by Gabe Frayne
This past year Nathan Keene and his wife Astrid were considering making an offer to buy the three-bedroom house they rent on NE 58th Ave. Originally from Idaho, Keene spent several years in New York City before returning to the northwest in January of 2012. Then he found out about the infill project that was soon to come to the lot directly behind his house.
“Knowing that there are these multiple unit things being built right behind us that are going to be built all the way out to the sidewalk and to the edge of the lot and removing trees and removing green space makes us less interested,” he explains wistfully.
From a host of stenciled lawn signs and the pages of Craigslist, the pitch “We buy lots! Houses in any condition” has alerted residents of North Tabor and surrounding areas that change is on the way–and it may not be pretty. The recent purchase by Portland City Homes, a local real estate development company, of a modest cottage on a double-sized lot on NE 57th Ave. is the latest episode in a growing trend towards infill development that is gradually transforming the neighborhood into a a denser, more crowded and, some would say, less attractive swath of real estate. With local housing prices on the mend, the gold rush is on.
The builder, Mark Wilde of Portland, has filed an application with the Bureau of Development Services to demolish the cottage, take down a mature magnolia tree at the rear of the property, and build three individual residential units, with an option to put accessory dwelling units in two of those. If the application complies with all relevant zoning criteria and wins approval, construction could start as early as April. Wilde estimates that the new residences will be priced at over 300 thousand dollars each–slightly more than what he paid for the cottage alone.
On March 19 the North Tabor Neighborhood Association passed a resolution formally objecting to the Portland City Homes proposal for the lot. The resolution takes issue with the diminished privacy that would result from taking down the magnolia, as well as the 30-ft height of the proposed residences, the possibility of increased traffic and demand for parking in the immediate vicinity, and what it calls the “downgrad[ing] of the character and aesthetic appeal of North Tabor.” It further “calls on the City of Portland to require ‘community benefit agreements’ for any future infill developments in North Tabor so as to ensure that local residents benefit from the development and the builder has neighborhood support for the project.”
Wilde seems nonplussed by these objections. Sitting at his desk in a quiet office just off Hawthorne Boulevard early one morning, he spoke calmly about the proposed development on NE 57th. “It’s no more different privacy-wise than any of the existing homes. There are some other tall houses, especially the ones that are up on the hill, and I would say those have more of a view into neighboring properties than ours do.” It wasn’t exactly clear which houses “up on the hill” he was referring to, but his description would seem to fit two new infill structures that were built on NE Couch within the past three years. In other words, his project would be well within a new standard of privacy created by the recent trend towards vertical infill.
Wilde also takes exception to the resolution’s claim that his plans would downgrade the neighborhood’s character. “I think I understand that,” he says. “Again, the house design, I provided it, although it’s probably narrower than an older house, we do try to utilize a lot of the character: the front porch, hipped roof with the gable, so unfortunately I have to disagree with them.”
The controversy surrounding the proposed development on NE 57th is merely one of many such controversies that have touched neighborhoods across the city in recent years. When the Portland City Council passed the Comprehensive Plan in 1980, the concept of infill–that is, the subdividing and building up of center city lots in order to prevent sprawl on farmland beyond the urban growth boundary–seemed visionary. But in the past year or two since the housing market bottomed out, the reality of infill has prompted many Portlanders to take a second look. A headline in the Oregonian last August quoted an Eastmoreland resident claiming that the southeast Portland neighborhood was “under assault” by infill. The article went on to note that former Commissioner Dan Saltzman had received an avalanche of mail over the summer complaining about developers “demolishing old homes and replacing them with newer, often ‘skinny’ homes, on smaller lots.” One resident wrote, “Please put an immediate stop to this nonsense. We want true 5,000 SF and no more trashy in-fill ‘slam and run’
Bob Kellert, the Southeast Uplift contact for North Tabor, also sees infill as a citywide dilemma. “There are a few issues, especially the ‘skinny house’ issues,” he said at a recent North Tabor Land Use Committee meeting. “The other issue is in some areas we’re seeing knockdowns and enormous houses going in.” He noted that the latter does little to address the issue of affordability.
Fortunately for North Tabor residents, infill is front and center in an ongoing review of the Comprehensive Plan, which will be completed in the fall of 2014. A Bureau of Planning survey that is part of the review (available on-line at www.portlandonline/com/bps/pdxcompplan) includes a number of questions on building affordable housing and “mitigating neighborhood displacement and change.” Unfortunately for North Tabor residents, the current Comprehensive Plan supports infill in “transportation corridors,” of which North Tabor is a prime example, and current city zoning allows for building in most of the neighborhood on lots as small as 2000 square feet, which means that almost any single-residence lot could be subdivided.
Obviously, feedback from North Tabor and other city residents affected by infill will be one factor the Planning Department needs to consider in its new Comprehensive plan.
At the same time, as Wilde points out, “There is this huge demand in Portland. A lot of people want to live in North Tabor, on Mt. Tabor. There’s still a major shortage of housing.” The crux of the issue is whether new development will conform to the small-town ambiance created by North Tabor’s cottages and bungalows, or whether it will look more like suburban subdivisions wedged into diminutive city lots.
“It makes the neighborhood less desirable for me to live in,” says Nathan Keene, reflecting on the new units about to be built behind his house. “I don’t think these properties are marketed to Portlanders, they’re marketed to people from suburbia who aren’t looking for the same things that [older Portland residents] are looking for.” Keene shakes his head and glances out over the neighborhood from his door stoop. “If I wanted to see row after row of ticky-tacky townhouses, I could have stayed in New York City and moved further out in Queens.”
by Gabe Frayne