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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.

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.

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