Letter to the Editor: The Positive Side of Infill

By Joe Recker
After reading the article “Infill and increasing density in North Tabor” [North Tabor News, April/May 2013] I felt compelled to offer a different perspective on infill development. In this letter, I argue that infill has historically occurred in North Tabor at densities similar to current development, that infill is particularly appropriate for our neighborhood and can be adequately supported by our infrastructure, that infill provides many benefits to our state, region, and neighborhood and suggest some ways in which we, as a neighborhood, can positively influence the Portland Plan process to improve the compatibility of new infill.
Infill development in North Tabor is old news. Most of the neighborhood doesn’t have to look far to find a duplex, townhome, or apartment building – often on the same block – that was constructed in the latter half of the 20th Century. Some of these developments turned out well and some didn’t (in my humble opinion), but the neighborhood has moved on and come to accept them as part of the ever-changing landscape of an inner urban neighborhood.
Three new homes being developed on NE 57th Ave were highlighted as a cause for concern. I understand the concern about the scale of the new buildings and privacy, but believe the density is consistent with the existing neighborhood. The three new homes on NE 57th will be on lots about 2,000 sq. ft. in size. About 100 years ago, a similar development occurred one block away on NE Flanders St. Each of these two story homes was built in 1911 on lots less than 2,000 sq. ft. each. A triplex built in 1968 sits across the street on just 7,500 square feet of land. Less than a block down 57th, a four-plex built in 1957 sits on a 5,800 sq. ft. lot amid a string of duplexes. A block away on NE Davis near 58th sits a four-plex on a 10,000 sq. ft. lot. A block away in the opposite direction, three townhomes built in 1997 sit on less than 2,000 square foot lots as well. I could go on, but you see the point. Infill has been occurring at roughly the same, or greater, density over the past 100 years. This isn’t news and it shouldn’t be testing our tolerance for state planning efforts.
North Tabor’s amenities make it appropriate for infill and attractive to homebuyers and renters. Our neighborhood is geographically central to the Portland metro area, in close proximity to major employers and downtown, and has great transit access. Few places in the region outside of downtown have such great access to transit (three good bus lines and three MAX lines). We also have freeway access, two full-size grocery stores, and a scattering of restaurants, shops, and bars within walking distance. Ideally, our neighborhood would support a more complete main street on Glisan and/or Burnside, but we just don’t have the critical mass yet. Infill will help achieve that critical mass of pedestrians walking on these two streets.
Infill development brings direct and indirect benefits to North Tabor. Developers are typically required to provide sidewalk, street crossing improvements, pavement repair, and street trees adjacent to their development. This is most helpful on streets lacking these, but it’s nice to have new and improved facilities regardless. In addition, developers pay systems development charges on the order of $10,000 per unit that result in direct investments in parks, transportation and stormwater facilities – each bureau assesses their own charge. For example, parks charges over $5000 per new unit for new and improved parks. Indirectly, additional residents result in improved transit service from more people riding transit (evident from the city’s recent survey of new apartment buildings). Developers aren’t getting a free ride. In fact, they probably pay considerably more than the developers who built the homes we live in (even accounting for inflation).
The article stated that infill is making North Tabor more crowded. North Tabor is not, nor will it ever be crowded as a result of infill. There is a difference between density and crowding. Density is the number of units in a given geography and crowding is when too many people live in individual units. Crowding is the result of two little infill. For example, New York City created crowded slums when it demolished whole blocks of dense low-income housing. Two or three families crowded into individual apartments due to the diminished housing supply, creating an unhealthy and unsafe condition that resonates in poor communities there today. The only evidence to suggest crowding would be the occasional traffic on NE 60th and Glisan, which is unrelated to neighborhood density and is more a reflection of regional sprawl – people driving into or through our neighborhood to get to work. By accommodating infill development in North Tabor, more housing opportunities are created where people can drive less to get to work, take transit, bike, or even walk to get their groceries. Infill will help alleviate the traffic, not grow it.
There is strong support for the state planning system that accepts infill development in exchange for farmland and forest protection. About 5 years ago, voters in this state overwhelmingly re-affirmed support for the 40-year old state planning system with passage of Measure 57. Our state planning system is what makes this state, this region, and our neighborhood so attractive. We are close to nature, enjoy food security, and enjoy revitalized inner neighborhoods that would otherwise fester with disinvestment in favor of far-flung suburbs as most other metropolitan regions have experienced. Accommodating infill is a small price to pay for all these benefits. However, we can work to tweak the rules of infill development if we have concerns.
Portland Plan offers opportunity for constructive improvements to infill development regulations. In exchange for preventing unnecessary development of farm, forest, and rich habitats outside of the city, urban areas need to accommodate growth within their boundaries and make it easier to develop by providing straightforward rules and regulations for developers. If we don’t like some of these rules, it’s fine to advocate change, but not in a way that would create uncertainty for developers – this goes against state planning rules and would be a waste of our advocacy efforts. Instead, let’s focus on what really causes concerns. The biggest concerns I share are the scale of new development and maintaining privacy. I believe the City planning staff can address these concerns if they are clearly conveyed. The rules can be changed to expressly prohibit picture windows within the rear half of lots facing adjoining property lines and/or require the bottom sill of windows to be at least 5’ high in these locations. Similarly, three stories can sometimes feel out of scale with our mostly one and a half story bungalows. The rules can be changed to limit third floors to just 50% (or less) of the building footprint.
In summary, I hope we can recognize the many benefits of the state planning system and what infill development brings to our neighborhood. If you don’t welcome it, I hope we can at least learn to tolerate it and work constructively to make it work better for us all. This view that infill is somehow antithetic to our way of life is in direct contrast to how many in this neighborhood feel, including myself.

One comment on “Letter to the Editor: The Positive Side of Infill

  1. From Bob Carrico:
    Nice article – well written/organized/reasoned. I have no trouble with ‘skinny houses,’ as long as they conform architecturally to their surroundings. A building does not exist in and of itself but in relation to what surrounds it. I think the Dutch do this quite well. Ever been to Amsterdam?
    Even non-skinny houses should do this. There’s a brand new house on Burnside, east of the Fire Station, built on the original plot. The old house burned. The new house ‘fits’ my conception of Montavilla–unpretentious, working class, but, apparently, well-constructed. On the other hand, on another nearby street, there’s a new quadraplex, all politically correct, up to date, which clashes with the laid-back, kinda tacky ambiance of the whole damn street. This is a street of front porches, all expressing their owners within. I find it this new ‘creation’ preposterous. Keep up the good work, dude.
    – Bob Carrico

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