What's happening now

Formerly the home of Beaumont-Wilshire Neighbors for Responsible Growth, the Portland Land Matters blog explores citywide land-use concerns, such as home demolitions, with the belief that development should create an improvement.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Eastmoreland finds a way out

While United Neighborhoods for Reform continues to gather support for the demolition/development resolution, and prepares for its presentation to City Council on Dec. 17, others have creatively worked to combat the trash-and-build style of development practiced citywide. Eastmoreland, in particular, seems to have aced it.

This building isn't in Eastmoreland, but it's a winner, too.
The owners of the site at Northeast Alameda and Fremont
turned the wilting Wilshire Market into a restaurant in a
nice case of building reuse and rejuvenation
that we don't see often enough.
The leafy Southeast neighborhood has managed to propose rezoning itself R7 from R5, which makes lot-splitting and shoehorning of new homes into the established neighborhood a real difficulty, maybe even an impossibility, for developers. After some high-profile cases (one in which neighbors paid a developer's ransom to save a house from demolition), neighborhood leaders there found a solution that protects hundreds of properties from speculative razing and dividing.

Perhaps this "Eastmoreland advantage" can be applied elsewhere? It sure would be a lot easier to apply a blanket protection to an entire neighborhood than to play Whac-A-Mole at the ground level.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Division Street's the new canyon land

Local band White Glove's "Division Street"—probably NSFW, and maybe -H—takes note of the transformation of "Avenue D," as the kids call it now. Old-timers, however, might prefer to call Division the "Death Star Trench." When you turn on to it, be sure to yell to R2-D2 in the back seat, "We're going in!" (And then, upon finding no parking, you can scram outta there quick as Luke Skywalker in an X-wing starfighter.)

Stacking towers along a narrow street works well for the mostly out-of-town developers plying Portland's real estate riches, but not for the creative types who put Portland on the map—and who are now being priced out of it. "What happened to Division Street," White Glove wonders. "Landlord raised the rent on me."

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The FIR folks fly through permitting

A message to the creative small developers in Portland, if any are still around.
Anyone who's even casually observed the wave of home demolitions in Portland at some point comes to wonder, How can this be?

FIR—the Field Issuance Remodel Program—may be part of the answer. This is the special program at Bureau of Development Services (BDS) that gives the major players the first-class frequent-flyer red-carpet service. I'm not privy to the perks, obviously, but I believe this is how developers are able to submit for land use changes under the previous property owner's name(s), which helps. After all, neighbors' attitudes toward some land division down the block are different when it's "Aw, my longtime neighbor Ethel wants to divide her property for her grandkids, how sweet" versus yet another couple same-same big & cheap houses squeezed together on a piece of land that used to feature a well-sited 1950s ranch. 

Once "Ethel" disappears off the title, and portlandmaps.com, the bulldozer's done.

Or how about the way that code compliance items never stick to the FIR bunch, the state of their project sites, and the devil-may-care attitude for following regulations big and small? FIR protection helps. (Note that the city auditor found BDS inspectors lacked oversight—FIR sure, because "inspectors can evaluate proposed projects on-site," per the program brochure.) No wonder even BDS staff call FIR out as "something [BDS chief] Paul Scarlett will have to answer to"—it's further proof that the playing field for Portland housing development is so skewed any newcomers and the homegrown can't get a fair shake. Now all we're seeing is a near monopoly of the developers with the plans neighbors least want to see pasted over the landscape.

The smaller, more creative developers must be tired of being outbid, and if they are not among the FIR favored—good luck. 

News we can all use

The Portland Chronicle reports on upcoming development projects with a clear eye and straight-ahead voice. It's written by a small group of journalists, which explains the quality of the reporting. For now, and considering the power and coziness of Portland developers, they want to remain anonymous and continue their journalism careers.

Despite the lack of bylines, the site is a boon to those of us interested in local development and a great source of news about what's going down, and up.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sun starts to set on McMansions

One home allows light and
privacy for neighbors;
the other doesn't.
Los Angeles—a city not known for its land-use planning or curbing excesses—has enacted "immediate laws that restrict the size of dwellings in 14 neighborhoods." Full story here. Noting the effects of oversize construction on neighborhood character and the unequal distribution of benefit from that style of development, the story describes the neighborhood associations' (OK, councils') role in shaping the groundswell of opinion that prompted action from city leaders.

It's similar to how United Neighborhoods for Reform is building consensus for change through its demolition/development resolution, now making the rounds and gathering endorsements at neighborhood association meetings all over Portland.

Interestingly, many of the Los Angeles developers of the oversize homes were using a loophole designed to encourage "green" building features to build big even though studies, such as one by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, have found that living smaller is more environmental. You can drive a Prius all you want, but if your house is huge, never mind. (And if that house replaced another modest-size one built of quality materials decades ago, it's said that carbon debt can never be recouped.)

There are those, even in Portland, who might say the city has no right to tell property owners what to do with their land. However, reams of city code already tell landowners what they can or can't do, but none of it protects unique affordable housing and previous investors in the neighborhood, i.e., the people already living there and who probably worked hard to improve their properties and neighborhoods only to see them exploited by those who build, cash in, and run, leaving problems behind. As one of the neighborhood leaders in L.A. said, "You drop one of these giant houses in, and it just changes the entire character of the neighborhood."

On a walkabout of the neighborhood recently, I took pictures of a couple of the newer homes. After the paint fades a few years on, the quality of the wood—if it is wood—becomes clear (above left), as does the chilling effect of the homes' size and the blank, expansive walls presented to the neighborhood.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

News flash: developers like it this way

At Monday's demolition subcommittee meeting of the Developer Review Advisory Committee (aka DRAC), the group came up with a definition of demolition that doesn't meaningfully change what occurs now. We'll still see the floorboard or post in the air (usually summarily tossed in the Dumpster with the rest of the house after the city inspector pays a visit), and yet it's still a "remodel." For all the talk in the meeting of passing the smell test, this business-as-before definition--and the unwillingness to leave affordable homes standing--stinks.

United Neighborhoods for Reform has in its demolition/development resolution the guideline of 50 percent removal of a house as a "demolition," a figure used by many other cities across the country, including Berkeley, California.

In much brighter news, Woodlawn Neighborhood Association has endorsed the resolution, joining the ranks in sending a message to City Council that real change is necessary. Way to go, Woodlawn!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Let's call it a yesolution

Thanks to the Multnomah Neighborhood Association land use committee for giving the resolution the nod at its meeting yesterday. Hopefully this is the first of many this month on the path to City Hall in mid-December.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A golden opportunity for change arrives

This month the resolution from United Neighborhoods for Reform goes out to the city's 95 neighborhood associations. If you can't present the document yourself at your next neighborhood association meeting, clamor to get it on the agenda and show up to support it! Spread the word. The more endorsements we gather, the more we can show grassroots support for change at City Hall next month. 
Speaking of City Hall, we plan to pack the place in December to show how Portlanders feel about the rapid loss of unique affordable housing in our neighborhoods. We also believe that new development should create an improvement for all.

This resolution is a place to start. We hope you can support it. If you want a rep from United Neighborhoods for Reform to present the resolution at your neighborhood meeting, send an email to manaobooks (at sign) gmail.com.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

You say you want a resolution

Well, you know it's coming. Through a series of summits that started earlier this year that consistently drew Portland residents from all over, United Neighborhoods for Reform has developed a one-page resolution to address concerns about demolition, and present solutions for keeping the unique, affordable housing that remains.

Once in final form, the doc will go out to neighborhood association meetings citywide. After gathering grassroots support, United Neighborhoods for Reform will head to City Council at the same time as the Developer Review Advisory Committee (DRAC) takes its suggestions to the top.

Is it a "demolition"? DRAC can't decide.
Last week saw another grinding meeting of the subcommittee of DRAC burdened with yet more important issues outside its purview. This time over an hour was spent deciding a definition of "demolition" was necessary, only to never arrive at that definition, even while numerous municipalities as small as Decatur, Illinois, and big as Berkeley, California, have managed to swing it. Maybe they don't have a DRAC.

I'm not surprised. It's like asking the raccoons how better they can guard the henhouse. There's a lot of "Who me?" "Why worry?" and "What's the problem again?" on that committee—made up mostly of developers, the professionals who represent them, and city staff who call 'em "business partners." As taxpayers, we original investors (homebuyers in the neighborhoods now being mined for quick greenbacks) are business partners, too. That's another reason we care when the bulldozers arrive.

Notice the fellow with hose (far left) whose anticontamination efforts from that distance and with garden equipment appear ... laughable. 

Speaking of demolition, I watched this 1921 house at Northeast 45th and Siskiyou bite the dust yesterday, victim to another Greg & Laura Perrin venture (it's possible their company is in cahoots with the Remmerses, which makes a natural combo) to turn a unique, well-designed home into character-free cheap construction. If the Perrins buy for $300 to $400k, demolish, then build at breakneck speed to sell at $700k to $800k, what could they possible afford for materials and still reap their necessary profit margin?

The title sequence to Portlandia gives more screen time to our city's classic bungalow architecture than show stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein themselves. With the record-setting number of demolitions, we rapidly lose an important part of what makes Portland Portland. The only charitable thing that can be said of this lower-quality construction taking the place of well-crafted "first-growth" homes is that hopefully it is as easy to bring down as it goes up. Still—what a waste.

I wasn't the only one watching this home demolition. One family watched from a corner opposite, riveted by the sight and sounds of this neighborhood elder buckling. It would have been hard to look the other way. The house didn't go down without a fight. The metal claw pushed hard to tear at and crunch down the roof. The beams—probably of rare old-growth quality and now unavailable or unaffordable (for the rich-quick folks anyway)—creaked and groaned as they gave way. The wood snapped like massive tinder under pressure. Seven years short of its 100th birthday, and in the space of a sunny October afternoon, this house died.

Did it have a good life? Let's hope so, at 93 years. It must have contained decades of stories and lives. Could it have had a better future? Yes. Will it? Ask the folks at the dump.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Stumped by Stumptown? Join the club

Our increasingly schizophrenic city leadership ("let's start a $20 million affordable housing program!"—let's stand idly by while hundreds of affordable homes get tossed in the trash; "let's commission a parking study!"—let's never mind the results of the parking study; "recycle and compost everyone!"—just dump homes and their quality materials in the landfill) now sends out to neighborhood association meetings an emissary from the city's Urban Forestry program to talk up the value of trees, and why we should care for them and plant more.

The irony screams loud as a chain saw. The record-setting number of demolitions this year—Portland broke the record last year, too—comes with innumerable tree deaths. Those mondo houses only fit one way on a lot, and tree protection costs money, involves work, and takes creativity during construction. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of developers plying Portland are too lazy and profit-minded to care. Prolific developers Wally and Vic Remmers practically are running a logging operation up in Concordia while trashing houses there. By now they probably could load a barge for export.

Where DRAC members get to sit.

Meanwhile, the city-anointed, developer-centric Developer Review Advisory Committee stumbles along at the full committee and subcommittee levels, tasked with weighty issues outside its job description. I almost feel sorry for it. As word gets out about the meetings, more activists come. At the last DRAC subcommittee meeting, we the disenfranchised ran out of chairs pushed up against the wall of the room and had to sit on the floor. Hopefully, some neighbors made it to the Thursday meeting of the full committee; after all, someone needs to guffaw loudly when city staff throw out unsupported "facts" such as: "9 out of 10 people want these houses demolished anyway."

Where those affected by DRAC decisions get to sit.

Ever notice how all the DRAC meetings run from 8 to 9:30 a.m. or 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. when full-time parents and weekday workers are least able to attend? Who else is available? Is it any wonder that the less affluent neighborhoods can't afford to send a representative downtown to sit for two hours and make sure neighbor voices are heard—that is, if they catch the moderator's eye, and if time allows after the developers have their say.

Speaking of developers, one at the meeting last week (and head of DRAC) confessed he didn't build starter homes anymore because he couldn't reap enough profit. Then he had the temerity to go on about how additional fees in permitting, etc., would price the resulting home out of reach of the droves of wannabe home buyers. About half of us on the wall pointed out that had he left the starter home intact, it would have been accessible to those buyers. Why o why can't developers build where the city needs more development, and/or where there are vacant lots, instead of tearing down perfectly good housing stock to erect palaces made of little better than particle board?

United Neighborhoods for Reform is fine-tuning a resolution to take to the neighborhoods and City Council to protect the unique, affordable housing that remains. We will need voices and votes at the grass-roots level, and the support shown for the effort all along, to keep this big ball rolling. As Will Rogers said, "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." DRAC and its developer recommendations are right behind us.

There's still time to comment on the Comp Plan. For starters, ask why "neighborhood association" was deleted. For years, the city said neighborhood associations were the only way to communicate with staff. Now that we're involved, they want to remove the groups' influence entirely? For a city that used to pride itself on activism (see, for example, Tom McCall Waterfront Park—born of protest, now a city jewel), how the mighty have fallen. 

A final note about the trees. City staff kept saying that the new tree policy coming in January 2015 was going to solve all the problems—just as the Comp Plan was touted forever as the coming manna from heaven. Boy, is it hard to get a hold of that tree plan, and now we know why. Turns out the new tree policy doesn't apply to the zones where most of the deforestation is occurring. Schizophrenic may be too mild a word for the city's behavior. In future elections, let clarity, sanity, and common sense win out.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

In case you were wondering

Yes, this is the new home of Beaumont-Wilshire Neighbors for Responsible Growth (formerly at bwnrg.blogspot.com), only now focused on issues that involve more than just this Northeast Portland neighborhood.

For example, here's the sweet and sad farewell to "Doug 35," an old-growth fir in Concordia axed by the folks at Everett Custom Homes, Wally and Vic Remmers's outfit that regularly harvests mature urban tree canopy to shoehorn cookie-cutter low-quality homes into established neighborhoods.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Grab a pen to keep your house out of the landfill

As activists make headway on a proposal for changes to stem the record-setting wave of demolitions washing over Portland, the Comprehensive Plan comment period kicks into high gear. We heard plenty about it at last night's United Neighborhoods for Reform summit, about how the term "neighborhood association" has disappeared from the plan and glossary this time around, along with other changes that make you wince and wonder.

The biggest problem, however, is the dearth of detail to back up the utopian visioning. One neighborhood association already has asked for an extension of the comment period to consider a more fleshed-out plan. Right now the plan is all flourish-y writing and feel-good attempts to relabel parts of Portland as various types of "mixed use" zoning. Fine. But what does it mean? There's nothing, nothing, about height limits, required setbacks, and so on, attached to the "mixed use" labels. That's what matters most to folks in the neighborhoods with boots on the ground.

Other interesting tidbits that came out of the event included more info about the two "neighborhood representatives" on the Developer Review Advisory Committee and their allegiances (to be fair, if I were outnumbered 14 to 2 my views might become more muted, too). More and more it's coming to light that DRAC, as it's called, has been repurposed for tasks outside its job description, such as the city's pressing demolition issue. Let's get a real task force already, with a fair makeup, and create solutions that work for everyone. At the bottom of all the wrangling is a belief that development should create an improvement. Otherwise, why do it?

We soldier on.

Take the pledge for a better Portland

Click on image for full-size version of the neighbor pledge.
Take copies up your street and around your block,
anywhere you see homes worth saving.
One of the elements of the antidemolition effort—and one so easy all it takes is a pen and two minutes—is the neighbor pledge. Thank you to Gary Davenport of Overlook Neighbors for Responsible Growth for the great idea and the drafting of this useful doc. As homeowners, we're not tearing down our houses. So why let others do it? Take the pledge to sell your home to the right buyers, ones who will live in the house and pass it along to future generations, as you have. Demolitions citywide have taken down modest bungalows to larger homes, but the properties had one thing in common: They all started with a sale.

The pledge is intended to start conversations among neighbors, help homeowners realize the power they have in shaping the future of their homes and neighborhoods, and protect neighbors and "first-growth" architecture. It also ensures the availability of unique affordable housing and keeps high-quality building materials out of the landfill.

Love your neighbors, love your neighborhood—take the pledge!

To celebrate the release of this important document, I am available to give a five-minute spiel on the pledge at a meeting of your neighborhood association. Just contact me at manaobooks at gmail dot com to set up a pledge presentation.

No help comes for Hollywood

I look forward to making the rounds again, after having visited four neighborhood meetings last winter to sound the alarm on Wally and Vic Remmers's business practices. The Hollywood meeting stood out. An entire street's worth of neighbors came to discuss what they could do now that so many new Hollywood residents were turning their residential lane (NE 37th Ave.) into a freeway on-ramp. The nattily turned out city transportation engineer recommended installation of a plastic orange traffic-safety measure that would slow traffic and block the way to the freeway, but guess what? The city couldn't afford it.

Last I looked that safety measure wasn't in place—so either the neighbors haven't yet raised the $1,200 necessary for the piece of orange plastic, or they've given up.

Wouldn't the city want to help longtime residents manage the population influx close to home? Isn't $1,200 a low price to pay for keeping an entire street of neighbors safer? Where do the System Development Charges go?

This Bud was for all of us

At last Saturday's Oregon Music Hall of Fame induction event at the Aladdin, former city leader Bud Clark presented a couple of awards to rousing applause. Performers onstage kept referring to him as the mayor; maybe they, too, want to forget about the mostly dismal leadership we've had since 1993, when Clark stepped down? From the hoots and hollers, I know I'm not the only one missing him, inclusive leadership, and common-sense plotting of progress.

Friday, September 19, 2014

City could walk its talk on affordable housing—and it won't cost $20 million

The Portland Tribune continues to follow the demolition issue closely. Clearly people care about the state of their neighborhoods, as evidenced by this letter that also ran in the Tribune, so succinct I'm pasting it in here in its entirety.

City refuses to heed public input 
I received the city of Portland’s flier wanting input on how to spend $20 million on affordable housing. There seems to be a complete disconnect between this bureaucratic effort and long-standing appeals by Northeast Portland communities to preserve existing affordable housing. 
I am referring to our many petitions to stop the destruction of affordable housing by developers. 
Affordable 800- to 1,400-square-foot homes that are very livable and architecturally harmonious to our communities are being replaced by ponderous 3,500- to 4,000-square-foot McMansions that cost two to three times the original home. 
In addition, these new structures are completely out of step with our communities, have no garden space, and block sun for those of us gardening and/or employing solar energy for power. 
Our mayor and City Council are aware of this and have received verbal and written complaints, but continue to dither away while developers destroy our pleasant, comfortable and affordable housing communities. 
Seems like the city might well listen to our long-standing input and save some of these $20 million taxpayer dollars for schools, street repair and other pressing issues. 
Tom Lichatowich 
Northeast Portland

Monday, September 15, 2014

Broken system needs fixes that work for all

Al Ellis (right) convenes the summit that drew people from 21 neighborhoods.
At the Summit II last week, we packed the sanctuary at Grant Park Church and heard from 21 neighborhoods across the city on how to stem the loss of unique affordable housing and the wave of low-quality development taking its place. As the flip chart filled with suggestions, we made plans to move the most promising ideas forward in meetings ahead.

Meanwhile, the city is doing an excellent job of helping developers fine-tune their recommendations to assuage neighbors as part of its Developer Review Advisory Committee, or DRAC. At last week's meeting of a subcommittee meant to address demolition issues, developers' representatives complained that neighbors, in asking for demolition extensions, had no "skin in the game." No one has more skin in this game than neighbors, who are rapidly losing the gains they've made in making their neighborhoods great places to live, work, and raise families. Through the years of delivering newsletters, planting trees, and fixing up properties, neighborhoods have thrived, only to see developers scoop up original, unique, and well-built homes and slam them into Dumpsters. Higher-priced homes in their place, by comparison, are quickly and cheaply built and are out of reach of first-time would-be home buyers, reducing the economic diversity among neighbors.

Lest folks think that new construction is always better than old, housing isn't like the latest iPhone or an updated operating system. Many homes of the 1920s and '30s (the average age of houses being demolished is 87 years) were crafted with care, using quality materials, and sometimes even framed by the architect himself. Thought was given to how the house sat on the lot, and the views therefrom. The houses going up now are framed in days, according to generic plans, and built to maximum coverage and height. As one who has lived in both old and new construction, I can say the maintenance obligations are the same. If buyers are unsure about the merits of old versus new construction, go to as many open houses as possible. Are the new homes solidly built? Can you gauge the thickness and quantity of wood? Or is it "wood"? Check out some of these homes a few years after they're built. Take a friend who works in construction—look hard, and listen.

If by "skin in the game" developers only refer to financial considerations, then consider this: Neighbors to these new "loomers" likely lose value on their properties. That's one reason why intact neighborhoods such as Irvington, which has preservation rules in place, continue to be desirable places to live.

If land in Portland is the precious resource we say it is, then let's treat it as such. DRAC's recommendations should be merged with those coming from the stakeholder (i.e., neighbor) level for a solution that works for everyone. A moratorium on demolition would help incentivize the process.

For a Stop the Demolition sign, visit here.
According to the recent list of the 25 top home builders in the Portland Business Journal, just two of the 25 are from Portland. Right now the playing field is skewed toward out-of-towners who've learned how to play the game. One developer, Wally Remmers, actually got the city to quietly, handily change code away from more stringent state recommendations so he could continue to drop his unimaginative design for a "greedy" building all over Portland. Even with brakes put on the demolitions, let's also figure out how to increase the quality and diversity of developers plying one of our city's finest, finite resources.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

We want our city back

As long as folks continue to check this blog, I will continue to post useful info. Neighbors and community leaders concerned about the demolition wave will gather at a summit from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 9, at Grant Park Church, 2728 NE 34th Ave.

This week it became clear that no one at City Hall will stand up for Portland, including the city's own mayor, in facing the Bureau of Development Services, whose special treatment for certain developers--and a style of development--is rapidly erasing architectural history and reducing neighborhoods' stock of unique, affordable housing.

This isn't Portland. Is it sustainable to throw away 98 percent of the demolished homes, usually made of materials far superior to what is now available? Are the replacement homes an improvement? Isn't it a waste, too, tossing into Dumpsters homes that are, on average, 87 years old? Shouldn't a "green" city care about the irreplaceable loss of mature urban canopy decades in the making? How are density goals met if the majority of demos result in a single-family home, only one that is way bigger, with a postage-stamp yard?

Very few home buyers looking for a toehold in the market are able to scoop up modest properties for all cash, as the mostly out-of-town and exploitive developers do, nor can they afford the $700k result.

Neighbors and community leaders also are seeing past the stall tactics of the city-blessed and developer-led Development Review Advisory Committee, which had been charged with making necessary changes to code in response to neighbor outcry. After months of meetings it managed to come up with a voluntary notification process for demos. In late July the leader of the committee confessed the committee probably couldn't arrive at a definition of "demolition" that would work (for developers), so better perhaps to leave it unclear. Here's a hint: If it takes a bulldozer and the house disappears, it's probably not a "remodel."

One thing is clear: The city is on track to set a record for demolitions this year (and that doesn't account for the aforementioned "bulldozer remodels," not tracked under the demo column). So long as the playing field rewards greedy, often thuggish developers, Portlanders and their neighborhoods continue to lose.

The summit next week promises to be a proactive, productive response generated by a groundswell of alarm over the city's devolving standards. If the mayor can't make the changes that he promised, it's up to us to demand them--and to wonder who owns our leadership.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The road looks long

This is a hard one to write. After success at the state Land Use Board of Appeals the first time around, Beaumont-Wilshire Neighbors for Responsible Growth lost the next one. Depleted of energy and resources, we activist neighbors closed our case even as we continue to demand that the building meet code. The city's inability to bring the project into compliance gives pause, as does the ruling itself, which affirmed the city's decision to grant the permit for the contested 50-unit building on Northeast Fremont between 44th and 45th avenues. 

Having read the decision several times—and I've made a living reading legal documents—I confess I still don't understand it, but welcome insight from those who might. One supporter said the board seemed swayed by the power of an already-built building (something that also benefited Dennis Sackhoff—a relative of Wally Remmers's—down in the Richmond neighborhood). No wonder Remmers, like Sackhoff, built headlong in the face of a LUBA legal challenge, throwing as many delays into neighbors' path as he could. It worked.

At the end of the day, I wouldn't recommend the LUBA process to anyone. Save those thousands of dollars for moving expenses, hosting séances to connect with the lost heart and soul of ex-activist now-Commissioner Amanda Fritz, and supporting candidates who prioritize Portlanders' interests over those of out-of-town developers whose projects exact an inordinate toll on places and people. 

Blight or benefit to the neighborhood? The writing's on the wall for Remmers's project in Beaumont-Wilshire.
Here on the eve of Fremont Fest, business owners are gussying up their storefronts for the biggest neighborhood event of the year. Remmers's project, too, is putting its best face forward and showing itself to be the eyesore that neighbors feared it would become. Just a few months after opening its doors, perhaps the building's only fans are taggers—plenty of taupe canvas for everyone and absentee owners/managers make it easy to leave a mark.

Questions outnumber the answers.
Meanwhile, the city has presented its antidote to the spate of demolitions and low-quality development spreading citywide. Amid the speechifying (two hours) and softball questions (15 minutes) at a June forum at Concordia University, city staffer Jill Grenda talked at length about the city's response to the demo epidemic: an elaborate, design-heavy door-hanger that builders would use to notify affected neighbors of home demolitions. Sounds like common sense, except for the part about how it's completely voluntary. Seriously, taxpayers ought to get a refund for the staff time spent on the project.

But that's not all of the city's effort. Grenda also noted that the Bureau of Development Services planned to put a phone number on its website to address concerns regarding asbestos and disposal of other contaminants released in the demolition process. If the city's inaction and lack of meaningful change offends you, you're not alone and feel free to complain loudly to elected leaders. I wouldn't call Grenda, though; last time I wondered aloud to her about why Beaumont-Wilshire's project wouldn't be brought into compliance, she laughed and hung up on me. Portland is the city that works—for Wally Remmers. One wonders how many millions a guy needs when he's already having a hard time finding legit ways to spend them.

(Speaking of "demolition," at a meeting of the Development Review Advisory Committee—which is overwhelmingly made up of builders and their representatives, from consultants to attorneys—a city staffer finally acknowledged that Portland's definition of "remodel" doesn't pass the "straight-face" test. When such a remodel leaves nothing standing, you could argue that you're using the same dirt, right?)

Senior planner Jill Grenda (middle) presented the city's response to the public outcry at the spate of demolitions—look out for that phone number on the BDS website.
Never mind the loss of neighborhood character and heritage and unique, affordable housing, the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability would rather Portlanders focus on entering their new contest! Nominate your favorite view or gazing spot! Win prizes! (OK, kidding about the last part.) With that in mind I took a look around my ever-changing neighborhood and this is what I saw:

A newly built urban dacha dwarves its neighbors.


On Fremont, Wally Remmers makes his presence known.

Judging from the response of city staff and leaders to the report from the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission and plenty of neighborhood testimony at City Hall yesterday regarding the record-setting number of home demolitions, soon there may not be much of old Portland left to love. While city staff in the balcony lampooned preservation-minded activists for being too into history and guffawed at every utterance of "equity," it appeared all the words spoken in defense of protecting existing, "first-growth" architecture were falling on deaf ears.

Amid the demo-related testimony, I couldn't help but note the several impassioned neighbors recounting their first taste of another Remmers project running roughshod on Northeast 22nd Avenue. With their widening reputation, the Remmers fellas now are sending out agents to do the dirty work of buying properties under other names. For the record, folks, Jodi Jennings and J2 (J-2?) Investments are not neighbors' friend. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

This is it

Beaumont Village Apartments: Built too big to comply?

Tomorrow we head to Salem for our second hearing in front of the state Land Use Board of Appeals. 

After our success winning a remand there in December, we're going back because the city and developer Wally Remmers were unable or at least unwilling to satisfy that ruling. It feels funny to go argue in front of the officers of that august board whether they meant what they said, but that's where we are. And it's worth it if we have a chance at reducing the size and impacts of the Beaumont Village Apartments project on Northeast Fremont between 44th and 45th avenues. We also aim to bring the building into conformance with code; neighbors—and any other users of Fremont for that matter—should not have to bear a burden in excess of what the law allows.

As the Buddha said, There are only two mistakes one can make on the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Developer aims to turn problems into payday

So much for making long-term investments in the neighborhoods: Developer Wally Remmers took some choice sites in Portland neighborhoods and squandered their potential with "greedy buildings." Speaking of the g word, he's asking just $13.6 million for the Beaumont Village building (and an additional $13.5 million for the other two properties), but neighbors likely will live with these projects and their outsize impacts forever.

The paint's barely dry on Wally Remmers's much-contested and non-code conforming 50-unit building on Northeast Fremont between 44th and 45th avenues (shown above, at left), and he's already putting it up for sale along with two other recently built projects that have rankled neighbors. It's not the first time he's ducked out early on a development, leaving expensive difficulties in his wake. Let's hope any buyers do their due diligence.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A case of "greenmail" stuck it to Eastmoreland

Developer to neighbors: Drop the LUBA appeal,
or kiss those huge evergreens goodbye.
With Beaverton developer Wally Remmers chasing projects headlong throughout Portland—how long can all the foul balls stay up in the air?—he finally might have hit a wall in Eastmoreland, where a large-scale building proposal for 3058 S.E. Woodstock Blvd. is encountering the usual neighbor resistance, only this time it's in the blue-chip part of town. 

Watch some of the drama go down Thursday, April 10, at City Hall, 1221 S.W. Fourth Ave. [UPDATE: As of Wednesday afternoon, April 9, the hearing was postponed because neighbors had reached a proposed settlement with Remmers; as last reported on the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association website, neighbors were offering up to $150,000 for Remmers to leave the Southeast Woodstock Boulevard property alone—presumably on top of the original purchase price?] 

This could be the start of a nice new business strategy for Remmers & Co.: Buy low, threaten big, and cash in high. If only Beaumont-Wilshire had similarly deep pockets; neighbors here have struggled for almost two years to defend ourselves from a Remmers project that shouldn't have been permitted as designed.

Regardless of the details of Eastmoreland's wide-ranging dispute, it did have some echoes of Remmers's building in Beaumont-Wilshire, namely preferential treatment for a developer, hazy code history, and radically different visions clashing over the future of a neighborhood. 

One wonders if the city of Portland has succeeded in chasing most of the quality developers away. How much longer can the city and its taxpayers afford to spend so much energy and resources on a guy who's gathering up the choice sites around town, then squandering them with "greedy," even noncompliant, buildings? We can do better, and do business with those who also care about Portland's neighborhoods. To quote the news ticker off the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association website
"The neighbors working with Vic Remmers on the 'greenmail' issue have worked hard, but Remmers continues to want almost $200k to leave the Moreland Lane [the site that's subject of Thursday's City Hall hearing] property alone. The discussions have generally been courteous except for one somewhat ominous email that includes ... 'In regards to your current LUBA appeal, if you prevail and we end up having to tear up Moreland lane to add the sidewalk, we will have to tear down those 3 huge evergreen tree’s that are currently are being saved. I understand that you are trying to give us a hard time and make this difficult for us, but I really think you will be unhappy with the results if you were to prevail with that appeal. Those tree’s are magnificent and provide shade for your basketball court and your backyards.'"

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Build it, and they will notice

Congrats to Wally Remmers for the mention in the current issue of Portland Monthly, which focuses on the city's neighborhoods. Remmers's Northeast Fremont project is called out as "a bloated 50-unit box" and a classic example of a "greedy building."

Designer-developer Kevin Cavenaugh, who works hard to put up interesting architecture that's an asset instead of a burden to the neighborhoods where he works, coined the term. In the story he elaborates: 
“Everybody knows a greedy building when they see it. The design follows a formula, no matter what neighborhood it’s for. They’re lazy. As a developer, everything you do to make a building better makes the numbers worse. So if you start from maximizing profits, you don’t give yourself an opportunity to do great or even good buildings."
The only thing to add in Beaumont-Wilshire's case is that the Northeast Fremont building's not just greedy, it still doesn't comply with code and shouldn't be occupied until it does.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A little googling turns up the irony

All's ducky down on Wally Remmers's farm, where you could park 31 of these things.
Fools' Day aside, here's something actually funny. About this same time last year that activists from all over Portland were packing City Hall and meeting rooms to argue for rules that require some parking in large apartment buildings—and while developer Wally Remmers was telling us it was a different world and no one owned cars anymore—he was simultaneously singing the opposite tune at his property on Sauvie Island.

A year ago Multnomah County was entertaining Remmers's (thru his attorney Michael Robinson) pleas to allow him to build a beauty of a parking lot—31 spaces, all paved—at his island acreage. For a "farm worker break room." Sweet! All of the Remmers/Sackhoff apartment dwellers and their neighbors tired of looking for parking around their homes, here it is! We just need a shuttle bus.

County staff questioned why such a fine parking facility was necessary for a farm, especially because no one was supposed to actually live on-site or, gosh forbid, hunt ducks thereabouts. That won't happen because Remmers signed a voluntary compliance agreement saying so, which is hilarious because we see from the record how well he does with mandatory compliance (for that, keep reading, and enjoy the fact that he sometimes forgets to obtain permits, say, for a sizable addition to the aforementioned break room).

Build first, protest later. Sound familiar? If all this doesn't quack you up (sorry), you should see the response Remmers and the city recently submitted to neighbors' second petition to the state Land Use Board of Appeals. In it, the developer and city describe the state body's first ruling in neighbors' favor as a mere "suggestion" for fixing the poorly designed project. So that's why they ignored it.

It should come as no surprise

Now collectible! I assume they will correct the date along with the name change.

Another sign of yore

This was in my pile of vacation e-mail or I would have posted it earlier—


Fremont Corridor signage dedication scheduled

Forming a unique public-private partnership, the city of Portland and developer Wally Remmers have decided to enact a name change for the commercial corridor in a Northeast neighborhood. By summer all of the Beaumont Village signs along Northeast Fremont will be removed, then reinstalled with ones reading "Remmers Village."

"We think this is a change whose time has come," Phil Sharlow of Bureau of Development Services said. "It's all we could do to show how much we appreciate him as a customer." City planner Bill Benda, who along with other city staff works closely with the developer and his architecture and legal teams, said: "We've bent over forward and backward for Wally Remmers, and want to see more of his projects that stamp out neighborhood character. Beaumont-Wilshire can serve as a showcase for our vision of Portland's future."

The release finishes with details of the unveiling of the first Remmers Village street sign, appropriately sited at his signature project on Northeast Fremont between 44th and 45th avenues, at 6 pm today, yes April 1.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Teardowns take it away

Ready for the Dumpster: This house, pictured a few days before demolition,
is already gone, taking with it 65 years of neighborhood history.

This unique, well-designed house at 3419 NE 35th Place had the misfortune to be sited on a large lot in 1949 in a desirable neighborhood and then put up for sale last fall. Developers bought it, and the neighbors strived, with the neighborhood association's help, to delay the demolition. For a time, it worked. They won a 120-day stay of the demolition, but it didn't last because the city helped the developers work around it. 

Why would the city bother to grant such a stay only to negate it a few weeks later? What a waste of everyone's time and resources, except for the developers anxious to get wrecking.

As with Wally Remmers's oversize, noncompliant building on Fremont between 44th and 45th avenues, why is the city so actively working against neighbors' interests? Every elected official at City Hall, too, seems to have checked his or her conscience at the door while turning a blind eye to these devolving influences in the neighborhoods. Leadership like this probably would have defeated the jackhammering of a freeway and thwarted the creation of Waterfront Park in 1974, and given the nod to subdividing Wilshire Park in the 1940s.

Did leaded glass and unique brickwork give way to a load
of MDF and vinyl? We'll know soon.
The other day I was in the local coffee shop and overheard a visitor from Southern California rhapsodizing over the houses of Beaumont-Wilshire. He raved about their individual character, their collective presence, the charm, the design, the materials! I smiled, because that's what I love about this neighborhood, too. As the creator of the Vancouver Vanishes project notes, there's value in this "first-growth architecture," the stories they hold, and the quality of materials and craftsmanship. Otherwise we're destined to live in homogenous metropolises. For Portland, a city that prides itself on a "green" ethos, it's worth remembering, too, that the greenest house is the one left standing, not carted to the landfill.

To see what numerous other cities (Portland conspicuously missing) have done to protect their neighborhoods, check out this online compendium compiled by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Portland for sale: ¢heap to least compliant, lowest quality builders!

Too big to believe? Under recent hush-hush changes to code, there will be more.
While Portlanders were out tending their poetry posts, the city was busy changing code. City staff must have put in a lot of overtime recently, not only to rush into a secret meeting to approve rogue developer Wally Remmers's violation of the Stormwater Management Manual—the city's overarching rulebook to water management for builders—but over the new year they changed the manual itself, presumably to encourage Remmers and his illk even more. 

Where the manual used to say that drywells "must" be 10 feet away from foundations and 5 feet from property lines, now it's just "typically." That little shift opens the floodgates to more irresponsible development in the neighborhoods. This change—and I'm sure it's just one example—shows how far city staff will go to shove a noncompliant 41,000-square-foot object down our throats, giving the green light to another wave of oversize buildings. Too bad there's no handy acronym for Not in Anyone's Back Yard. 

Before launching into a chorus of "Here's to you Mr. Robinson" as an ode to the lawyer who takes his orders from Mr. Reamers and then in turns inflicts them on the city, and then us, it's worth wondering again about the integrity of city staff and the rules they're supposed to follow. That 10-foot, 5-foot guideline came from state code, and has as its basis recommendations from working groups of experts and others knowledgeable in the field of stormwater management. Maybe Remmers and Michael Robinson can stop the rain, too?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

See how the power plays

Exhibit A in Beaumont-Wilshire: The making of a monster. As recently released city-developer documents show, neighbors have a stake but no say.

These cold nights are perfect for cozying up with the latest record of the permit decision under which developer Wally Remmers continues to throw up his oversize project on Northeast Fremont. All the observers who think this is a done deal and not worth the fight (or funding it)—that's exactly what Remmers wants you to think, and why he's plunged headlong into construction all this time even in the face of serious legal challenges. Perhaps there should be an ordinance against building anything that's subject of a Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) action, so that all parties have incentive to fix what's wrong and get a move on. We wouldn't be where we are, as late as we are, if Remmers/the city (now a hand-in-hand outfit—read on) had allowed our appeal to move forward unimpeded from the get-go.

I digress. In the record it's stunning to see a minion at Remmers's architecture firm basically telling the city what to do: In her e-mail she entreats that they needed to "get an appeal approved for this violation . . . . I know it sounds crazy but that is how the lawyer [for Remmers] wanted us to deal with it." That "us" is your city staff, working hard to help a brazen developer skirt a clear LUBA ruling requirement. That's how the hands behind the curtain directed city staff to generate a waiver for the developer's nonconforming drywell out of a secret meeting. It gives us pause.

The Bureau of Development Services ought to set up a satellite office in Salem so long as it uses the state judicial venue of LUBA as its quality assurance mechanism. Building in Portland is a choice opportunity; bending over backward for roughshod, out-of-town developers such as Remmers makes it clear he's as much in control as he is a customer. And you know what they say: The Customer Is Always Right. Right?

When I pay taxes, I feel like a customer, too. Except now it appears I pay them to an agent of Remmers's rather than an entity that's supposed to protect neighbors' interests (i.e., apply code) while overseeing Portland's growth spurt.

Milwaukie's Masonic Lodge, recent site of a film festival focused on "Place," including a forthcoming movie on the rash of controversial development across Portland's east side.

That's Density with a dollar sign.

Filmmaker Greg Baartz-Bowman talks with audience members before the screenings.

Filmmaker George Wolters oversees an extensive Q&A afterward.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Developer's idea for permitting hassle: Don't bother

This fellow probably thinks he has to get a permit.

On a recent project last month in Southeast Portland, Wally Remmers & Co., masterminds behind the oversize building on Northeast Fremont, didn't even get a permit to start their excavation work. Who can blame them? After their flawed, noncompliant project on Northeast Fremont was given the nod, and then vigorous defense by the city, why would they do the legwork or pay the fees to do what they want? These folks are starting to own the town.

Just don't tell all the rubes wandering the first floor of the Building of Development Services who think they have to dot i's and cross t's—and pay fees— to build their projects.

The adjacent property owner to Remmers's project on Northeast Fremont gave access to build the project, so long as neighboring tenants' parking was protected.

Who needs to keep promises?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Beaumont Pillage Apartments lives up to the name

Not worth windows: Brutalist, oversize, and
out-of-scale, Wally Remmers's project
goes after the charm of Beaumont Village.
Despite the snow and cold, neighbors came out last weekend for a State of the Neighborhood confab to talk about improving local development. The neighbors who participated represented a wide range of generations and professions; all this expertise and experience brings plenty of skill and enthusiasm to the task of proactively protecting Beaumont-Wilshire and building a better future. I particularly enjoyed hearing one longtime resident talk about the days—only some years ago—when City Council really was an extension of neighborhood activism. People worked together for the same cause of making Portland a great place to live.

Somewhere between the strategizing and the killer salmon skewers hot off the barbecue, we also raised a chunk of money for BWNRG's legal bill for taking neighbors' appeal of Wally Remmers's 4-story 50-unit project on Northeast Fremont to the state Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA). Thank you to all who showed up and to all who have supported us in the past and still do (click here to donate online).

Meanwhile, we continue to take the story of Remmers's non-code compliant building, and the city's defense of it (at taxpayers' expense), to other neighborhood associations in Northeast. East-siders all have an interest in a functioning Fremont Street, and with no safety or traffic measures promised to mitigate the building's impacts, the thoroughfare will become even more congested and unsafe.

After some weeks of waiting, we finally have a meeting scheduled with Commissioner Fritz and Bureau of Development Services staff—looking forward to it. These folks are instrumental in the course correction.

On Saturday, Feb. 15, filmmakers Greg Baartz-Bowman and George Wolters unveil the movie that chronicles this rogue wave of development. You can watch the trailer here; for the whole thing, trek to the Milwaukie Masonic Lodge and get an eyeful of what's been going down across the city, and what neighbors are doing to counter it. Who knows, maybe you'll even get a glimpse of Wally's World with the faux windows and BWNRG activists.

See you at the movies!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Developer makes mistakes; city determines neighbors should suffer the consequences

That's just one of the headlines that could have been written recently in this continuing development debacle. When the state Land Use Board of Appeals made its ruling last month requiring specific changes to Wally Remmers's 4-story 50-unit project on Northeast Fremont between 44th and 45th avenues, some characterized the required changes as "minor," even "trivial." If that were true, why is the developer unable to make them? The plans, now in their third revision, still show a non-code conforming drywell and a wheelchair ramp that further demonstrate the building is too big to meet code. Trim nearly 4 feet off the northern edge of the building, however, and everything fits.

Cheap, fast & out-of code: Wally Remmers goes too big in Beaumont-Wilshire.
Before LUBA: The trellis and wheelchair ramp both extend too deeply into the setback meant to protect residential properties to the north.

After LUBA: Revised plans show a shortened trellis above a wheelchair ramp that, because of the beyond-maximum building footprint, reaches too far into the setback, per code. 

A detail of the revised plans shows a shortened trellis that complies with code—and the now partially uncovered, and noncompliant, wheelchair ramp jutting too far into the setback. 
Putting aside the question of competence and integrity on the part of city staff who thought no one would notice their late pardon of some of the developer's noncompliance, why can't the developer use the people working for him to apply their creativity and smarts to fixing problems, rather than trying to shove them under the rug? What would LUBA think of this evasion of justice?

Beaumont-Wilshire neighbors did nothing to deserve an out-of-code project unless you count creating a decent place to live and do business. Already neighborhood residents are bracing for the traffic, parking, and other expected burdens of a building that's out of scale and bringing unmitigated impacts to a congested east-side thoroughfare. Shame on Wally Remmers for taking a choice opportunity and burdening everyone else with the results of his poor business strategy. If you continue to build in the face of serious challenges, it's a gamble that you sometimes can lose.

The building now stands as a monument to one developer's hubris and the city's inability to show leadership in confronting that unbridled greed. How much longer can Portland afford to continue defending a noncompliant project; where are the benefits to anyone except the developer who most likely takes his profits out of town?

Noted journalist, activist, and well-loved former Gov. Tom McCall died a little more than 31 years ago, and he'd probably roll in his grave at the situation developing around Portland's east side for months now. It recalls words he said in 1982 (substitute "Portland" for "Oregon" and "out-of-code monster buildings" for the "stinking smokestack"):
"I'm simply saying that Oregon is demure and lovely and it ought to play a little hard to get. And I think you'll all be just as sick as I am if you find it is nothing but a hungry hussy, throwing herself at every stinking smokestack that's offered."