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.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Residential Infill Project participants walk to talk

As part of its mission to create improved new-construction guidelines, the Residential Infill Project stakeholder advisory committee—aka RIP SAC—recently toured some Portland neighborhoods, looking at new and old development to better inform their decisions.

It was enlightening to see what the walks included and how people responded. At the Powelhurst-Gilbert walk on Nov. 14, for instance, John Hasenberg (picking up his name tag, above) of the Oregon Remodelers Association and a RIP SAC member, opined that the demolition outcry was all about "rich people fighting other rich people." It sounds like he hasn't met any renters or lower-income people desperately seeking housing or even a starter home that won't be scooped up by a teardown developer and summarily sent to the landfill. Maybe he runs in different circles, but then why would he disparage those who can afford to use his services?

Vic Remmers debriefs with the group in Eliot.
At the Eliot walk later that day, Vic Remmers used the opportunity to market one of his firm's homes.

Meanwhile, part of the RIP SAC budget has gone toward a survey that somehow will help divine what people want to see in new development, although it's not clear how the answers will be interpreted, given how opaquely they are written, such as "New homes bring new families and vibrancy to neighborhoods"—huh? How does this benefit help handle lot sprawlers taking the place of creative site-specific architecture? Thinking of my own neighborhood, I have seen many classic Portland homes that have served generations torn down for huge homes inhabited by many fewer people, and sometimes just one person.

If "vibrancy" is something that only comes through new construction, I haven't seen it. In fact, many buyers of these homes probably have to work too hard to pay their mortgages to engage with neighbors and their neighborhood.

After the Eliot walk Nov. 14, city staffer Julia Gisler (in red) and
moderator Anne Pressentin (in blue) note comments by RIP SAC member
Rick Michaelson (far left).
At the Dec. 1 meeting, RIP SAC's own members wondered how scientific the survey was, and what it would prove.

So go ahead, take the survey meant to help "shape the project's evaluation criteria and potential options." But better to show up in person at a RIP SAC meeting to say how you really feel, in your own words. The next opportunity is at 6:10 p.m. for the meeting that runs 6-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 5, at 1900 S.W. Fourth Ave., Room 2500A. As the last meeting showed, the committee needs to hear from neighbors citywide.

In the meantime, take this survey, which might help get at the heart of the problem:

My neighborhood is (choose one):
RIP SAC members (from left) Garlynn Woodsong, Tatiana Xenelis-Mendoza,
David Sweet, and Maggie McGann stroll a Southeast cul-de-sac as part of the
Nov. 14 walk.
1. a place to live
2. a profit center

Portland's elected leaders should represent the interests of (choose one):
1. Portland residents and taxpayers
2. out-of-town teardown developers
3. short-term Wall Street investors

If I don't stand up for my interests:
1. Who will?

Water flows make woes

With the winter deluge, Portlanders are reminded of the usefulness of trees and permeable surfaces, which can absorb water instead of sending it into the streets and to overburdened storm drains. Even after shelling out big bucks for the Big Pipe, the overflows continue.

One wonders if the loss of mature urban trees during these record-breaking years of home demolitions (when a lot is typically razed of every living thing), combined with the sheer footprint of the replacement homes (one neighborhood's two-year study showed they are 2.3 times bigger) and the adjoining outsize hardscapes have added to our water worries.

The big players don't seem to mind, building headlong in the downpours and not bothering to cover their work. The following images show standing water, creating some pretty squishy material underfoot, in homes built in the rain.

Jeff Fish, former chair of the Development Review Advisory Committee, which eases the way for developers in city processes and politics, is proud of saying that developers "self-certify" as to the moisture content in the homes they build. I love that. "Looks OK to me!" you can imagine them saying. "Now cover it up with drywall!"

Here's a great article about mold and other problems with new construction. As the author notes, they sure don't build like they used to. He points out that the more processed the materials—and that's all the lower-quality builders pop for—the less resistance they have to mold and water. Several real estate agents in Portland agree that mold is a much bigger problem in new construction than in the older homes, and the article shows the many reasons why.

Here are pictures of the standing water in homes under construction in Portland. Pity whoever buys them.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Positive change is possible—let's see some

While the city rolls up its sleeves to clear the way in the comprehensive plan for the mostly out-of-town developers and Wall Street investors plying our city, it's worth wondering why. It used to be people picked Portland as a place to live because they wanted to be part of the creativity, and contribute to it. They would throw in together as roommates, renting homes in real neighborhoods and pitching in for causes that interested them. There was no expectation of gleaming new loft apartments with dog washes.

Listen to one Seattle artist's commentary:

John Criscitello (Excerpt, 2015) from Jason Evans on Vimeo.

Now people arrive in Portland with cravings for cupcakes, ice cream, and cocktails (not that there's anything bad about those things), but actual participation in the community beyond a commercial bent ranks low. In other words, if you're bringing to the party nothing beyond an appetite, it's like showing up at Burning Man with a six-pack, a video camera, and an RV—nothing to share, everything to take.

If Portland pursues this kind of immigration wholesale, seems like we'll just have more selfie takers and jokes at the shooting scene and more newcomers mowing down creative, valued members of our cultural scene.

Killing us softly, I see.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman (in tie) drops by the October meeting of the
Development Review Advisory Committee, where Development Services
Director Paul Scarlett (on his left) talked about the bureau's
continued cost-recovery mode even with $30 million in the bank.
Rich with cash, poor on enforcement

Senior planner Barry Manning and others at the Bureau of Planning love to say that "one size does not fit all" when it comes to Portland development. So why do they want to collapse nine existing zones into four? This doublespeak recalls some of the finest heard from the Bush enterprise, viz., if one's military record is at issue, go ahead and attack the competitor's Purple Heart, or if one's cozy familial relationships with Middle East interests are called into question, start a war there.

Manning attended the Development Review Advisory Committee (DRAC) meeting Oct. 15 to present the mixed-use zones concepts, where "bonuses" such as additional height will be awarded to developers to do the right things. When Los Angeles tried something similar, the new rules had the opposite effect and projects emerged even bigger and more onerous, leading to a building moratorium there until such loopholes can be closed and code fixed for the better. Hopeful moral to that story: We don't have to go south to learn from others.

A demo worker taking down a house on Southeast Hawthorne
Boulevard had this to say to antidemo activists last month, but
he should save it for the bosses who exposed him
to hazardous materials that could affect him for life.
Courtesy Julie Handsaker Gray
At the same meeting (more on it here), DRAC members again expressed concern about the Bureau of Development Services' running balance of $30 million, how that looked to outsiders and whether the funds were enough (!) and whether they would be poached by City Council. All good questions. Presumably, the bureau awaits the bill from the seemingly apocryphal computer system called ITAP, which may make the Water Bureau's software debacle look like kid stuff. (Maybe like a good wrestler down for the count, BDS should have ITAP-ped out by now.)

In the meantime that $30 mil just sits there. I asked whether some of the money could be used for enforcement, and Director Paul Scarlett answered, "Yes and no." Given the lack of oversight over demos and building, the latter answer seems most accurate.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Pirates' bounty never ends

In this fair city we used to get construction that allowed for this:

but now we get this:

There's a garage in that black hole somewhere,
but no one can park there.

If the owners of these bloated replacement homes weren't so busy making their mortgage, they might have cash left over for plants. Look how little the neighborhood gets in return with most of the new construction: fences or walls provide no open space or interest at the ground level for pedestrians and neighbors, mature urban trees are sent to the chipper, garages are dug under at such a grade that they can never be used for parking, and multiple stairs added out front send the message that no one entering should ever have a knee problem. Unlike the homes that were bulldozed to make way for these lot-sprawlers, no aging in place is possible here.

We hope the Residential Infill Project can make headway helping plot the shape of construction to come so it benefits everyone.

Activists from South Burlingame turn up at the Residential Infill Project
meeting last week, where city staffer Morgan Tracy described how
height is measured for new construction.
In the good news file, there are people coming forward from all parts of the city to express their dismay and displeasure. Plenty will be heard 2 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 14, at City Hall, 1221 S.W. Fourth Ave., when Mayor Hales presents his version of a demolition tax that likely will increase demolitions. More here, along with a suggestion for a revised tax that would actually curb demolitions.

In this increasingly lawless built landscape, where Council staff has said there is no money to ensure enforcement of permitting rules, it's no wonder that developers are bypassing permits altogether. The "complaint-driven" systems for compliance also appear to be pointless, given that one developer—Metro Homes—doesn't bother paying its noise citations for construction work after hours. (Those citations are work; I tried to file one recently, and it took six phone calls, two emails, and a form to fill out and scan back—who has the time, especially when nothing happens, and behavior doesn't change?)

Recently a Portland Business Journal writer was interviewed by Oregon Public Broadcasting about shell companies and their role in the current development scene. One of the companies plying Portland—Columbia Redevelopment—runs all its management through an outfit in Cheyenne, Wyoming, that's caught the attention of a national wire service. Wonder what Columbia Redevelopment has to hide that it can't do out in the open and locally if it's so proud of being one of the few supposedly Portland-based builders?

Friday, September 18, 2015

We plant them. They cut them down.

With a tentative agreement reached with the developer to buy the site where three giant sequoias stand in Eastmoreland, it's time to look at some lessons learned. (Even so, vigilance is required because the Remmerses have been known to say one thing and do the opposite, as yesterday's skirmish showed: In the midst of negotiations the trucks showed up with chain saws, and protesters rallied to turn them away.)

This is what failed land-use policy looks like: 22 police officers called in to protect
one developer's "interest" in chopping down 150-year-old trees. Portland neighbors likely will
get the bill; they already endure all the costs of this destructive style of
development citywide.
On the way home to my neighborhood, I saw Renaissance Homes/Columbia Redevelopment harvesting signature trees at Northeast Edgehill Place and Fremont Street with nary a protester in sight:

Chain saws take it away in the Alameda neighborhood.
Meanwhile, the city of Portland sends out the following flier with its water bills, encouraging people to plant trees. Every schoolkid knows trees pump out oxygen for us to breathe and provide habitat, but there are other compelling reasons to keep them standing. Where are our water and environmental services bureaus while wholesale deforestation takes place?

As one who has participated in many Friends of Trees plantings, I wonder why neighbors would or should spend so many Saturdays putting do-good trees in the ground when they're razed just as quickly for new development that brings no benefit to the neighborhood.

Eastmoreland, as organized as neighbors are there, worked tirelessly to beat back the would-be developer of the site at 3646 SE Martins St. They had help this week from neighbors citywide. As many have pointed out, less affluent, less engaged, and less proactive neighborhoods would have a hard time doing the same.

We do, but the city won't protect them.
Check out your neighborhood association, which the city likes to say is our most effective conduit for protecting neighborhood interests. When Bob McCullough of the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association was asked why he was at the SE Martins site risking arrest earlier this week. He simply said, "This is my neighborhood. This is what I have to do." Many neighborhoods don't have such accountable and strong leadership. Does yours? If not, what can you do to help? If every neighborhood had a land-use rapid response team, we'd be ahead in this game.

Eastmoreland's fight may be over, but there will be more citywide.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

When trees fall in an urban forest, do our leaders hear the sound?

Even the passerby interviewed by television journalists for the tree story on KOIN tonight notices the unequal requirements of tree protection for some developers over others. For years the city worked on a highly anticipated tree plan that was meant to solve Portland's deforestation trend; now it turns out developers only have to pay $1,200 per tree to fire up the chain saw.


This story came out the day I finally made the pilgrimage to see the huge trees awaiting the Remmers chopping block at 3646 SE Martins St., one block south of Woodstock Boulevard. We reached them close to sunset, when the neighborhood kids took to a bit of after-dinner ball next to the chainlink fence. The fence makes it hard to get close to, never mind touch, the three giant sequoias that took root there some 150 years ago. Since the Civil War era, they grew to more than 20 feet around and top out at around 150 feet.

Take a drone tour of the overstory here. Better yet, visit these impressive oxygen generators in person before they're gone. You hardly ever see huge trees like these in a city. If Remmers has his way, our kids never will.

If you decide to bear witness to, and document, their fall, sign up here.

While you're contemplating a trip to the trees, dash off a letter to your elected leaders about what a giant mistake it is losing these sequoias, along with the rest of the mature urban canopy that's been harvested to make room for mass-produced plan-book construction.

 (As an aside to buyers of this type of new housing, please plant trees! Consider heading up a tree-planting effort for your neighborhood to contribute foliage and privacy to the environs; most developers raze every green thing on a site to make way for new construction. It's hard to replace long-lived great shade trees that generations enjoyed, but here's a group that helps get people started.)

Why do we need trees? Because they exemplify beautiful living history, and we need to breathe.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Portlanders give a RIP!

Apparently there are at least 85 applications received for the approximately 25 spots on the city's nascent task force looking at new-construction guidelines as well as lot splitting, confirmations, and other factors that have incentivized many demolitions.

Plenty of Portlanders want to take part in building a better city.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Filmmaker tackles the hard questions

Longtime North and Northeast Portland journalist Cornelius Swart is wrapping up a film chronicling Portland's evolution—and needs our help. (He's not new to the topic: This second film picks up where the first left off.) Readers of this blog and supporters of responsible growth in Portland should consider taking part in the Kickstarter campaign to get this worthy project in the can and on the screen before more neighborhoods are plowed under.

Priced Out: 15 Years of Gentrification in Portland, Oregon 
looks at what happens when homes come down.
Photo courtesy Cornelius Swart.
This movement to curb demolitions, protect affordable housing, and prevent displacement has asked little of activists financially apart from the option to buy a sign or a T-shirt. Kicking in some bucks (pledge levels start at $5) costs less than $9 cocktails and it'll make you feel at least as good—if not better—and the results last a lot longer. Again, here's the link to be inspired, and to inspire others.

Meanwhile, in a sleek office building downtown

The Developers Review Advisory Committee, or DRAC, continues to meet monthly. Last week the entire meeting was dedicated to examination of DRAC's "role/purpose/work." I was pretty excited about this one! The august body, and its spin-offs, often come up with code and policy that do not seem to "implement[] the City's goals for ... neighborhood livability and the environment," as stated in its mission.

DRAC is overwhelmingly made up of developers, and underwhelmingly of the people who must bear the impact of that development. DRAC also has had trouble adhering to Oregon's Public Meetings Law, making it hard for Portlanders to learn what DRAC is doing, much less participate.

In the center of it all, DRAC vice chair Rob Humphrey of Faster Permits (in black), Bureau of Development Services
director Paul Scarlett (middle), and DRAC chair Maryhelen Kincaid (in blue) wrap an inconclusive
meeting on a mission.
Despite some DRAC members' support for sticking to the mission as codified, clearly other aspirations may trump any desire to stay the course. "We're the Supreme Court," Chairwoman Maryhelen Kincaid said in the July 16 meeting, and later, as justification for why DRAC should go bigger in scope and ambition: "We're the one well-rounded body." If this body's so "well-rounded" why the City Hall showdowns where the public protests how developers get to decide new rules for demolition delays, whether to protect neighbors from hazmat during demolitions, and so on, with little, if any, public input?

Claire Carder (right) is meant to represent "neighborhood coalition
land use committees" on DRAC but here she expresses concern
for developers having to pay additional fees in permitting. The fees
could help slow the trash-and-build bonanza or at least help stockpile
 funds for needed affordable housing. Maybe they just haven't figured
out how to shovel such city-sponsored projects to Humphrey's clients—yet.
After much discussion, DRAC decided to extend the monthly meetings by a half-hour.

It can be done

Returning to a more positive note, here's a pic of newer construction in Beaumont-Wilshire. I do not remember what was there before, if anything, but oh how I love this house. Let's count the ways:

• scaled to fit its surroundings, including adjacent homes
• provides plenty of off-street and useable parking
• designed with care and creativity
• built with quality materials
• makes smart use of space
• presents a friendly and interesting mien at street level
• allows neighboring properties access to privacy and light

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

You're invited, but not really

Keeping Portland weird all right. Photo by Heath Lynn Silberfeld.
Now that Oregon Senate Bill 705—which requires an accredited inspector to perform an asbestos survey before demolition—has passed both the Senate (April 30) and the House (June 9), Portland's Hazardous Materials Task Force has something substantial to talk about when it meets tomorrow.

The powers that be at the Bureau of Development Services (BDS) and its task force seem to be in the painful position of including the public when they discuss and decide on public policy. Witness this announcement of the meeting tomorrow, and its caution:

 "we have most of the seats spoken for by BDS and other agency staff, so I would request that you limit the number of people you send."

The meeting runs 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Thursday, June 11, at 1900 S.W. Fourth Ave., Room 6E. Feel free to stand up for your right not to ingest hazardous materials such as lead and asbestos emanating from the Great House Harvest of 2013, 2014, and now 2015, as Portland continues its run of record-breaking numbers of home demolitions.

The good news is that Senator Dembrow, who helped spearhead SB 705, has more in mind. Here's his update (with emphasis added) as SB 705 wended its way through the legislature, and before it passed the House:

"The bill passed the Senate on a 22-8 vote, and I expect similar strong support in the House next week. Once the session ends, we’ll start working on similar legislation regarding testing homes slated for demolition for lead paint." 

Dembrow and the other state leaders who helped make asbestos protection happen—Rep. Keny-Guyer, Sen. Shields, and Reps. Frederick, Nosse, and Smith Warner—are looking out for us even if city leaders won't or can't. Please thank these conscientious players in Salem and applaud their continuing work to protect neighbors and neighborhoods. Read here and the next post for more on hazmat fallout from demolitions and its dangers.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

No protection: Toxic fallout shows where neighbors sit

I reported on another blog about the proposal by the city auditor and ombudsman to address barriers to Portlanders' ability to exercise their appeal rights, mainly by reducing fees to a nominal amount. In the rallying effort for the proposal there were frequent mentions to the highest fee of all, one that was over $1,300, an amount that not many of us can readily come up with (especially if nonrefundable).

That fee ($1,318 to be exact) is the newly instituted one that neighbors must pay to ask for an additional demolition delay if the subject house could be saved in some way. Since its institution in 1989, this delay has actually helped save some homes, and even after developers recently managed to halve the delay period, from 120 days to 60, it still can be a useful tool for neighborhoods hammered by the mounting costs of trash-and-build development.

City Council loved the proposal, citing the desire to offer all Portlanders, regardless of income, the right to an administrative appeal process. Watch the April 22 proceedings here, starting at 69:15.

At Minute 157 things get interesting with Commissioner Fritz, once a champion for neighborhoods, raising a red flag about whether the reduction in appeal fees would allow more neighbors to attempt to save homes in their neighborhoods, by requesting the additional demo delay for a nominal fee. There is blustering, there are crickets (161), there is wink-wink "Is there a public purpose in dissuading [citizens] from appealing a demolition permit?" (161:30). With "public" seemingly in the eyes of our leaders becoming more synonymous with "developer-driven," the answer would be yes based on what happened at the final vote.

On May 20, City Council unanimously approved the proposal, reducing all appeal fees citywide to a nominal amount—except for one. Guess which one? When asked, Ombudsman Margie Sollinger said the exception of the demo-delay fee (the highest charged by the city for any appeals process, then and now) was demanded by Commissioner Fritz. Never mind that the city seems intent on bungling all details of the new demo-delay rules discussed for close to a year now and instituted last month—neighbors get no relief. Even when well-meaning city staff such as the auditor and ombudsman try to bring justice within reach of all Portlanders, powerful interests will insert a significant exception that strives to keep business as usual, unfettered by those seeking to protect their neighborhoods.

Pictures of a demolition a few days ago in Northeast Portland show no one's in control, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which claims to enforce rules on protection for workers releasing uncontrolled hazmat in to the air and surrounding yards (click on last two pictures to verify lack of protection). Federal studies show demolition dust can travel up to 400 feet, or about the width of eight standard-size residential lots in Portland. Here Metro Homes Northwest clears the way for another particlebarn, endangering everyone and accountable to none.

Deconstruction would do a lot to solve many problems associated with mechanical demolition, if demolition must occur. This important issue heads to City Council this week, and deserves your study and support.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

City may pass the hat ... for developers

Actually, it's better than that. It's possible the city will propose that you and I—as city-funding taxpayers—pay the developers to deconstruct the homes they intend to demolish. Apparently it is not enough that neighborhoods lose their stock of affordable housing full of quality materials and character, mature tree canopy, and access to solar, among other irreplaceable items; now we're supposed to pay the people exploiting our neighborhoods to allow the reuse of old-growth materials?

It's almost as if I hadn't heard it right, but yes that was the report from United Neighborhoods for Reform's rep to the deconstruction advisory group (DAG), Barbara Kerr. Long a champion of reuse, she agreed to attend meetings of the group that was formed to present a deconstruction program to Portland City Council early next month. There are some strong pro-environment leaders on that committee, but neighbors' voice in favor of a deconstruction mandate is being overwhelmed by the numbers and power of developers showing up at the table. (If you are free tomorrow (Wednesday, May 20) from 2:30 to 4:30, please grab a seat at the table in conference room A on the 17th floor of the building at 1900 S.W. Fourth Ave. and ask for mandated deconstruction—paid for by the property owner—if demolition must occur. Developers representing out-of-town business interests are increasingly taking seats at that table and shaping local policy against Portlanders' interests.)

By way of explaining how the idea came about to pay developers to deconstruct, Kerr reported after the last DAG meeting that the developers "stated that if society wants them to do something, society needs to pay them and that if deconstruction is made mandatory, there will be pushback."
Cousin, can you spare a dime? Vic and Wally Remmers can't afford to do the right thing
deconstructing houses instead of throwing them in our landfill, so they want
Portlanders to pay them to do it. Maybe relative Dennis Sackhoff, who's finishing up
his latest so-so Soviet project in Hollywood, can help out the family.
Why is it every time antidemolition activists successfully ask for change, the developer-determined proposal that comes back makes things worse for neighborhoods, and City Council nods along and calls it a compromise?

Every single neighborhood association voting in favor of United Neighborhoods for Reform's resolution supports a deconstruction mandate—as the city likes to remind us, Portland loves to recycle! One neighborhood backed the resolution for the deconstruction element alone. UNR knows that some homes will be demolished; the only way they should leave the landscape, for all sorts of public and environmental health and safety reasons, is by deconstruction. So what if it costs more and takes a few days longer? Call it the price of admission for access to Portland's real estate gold mine.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Gag order silences public's voice in public policy

After pressure from the city's ombudsman office, DRAC's
demolition subcommittee now allows the public to attend
meetings where it decides public policy (even though it is
 not part of its stated mission). The hitch:
You can come, but you can't say anything.
Mostly it's a drag attending DRAC meetings (and I know of at least one member who would agree) but every once in a while an amusing nugget surfaces. For instance, from the minutes for the Feb. 19 meeting of the Development Review Advisory Committee (or DRAC), 
  • "Kurt Krueger said that there is an assumption in the community that projects in general are built without enough (or any) review, and this is inaccurate."
At least two state Land Use Board of Appeals cases were brought (and paid for) by neighbors that did find city code was not followed and developers' noncompliance with code (the short film that chronicles those efforts is here). These LUBA rulings have shown that planners do miss items in permitting that have to be removed from the project. 

If it is up to neighbors to perform quality control on permitted projects, then how much faith would we have in the process that gave them a nod in the first place. What about all the projects that weren't appealed? What about the neighbors who did not have the fundraising acumen or organizational ability to bring an appeal? 

Meanwhile, the DRAC subcommittee tasked with the serious matter of hazmat control during demolitions is working hard to come up with another voluntary program. Sound familiar? It devised similar voluntary measures after months of dickering on demo notifications, only to have two huge City Council sessions and months more of negotiating to put teeth to the program and finally get lukewarm measures into code. What a waste of everyone's time this DRAC stuff is—no wonder it has attendance problems by its members.

In introducing that voluntary hazmat-control program, the latest DRAC minutes from the March 19 meeting are careful to point out:

"There is buy-in from the Home Builders Association, and it will protect neighbors from hazardous materials."

Note how much more important it was to get approval from the developers rather than the local people actually being exposed to the lead and asbestos. Note, too, the patronizing assurance of "protect[ion]" for this strictly voluntary program. It's how the profiteers love it: No certification, no accountability, no guarantee of safe disposal of hazardous materials known to cause irreparable damage. No protective measures to apply on the way to yet more fat profits, taken at the expense of neighborhoods and public safety.

As for Commissioner Fritz, who's in charge of the Bureau of Development Services, she has said that neighbors should simply close their windows when demos occur. And we would add that for those residents who leave their home quarantines if they are within 400 feet of a demo site (the distance that the feds have shown the hazmat travels)—Don't inhale.

A rare example of a well-designed, -built, and -scaled building
goes up at Northeast 24th and Fremont. Why is this more of an
exception than the norm in Portland's development scene?
Finally, DRAC seems so bothered by outsiders' attendance at its public meetings that last month it released this protocol. In it, one housekeeping item says that minutes will be posted within seven days of the meetings. But it took weeks, maybe months, for minutes to appear from all the demolition subcommittee meetings that have occurred until now. None appear for the meeting that occurred mid-March (update: they posted today, after I published this). The delays in publishing minutes of meetings where public policy is decided make it hard for the public to engage or respond if it cannot learn about what DRAC is doing.

Again, DRAC—and its overarching Bureau of Development Services—decide what rules you and I have to follow, and what rules they (and their customers) don't. If DRAC doesn't supply minutes as it's supposed to, I think we should bring volleyballs to the meetings.

We still await evidence that DRAC is the "good public process" that defenders claim it is.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Rose City registers some comings and goings

Today the producers behind Portlandia and Grimm announced they are moving operations out of Portland because the city's neighborhoods no longer feature a preponderance of well-built period homes that the shows are known for and that used to be one of the Rose City's trademarks.

In other news, Paul Scaralot has decided to take a sabbatical and install Wally Reamers as interim director of the Bureau of Development Services. "This just formalizes the great relationship we've had all along," said Reamers between licks of Salt & Raw's latest seasonal ice cream flavor, vanilla flecked with lead and asbestos particles.

"All we have to do is keep the permits coming, and count the money," his son said, who will be filling in full time for his father. "Basically, it's business as usual."

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Los Angeles leads the way

At a time when the hearings for the proposed new Comprehensive Plan verge on the farcical—neighbors talk of their desire to see new construction sit back from the street as original homes do, and preservation of open space that allows for mature trees to keep on growing, while city planners nod respectfully and take little of it to heart or the plan itself—it's become clear that the mostly out-of-town developers have the city's ear more than Portland residents do.

Los Angeles is instituting another round of rules on new home
construction after the first "McMansion laws" allowed
developers to go even bigger. Last week the City Council there
voted unanimously for a two-year moratorium on building 
and demo permits in five districts. Portland should look south
for inspiration.
Photo from www.beverlygrove.org.
Proof: The recent push to add "bonuses" in building height if developers do something right by the neighborhood (this approach backfired in Los Angeles, where the first round of so-called "McMansion laws" failed because those bonuses led to even bigger homes, the opposite of what the new rules had intended). It's almost as if developers working over Portland can't be counted to make good buildings anymore, ones that contribute to their environs instead of merely exploiting them. Let's raise expectations for those building here.

More proof: City planners stage meetings in already great neighborhoods with the stated purpose of engaging neighbors in "capacity building"—trying for some kind of Stockholm syndrome, I guess. These meetings aren't about "improving" a neighborhood; it's about squeezing as many people in as possible, providing more profit for trash-and-build developers, and fueling the record-breaking number of home demolitions to make way. On this block alone in Northeast Portland, I've seen what "capacity building" does—it turns a leafy narrow street into a parking lot for an out-of-code project that externalizes costs (i.e., parking) to the detriment of a neighborhood's earliest investors. Seniors and families on this street no longer are assured easy access to transportation, spots for caregivers to park, and other services.

An in-depth study of three cities (Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.) by the National Trust for Historic Preservation proves the many benefits of keeping original "first-growth" construction.

From the summary:
"Based upon statistical analysis of the built fabric of three major American cities, this research finds that established neighborhoods with a mix of older, smaller buildings perform better than districts with larger, newer structures when tested against a range of economic, social, and environmental outcome measures."
"Neighborhoods containing a mix of older, smaller buildings of diverse age support greater levels of positive economic and social activity than areas dominated by newer, larger buildings."
The study mentions particular benefits of neighborhoods with older, small buildings:

nightlife is most alive
increased number of entrepreneurs
a creative economy
businesses with two times women and minority ownership
more non-chain establishments
more jobs in small businesses

Before Portland turns into Anytown, USA, let's hope city planners look at the wide range of research available, even their own studies; the one excerpted below points out that Portland has enough available vacant land to meet its projected housing needs twice over without demolishing a thing. So please no more blaming demos on the urban growth boundary.

Thanks to Amber Leonard/Stop Demolishing Portland Facebook group for the research.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Serious matters call for serious action

A single image shows all that's wrong with
current Portland planning/permitting. Photo by Fred Lifton.
The best news I heard this week is that David Mullens, one of the right-hand men in the Sackhoff-Remmers juggernaut that rules Portland's trash-and-build-to-the-max construction scene, said the new guidelines proposed for the city's Mixed Use districts are so onerous he and other developers just may pull out of Portland.

Please do!

If a business model is predicated on the destruction of well-established neighborhoods full of open space, mature trees, and unique well-built homes, then perhaps Portland no longer is the fertile ground for profits that it once was.

Even the commissioner in charge of the Bureau of Development Services, Amanda Fritz, seems to be having misgivings about the homogenization and humongous-ization overtaking the city's built landscape. Not coincidentally, she's launching a reelection campaign, ironically trying to woo back the neighbor base that got her into office in the first place. With this latest move, she's fooled some people with her late plea on behalf of Portland neighborhoods, but not those long appalled at her years-long BDS-can-do-no-wrong stance and defense of nonconforming and noncontributing projects.

Suddenly Commissioner Amanda Fritz (middle) says she cares
about neighborhoods, per a recent Oregonian story. But at
City Hall on Feb. 12 she was adamantly opposed to
effective hazmat control during demolitions (start watching
at 75:28 here to hear/see for yourself).
She's not the only one having a credibility crisis. The entire City Council also veers toward one when it goes along with an idea to give the serious measures of hazmat control during demolitions and mandating deconstruction (if demolition must occur) to the folks who help perpetrate it: the Development Review Advisory Committee, or DRAC. DRAC hasn't bothered to follow Oregon's Public Meetings Law, fill vacancies on its board that would add more diverse voices, or keep its paperwork up to date, as it is supposedly required to do. With such lack of transparency, accountability, and equity, it is not the right body to decide far-reaching policy—and, to be fair, it's not part of its stated mission to do so.

By the way, when sifting through the DRAC minutes that are available, I was amused by the following explanation for how BDS deals with complaints, as explained by bureau director Paul Scarlett:
"Mr. Scarlett said that because BDS wasn't able to respond to a lot of complaints during and after the recession, people stopped calling to complain."
Next time a BDS staffer talks about a "complaint-driven system" for construction-practices accountability, you'll know why they smile.

When the Exxon Valdez spilled its cargo, no one asked Exxon how best to clean it up. Giving DRAC, many of whose members represent the very folks poisoning our neighborhoods' air and properties, the ability to regulate lead and asbestos fallout from demolitions smacks of folly and lack of commitment to fixing the problem. Anyone who gardens, eats what they grow, or has children should care very much about the demolitions occurring within 400 feet (the width of about eight standard-size yards) of where they live—that's how far the asbestos and lead particles have been shown to travel.

If City Council was serious about public safety and environmental responsibility, then hazmat control and deconstruction deserve better scrutiny by a wider variety of stakeholders, and positive impartial action. Now.

Friday, January 30, 2015

How do you "redo" a meeting? We're about to find out

Is the bloom off the Rose City? Not if the
mayor's words turn into action.
The Bureau of Development Services, its Development Review Advisory Committee (DRAC), and so-called "business partners" (i.e., developers) have operated above the law for so long that I about fell out of my chair receiving this message yesterday from city ombudsman Margie Sollinger:

"The Bureau of Development Services has indicated they are going to re-do the January 8, 2015 demolition subcommittee meeting."

Further, Sollinger wrote: "Going forward, it's my expectation that all subcommittee meetings will comply with the Public Meetings Law, including proper notice and providing minutes 'within a reasonable time after the meeting.'"

The redo is scheduled for 8 to 10 a.m. Feb. 3 at 1900 S.W. Fourth Ave., Room 4(A). This time the public can come to observe, and possibly participate in, matters of the public's business.

As recently as Jan. 15, DRAC was proclaimed as "good public process." Is it? Now that the bureau and DRAC plan to follow Oregon's Public Meetings Law, that could begin to be true. But DRAC still has vacancies; among others, the spot for "low-income housing developers" remains empty, tellingly so during much of this demolition mess.

In the State of the City speech today at the City Club of Portland, Mayor Hales came out with support (starts at 22:19) for "new rules on neighborhood infill" and for making "demolition a less attractive option." He reasoned, "We should take care of what we have and invest in the plans and hopes of Portland neighborhoods that they've established for themselves." Hopefully the rest of city leadership and staff was listening—and is willing to help make these neighborhood-centric goals a reality.

Rumor has it developers already are threatening legal action, presumably to the delight of their high-dollar lawyers. It seems like the time and effort could be better spent sending thank-you notes (or apologies) to the neighborhoods where they trashed local heritage and affordable housing for fat profits that usually went straight out of town. The gravy train may be coming to an end; trash-and-build developers ought to be grateful it came, and neighbors will be grateful when it's gone. For a city that prides itself on sustainable, thoughtful planning, we can—and the mayor says we should—do better.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Believe this—"I want to buy your house"—and no more

As the thousands of readers of this blog know, a typical Portland home demolition exerts too heavy a price, whether it's loss of affordable housing, lack of hazmat control, or destruction of mature urban tree canopy and neighborhood character—just to name a few—all for one company's outsize profit. But perhaps the worst thing about this irresponsible era, as we close another record-breaking year of demolitions, is the saddest: The developers lie.

Examples abound, but here are a few that stand out:

Elderly homeowners are told by one developer that their house will be renovated, not demolished, as happened recently on 31st Avenue. Understandably, they are now too embarrassed and heartsick to go public about it; all they can do is pack and say goodbye to their shelter of 50 years, where they raised a family as previous homeowners had, before a trackhoe deletes it from collective memory.

A purchaser of a North Portland home pledges to neighbors that he'll move the house, assuaging them until the time limit for a demolition delay request has passed. And lo, here comes the Dumpster.

Instead of a promised crosswalk, the neighborhood gets a curb cut
and an unpermitted A-board sign partially blocking it.
Or Wally Remmers, who threw up an out-of-code building in the heart of Beaumont Village (tenants call it "The Wart"), claims a crosswalk is part of the project in an early meeting with neighbors when it was hoped a compromise could be achieved. A crosswalk would have done a lot to help pedestrians—his tenants, too—and vehicle traffic coexist on Fremont Street, an increasingly dangerous thoroughfare for numerous neighborhoods. All his lackey architect can do at the meeting is look momentarily surprised, then nod along. (Stay tuned for a report on a recent court case determining an architecture firm's responsibility in code-dodging construction.)

Or how about the developer who claims he's a "fixture" at neighborhood meetings, working "tirelessly with the community before the first nail is pounded"? Right. This is the same developer whose company conned another senior out of her home and then submitted for permits under her name so as not be discovered before the demo could occur.

Not long ago, developers were part of our neighborhoods, or at least cared enough to come to the neighborhood meetings to show renderings, discuss their plans, and gather feedback. They knew neighborhood support helped their business. Developers were rightly proud of improvements they were making, especially if in cooperation with neighbors. Now the speculators plying Portland usually call from out of town, showing up at meetings only when required and cruising the neighborhoods in unmarked trucks. Every time I see a For Sale sign, I see a house that's going down. 

Maybe the lies aren't the worst thing about these demo days. What's even worse is we believe them.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

There's such a fine line between parody and promotion

company now moving on North Portland specializes in what it calls the "knockdown rebuild." From the company's website: With knockdown rebuilds, "don't forget the added benefit of keeping your family in the same location with your local supermarket, schooling and childcare, gyms, family and friends"! Gosh, all those pluses add up especially when disregarding the rest of the equation: environmental irresponsibility, or loss of neighborhood character and history, and solar access, and additional toll engendered by this style of development.

The outfit's principal business address is a UPS Store in Nevada, and the local manager is Brent Keys. Keys's contractor's license has been suspended in the past; he's also been sued for construction defects by owners of 95 condominiums he built in Benton County—in short, just the kind of guy to join the rest of the pirates working over Portland's treasured neighborhoods.

Developers call it a "knockdown rebuild"; the city calls it a "remodel."
Either way, sending well-crafted affordable homes of old-growth materials
to the landfill is a shame in a city that touts an ever "greener" reputation.
According to the Portland Business Journal's most recent listing of the busiest 25 builders working in Portland, just 2 of them are from Portland. So that means the city where the profit is reaped likely doesn't get an economic benefit from its own significantly contributing resource—modest affordably priced homes in well-scaled neighborhoods with open space and mature urban tree canopy. Neighborhoods lose all these things and more when this type of builder comes around.

With few regulations for demolition, deconstruction, or hazmat control—much less guidelines for new development—Portland continues to be ripe for the taking, pushing lower-income families out of thriving, established communities along with neighborhood character and history. For neighbors the give keeps getting bigger, and the getting more painful.

For the boots-on-the-ground perspective, watch the movie by United Neighborhoods for Reform supporter Fred Lifton that contrasts neighbors' losses and developers' gains. The before and after pictures mostly show sites in Northeast Portland, but many neighborhoods citywide have experienced the trash-and-build style of development. If developers weren't so busy doing "knockdown rebuilds" of viable existing housing, imagine the good, desired projects that could occur in more neglected parts of the city.