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.

Monday, June 27, 2016

We've got 1000 questions for 1000 Friends

In Québec, new construction (right) matched in size, setbacks, and volume to
older construction shows how easily the two can co-exist. Note how
established trees are allowed to remain as well. Portland can learn from this!
Portland may strive to be a world-class sustainable city, but its recent record-breaking years of demolitions speak otherwise.

Fox News is contacting local activists for a coming exposé focusing on the ironies of our "green" city—tossing old-growth homes full of character and craftsmanship in the landfill, mowing down mature trees, and unleashing plumes of hazardous materials across neighborhoods. Why?

What's even harder to believe are the recommendations coming out of the Residential Infill Project (actually, more the city staff's, but the group was capably led to the foregone conclusions—something astute observers picked up on right away). After wonking out in an office building downtown for months, the developer-heavy group (surprise!) went beyond the mission of the project and decided to propose opening up much of the city to even more demolition; start reading from Page 12 here. Modest homes don't stand a chance in the face of a radical rezoning that allows a free-for-all of use. They will be plowed under in a second by those who speak "affordable housing" but really only want to mine real estate gold.

If "affordable housing" was what these developers crave to create, then let's see some already. It is difficult to give a nod to more construction when what is being built brings such outsize impacts and so little benefit to the neighborhoods. Antidemolition activists can point to a litany of code violations large and small; add to them the fallout of hazardous materials from mechanical demolition, unpaid fines (some are just factored into the pro forma, or never paid at all), lax oversight, noncompliance with code, and lack of accountability and there's reason for skepticism.

Opportunities exist to build better

The Urban Growth Boundary is not to blame. Again, there's that city study showing we have enough vacant land to meet density goals twice over until 2035. Even television news stations are tuning in to the fallacy that we need to demolish to make room, showing that there's plenty of vacant, buildable land within the UGB. It's just that developers would rather trash the lower-hanging fruit of smaller well-built homes in established and well-functioning neighborhoods. How about creating new exciting neighborhoods to live in and visit?! Let's bring quality and creativity back to our built landscape.

Another Québécois trick for new
construction: Save a historic, handsome
facade, and build behind it (and another old-
growth tree). 
Show Portlanders a preponderance of solid, creative construction that actually addresses housing needs beyond offering market-rate, amenity-poor apartments, and it could be easier to look forward to more. I've long wondered why the developers don't pony up for some good public relations, they need it so. Now it looks like they've found that outfit in the form of 1000 Friends of Oregon.

It's hard to imagine that a group inspired by Tom McCall would embrace recommendations to further raze quality housing made of old-growth materials. What happened?!

McCall's not here to speak for himself, unfortunately, but a staunch preservationist as he was likely would be appalled that thousands of Portland homes were painted with bull's-eyes, just waiting to go to the landfill to make way for another MDF manse or plex. This was a guy who would have smirked at the projected influx of people moving to Portland and questioned the necessity of killing ourselves to put out the welcome mat.

Sunny-sounding group makes awkward start

Another group working PR for the developer-led recommendations out of the Residential Infill Project is the newly launched Portland for Everyone. Their first event is Wednesday and sold out. Apparently, Portland is for everyone but only the first 45 people. Why not show up anyway to show you care about your neighborhood?

Under the utopia envisioned by the recommendations (which by the way are making the open-house rounds and everyone should go to as many as possible; more background and details here) most everyone becomes an apartment renter, even when 80 percent of respondents in a Metro study said they wanted to live in a detached house.

One of the first things that Portland for Everyone did was swipe a local photographer's image to paste all over its website and other materials, without asking permission or god forbid paying to use it. For artists increasingly pinched by the cost of housing, that's gotta hurt. First, they lose their studios and places to live in a building bonanza; now they suffer theft of their artwork and livelihood.

Credibility and inclusion will play a large part in these coming conversations. Anyone undecided should weigh what the proponents and opponents have to gain or lose, and why they're involved in the first place.


  1. I think your are dead wrong about Portland for Everyone. They are not the enemy. They are supporting workable solutions to a range of threats to affordability and the assaults on Portland's unique character. They are working to bring back the best of Portland's older more affordable residential zoning, under which Portland's best older neighborhoods where built a century ago. While additional reforms will be necessary, the recommendations of Residential Infill Project Stakeholder Advisory Committee will allow the preservation of older homes and discourage the tabula rasa style landscraping and mega-home construction of the Vic Remmers variety. We need more inclusive zoning in Portland that expands the options for ordinary Portlanders to stay in Portland. We also have the opportunity in the RIP to remove the dumb regulations that make it harder to preserve mature trees...we also need to establish a tree preservation standard in the tree code.... but the the former is a first step. I grew up in Portland and love this City... Portland for Everyone is advocating the very policies that will keep Portland Portland and Portlanders in Portland.

  2. If Portland was for everyone, then why is it that everyone and property within a 400-foot radius of an investment vehicle (a bulldozed old-growth home turned into a manse or plex) must be exposed to hazardous materials such as lead and probably asbestos? Why is 1000 Friends of Oregon ignoring the environmental impacts of giving developers a carte blanche entree into an already overheated market? Just for the hazmat public-safety angle alone, further years of record-breaking demolitions are indefensible.

    This is just one cost of demolition, among so many others: trees, solar potential, open space, bird habitat, diversity, and so on. Come walk with me in my neighborhood; I will show you where every veteran, Asian immigrant, boardinghouse operator, and African American within a mile of my house lived. Now they are gone, their homes erased, and homes for affluent people have risen in their place. Almost all trees harvested, too.

    We can't build our way out of this mess, always thinking more = better. I applaud the creative aspects and good ideas in much of Portland for Everyone's thinking—so much so that they deserve their own task force (and technical delineation), such as was assembled for the Residential Infill Project. Shoehorning them in here unfairly widens and changes the original scope and intent of RIP. There may be some good in the present proposal, but right now it is outweighed by the open season on modest, accessible, and durable homes—the ones that make up the great built landscapes we admire.

    For many, a home is the biggest investment they will ever make. Allowing a free-for-all of use within these traditionally neighbor-friendly areas breaks the promise of that investment and the due diligence of the early investor/Portland landowner.

    If we were seeing improvements—or at least more benefits across the board—in current development, and if the city could manage permitting it and ensuring code compliance, all this dialogue likely would be different and anti-demo supporters fewer. Portland simply is not ready to be the world-class sustainable city it wants to be, but perhaps new stronger and effective leadership can help us get closer.

    I appreciate all you've done for the trees.