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Local developers and housing experts discuss the viability of middle housing in Frog Pond West and Wilsonville in general

PMG FILE PHOTO - This photo from 2020 captures parcels of land that had yet-to-be developed in Frog Pond West.

A key question lingered over a recent Wilsonville Planning Commission meeting regarding upcoming rule changes that could allow for the development of denser housing in the current Frog Pond West single-family residential neighborhood.

If the city were to liberalize housing regulations, would developers want to build duplexes, triplexes and other forms of "middle" housing in a neighborhood already under development and planned to include almost exclusively large, single-unit lots?

To explore that question, as well as roadblocks to middle-housing development generally, the Spokesman chatted with a few housing developers and experts. They generally said the answer will depend on what the city government will do to encourage or discourage the production of these housing types as well as the local community's reponse.

The city will have to change its zoning for the neighborhood, which is approximately about 15-20% built, to comply with legislation aimed to solve the dearth of housing regionwide. The main areas the legislation will affect are future neighborhoods in Frog Pond East and South. Those areas will be required to allow middle housing on all lots. In Frog Pond West, which is next to Boeckman Road and Advance Road, the city has more wiggle room. Options considered at the Planning Commission meeting included authorizing duplexes on all lots (meeting the minimum requirement), permitting duplexes and denser housing in targeted areas, and allowing all forms of middle housing on all lots. The commission generally preferred the second option but it will be up to Wilsonville City Council to decide.

West Hills Homes NW is in the process of building about 75 homes in the neighborhood, all of which will be single-family homes. Stephanie Hosmar, the marketing and sales manager for the company, said the future allowance of more density is not affecting current housing sales. However, the reason the neighborhood was zoned mostly for single-family use was in large part due to a groundswell of community support for large residential lots. And she and other developers said local pushback could be a factor in the decision of whether to develop middle housing there.

"Nobody wants for their project to have pushback from the get-go. It's a consideration for sure," said Mike Mitchoff with Portland Houseworks.

However, Hosmar felt that whether zoning actually fits the makeup of the area is an even bigger consideration. The developer has yet to decide whether they would build middle housing in Frog Pond.

"Any single-family opportunities would be ideal but we certainly have experience in multifamily development and we would not rule that out," she said.

Another factor could be construction costs. Developers said middle housing is simply more expensive to build because you have to add costly features like bathrooms and kitchens multiple times, as well other necessities like soundproofing and reinforcing walls.

"I would be surprised to see an overwhelming amount of triplexes and fourplexes. The (construction) costs what it costs. Construction costs are really expensive right now. It's gone up year after year. It's (middle-housing development) probably going to be somewhat cost-prohibitive," Mitchoff said.

Hosmar added: "Attached housing can be more expensive from the structural aspect. That opens up the can of worms of: How affordable is building affordable homes?"

City policy could be major factor

But the city could choose to incentivize the development of middle housing. Mitchoff said waivers for system development charges (SDCs), which foot the cost of strain on city infrastructure caused by future developments, would help.

"We do a lot of work with that in the city of Portland and it makes it really attractive," he said. "Portland land is really expensive, coupled with increasing construction costs and SDCs … An SDC-waiver program that is based on some sort of income qualification threshold is absolutely something that incentivizes construction for sure. Tax abatement programs, those are also big-time incentives."

Hosmar noted that developers plan the infrastructure for an area based on current zoning and when that changes, issues could lie ahead. The city is planning to conduct a study soon to consider the strain on local infrastructure associated with opening up more dense housing in the existing neighborhood.

"I think that's a natural concern for most developments. Utilities, water use and water pressure is a bigger concern. (You) certainly need to make sure the utilities are supporting the homes there," she said.

Along with SDC waivers, Ezra Hammer, the vice president of policy and government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Metro Portland, said more specific regulations beyond density allowance can play a huge role in determining whether or not middle housing will be developed. Some factors include permitted square footage, how far away from the property line a building needs to be and how much open space is required, he said. Hammer referenced Portland's Residential Infill Project as an example of an initiative designed to allow for the development of more middle housing that was constrained by regulations. Specifically, he said limited building square footage for middle housing prevents developers from building anything but relatively small units if they were to construct a triplex or quadplex. Such products attract young professionals wanting to live in urban areas but would be unlikely to have much demand in a suburban environment like Wilsonville or even much of Portland, Hammer said.

"You can permit triplexes and quadplexes everywhere but if you don't allow them to be big enough so that they're accessible for families and people who need intergenerational living and for mixed families and for all different sorts of households, then it's unlikely they are going to be built because there's not as much market demand for them as there would be if they were small apartments in the urban core," he said.

Portland City Council also initially considered a proposal to require individual water meters rather than allowing for communal meters (driving up construction costs), but decided against it.

The housing legislation aims to prevent some overly onerous design standards, but Hammer said the prospect of increased middle housing will in large part be up to city leaders in determining where their priorities lie. Hammer believes more middle housing should be built regionwide, noting a report from EcoNorthwest stating that over 580,000 dwelling units are needed by 2040.

"If that (housing diversity) is a priority for them they will put in place rules that promote that," he said.

Douglas MacLeod, a developer and real estate agent who is acutely familiar with neighborhood pushback to denser housing in Portland neighborhoods, has noticed that more people are open to the idea of providing denser housing than even five years ago. He recalled building a set of townhouses in an existing neighborhood and initially receiving pushback. Over time, he said, neighbors grew to appreciate it.

"I think the politics are really changed and people in neighborhoods are becoming more accepting," he said.

Regardless, due to some of the aforementioned factors, MacLeod said middle housing development will take place over decades, not years.

"Some people have this idea when (House Bill) 2001 comes into effect that builders are going to run out and knock down a ton of houses and there's never going to be another single-family home built. I think that's far from true," he said.

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