Historic preservation, affordability aligned against higher-density infill
By Allan Classen
Portland policymakers often consider historic preservation the enemy of affordable housing. Protecting historic homes and districts, to their way of thinking, blocks opportunities for higher-density construction to expand the supply of housing, a certain path to lowering costs in their application of free market theory.
One current City Council candidate believed it would be illegal to build a popular neighborhood like Northwest Portland today due to zoning prohibitions, presumably pertaining to the Alphabet Historic District.
A developer frustrated with neighborhood opposition to his proposed 148-unit apartment building on Northwest 18th Avenue, Mark O’Donnell, last year accused neighbors of being “self-seeking,” lacking in empathy and spreading homelessness.
But the latest developer knocking on the door of the Alphabet District can hardly wrap himself in the flag of affordability. That’s because his plan would demolish an 1895 house divided into 14 apartments renting for as little as $425 a month.
The design proposed by architect Brian Emerick for landlord Elliott Gansner would replace the two-story apartment house with a five-story structure having 19 units, a magical number in the zoning code. A city ordinance requiring a share of affordable units in new buildings does not apply to projects with fewer than 20 units.
“Why are we removing truly affordable units and replacing them with less affordable [ones]?” asked Roger Vrilakas, a member of the Northwest District Association Planning Committee since the 1980s.
“Committee members are very concerned that the demolition of the existing house will remove more than a dozen very affordable apartments from a neighborhood that is fast losing such housing,” committee Chair Greg Theisen wrote in a letter to the Bureau of Development Services. “Any ‘affordable’ units in the proposed building will not be as numerous or affordable as the existing units.”
A current tenant who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation told the NW Examiner that current rents range from $425 to about $600 a month. Only one room has its own bathroom, and cooking facilities are limited. Still, its residents have found homes they can afford on the edge of the central city. Four have lived there for more than 10 years.
Gansner is not the first owner of the property to see redevelopment potential. In 2011, Dennis Sackhoff of the Urban Development Group proposed a three-and-a-half story building but did not follow through.
Squeezing a much larger building into a 50-by-100-foot lot involves adjustments of minimum setback requirements on all four sides of the structure, exceeding the maximum height allowance within 10 feet of the front lot line and requiring a density transfer from another property. The base zone allows 11,396 square feet of total floor area and this design exceeds 17,000 square feet.
“The [Planning] Committee feels that the developer is welcome to transfer density up to the limit of the allowable building envelope, which would be about 2.8:1 [in floor area ratio],” Theisen wrote.
The ratio he cited is about midway between the base zone limit and the amount sought.
“But anything beyond that should not be allowed unless a specific hardship is cited or a public benefit is provided, neither of which are in this case. This would be especially true in a historic district where massing and compatibility are essential,” he concluded.
“This whole building is oversized,” said Dennis Harper, a member of the committee, citing the five code adjustments needed to make it legal. “This goes way beyond in so many ways. It’s just way overstuffed.”
The committee also questions the city’s failure to recognize the existing structure’s historic merit given its connections to prominent Portland citizens, links that were unknown to those compiling the city’s Historic Resource Inventory.
“Were it judged to be a contributing structure to the historic district, the City Council would have to approve the demolition,” Steve Dotterer, the city’s retired chief transportation planner who volunteers for the Architectural Heritage Center.
“When the inventory was done in the late 1980s, the house looked more run down, and its historic connection was not recognized. In a Historic Resource Inventory update, it would likely be classified as a contributing resource.
“It is ironic that the developer plans to demolish naturally occurring affordable housing to build a 19-unit apartment building that evades the 20-unit inclusionary housing requirement,” he said.
The irony does not end there. Architect Emerick is a former chair of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission and a board member of Restore Oregon, formerly known as the Historic Preservation League of Oregon.