lots of Portlanders who normally ignore City Hall.
I had coffee at Grand Central Baking the other day with someone who's been following the density debate pretty closely. "What it boils down to is, I don't want Annie Bloom's to go out of business," he said. He didn't have to explain that the upside of higher density is that it's good for businesses in Portland. And not just good for independent book stores.
Back in the late '60s there were nearly a dozen empty storefronts in Multnomah Village. Now there's just the space for lease next to Gastro Mania. The decision by Blue Star Donuts to open its eighth store on Southwest Capitol Highway is about more than just making expensive pastries available. It's a sign that intelligent money is being invested in the prospect of higher density.
Then there are those who think rezoning for higher density is a terrible idea. The Multnomah neighborhood is ground zero for the effort to defeat RIP. Those signs I mentioned originated with DontRezoneUs.org, which was registered to an entity called Multnomah Village Association. The website never got much traction. "It seems that the number of visitors and page views on this site is too low to be displayed, sorry," is what one of those websites that tracks traffic on websites says. On Facebook it got zero likes but 33 shares.
Instead of using yard signs and a social media presence to fight higher density, Multnomah neighborhood activists have hired a lawyer from Eugene to challenge the city's plans in court. That challenge has generated reams of documents but no decisions on the legality of RIP.
So far, those who support the fight have donated "approximately $60,000" according to Jim Peterson, who's managing the Multnomah Neighborhood Association's legal challenge. He's also the designated "explainer" when television news crews come to the Multnomah Arts Center to do this story. "Our donations have come city wide and we are actively fundraising," Peterson assured the Southwest Connection.
One of the main objections from neighborhood association types all over Portland is that RIP would promote construction of rental units instead of single-family homes that people would own. The RIP critics also contend the new zoning scheme would mean fewer trees, more cars parking on the street and increased congestion.
Where do you stand? Are you for or against re-zoning most of Portland to allow for more multi-family options?
Be you homeowner or renter, you've got a dog in this fight. I looked up the zoning for my house. Built in 1969, I bought it just about 10 years ago. It's zoned R-7 which means one dwelling unit per 7,000 feet plus what we used to call a grandma apartment but which is now known as an additional dwelling unit, or ADU. Frankly, I haven't figured out what I could build on my lot should RIP go through. It's my sense that the property would increase in value. (If you want to see how your property is zoned, go to portlandoregon.gov and enter Find My Zoning in Search.)
As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said in February of 2002, "…there are known unknowns; that is to say there are some things we do not know." He was talking about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I'm talking about how this debate develops and what's decided.
Then there are "known knowns." Redden informs me that the Planning and Sustainability Commission will vote on RIP on March 12. If the vote is positive to change the rules, the City Council is expected to take it up and make a final decision some time this summer.
Care to share your thoughts?