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, 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.