in defense of change

City of Portland circa 1912 (Portland Archives)

This last year there has been a bit of troubling anti-development rhetoric slung around as if Portland’s best days were behind them, which as a 30-year-plus Portlander I can assure you that idea is absolutely absurd. Portland has been changing, but it has overwhelmingly been for the better. Is this newfangled ire a result of Portland’s success in becoming an attractive place to live? It could be, for people from all over the country are moving here, looking to live better, healthier, and more sustainable lives. As a result, the housing market has struggled to keep up, and with rental vacancy rates at historic lows, the new supply is still not meeting the demand. Yet, here we have a new vocal minority wanting to freeze the very nature of a city, a NIMBY attack on development that is dangerously counter-productive and is set to induce more gentrification, not reduce it.

As far as supply and demand is concerned, we can look at our neighbor San Francisco as a precedent of what happens when new development is stifled by new regulation: housing costs go up so high, that those who made the city a great place to live in the first place can no longer afford to live there. Portland is following suit by ‘protecting’ our single-family neighborhoods with low-density zoning, making things more expensive as demand goes up, not cheaper. The new apartments popping up along transit corridors are actually lowering rental costs, not raising them as their detractors keep falsely reporting. Without new housing stock, Portland’s inner neighborhoods will be a bastion for the rich, leaving mid and lower class citizens to be pushed out.

The urban growth boundary is making housing more expensive, yes, but that is on purpose. Conservatives and liberals came together long ago to protect Oregon from sprawl, saving farms and forestland from urban creep and the devastation wrought by it. Sprawl is far costlier than density to both the individual and society as a whole. Ultimately, our UGB is a means to curb federally-subsidized growth patterns, a pattern that has proved to be unsustainable and detrimental to human health.

Density allows us to have nice things. A single-family neighborhood, with one house per 5,000 sq. ft., cannot support a grocery store, restaurant, or entertainment venue on their own, which is why most existing businesses have to cater to a much larger, regional audience. Increased density has been proven time and again to create more employment, better job security, active living, and increased happiness. This does not mean that density shouldn’t have limits, but the current local population is too low to be self-supporting.

Replacing housing stock is necessary beyond increased density needs. Portland has approximately 146,000 single family homes, and demolition permits have climbed past the 2013 high of 279 to around 300 permits last year. That equates to 0.2% of the housing stock. A streetcar suburb-era wood framed home has a life expectancy of around 100 years (150+ with perfect maintenance and occasional renovation), and post-war prefab houses have an even lower life expectancy. The majority of Portland’s housing stock needs either replacement or major renovation, and at the current rate we will replace every non-historic home by the year 2565.

There are very few historic homes in Portland, and the most notable ones, the exquisite Craftsmen and Victorians built for Portland’s early notoriety, have already been replaced by newer buildings over the last 100 years. The few remaining historic homes have already been protected from redevelopment by tax statuses or other means, destined to be rebuilt if the rot sets in. Most of the streetcar suburbs, on the other hand, were built as spec housing by local developers, quickly produced in an early industrial fashion. These bungalows have proved their usefulness, being flexible in design and easy to retrofit, but in large they do not hold much historic value, especially as they have changed so greatly from their original form. A Portland bungalow is no different in plan than any other bungalow from any other American city, only the use of local materials and subtle climatic features differentiates them from their kin.

As for the materials, the old growth fir that comprises most of the older houses in the city has now aged beyond its usefulness as a structural member [to most contractors, but not individual homeowners or enthusiasts], being too brittle and hard for easy removal and reuse. There are contemporary [commercial] uses for reclaimed wood in furniture or used as architectural features, but proportionally very little is reused for stability [see Olympic Mills or Federal Center South for good examples of aesthetic and structural reuse]. New [durable] materials are also far, far more energy efficient than the older ones, and an existing home is not [immediately] more sustainable than a newer one contrary to common rhetoric [see explanation in comments]. Landfill demolition should always be avoided however, as older materials (excluding lead paint, asbestos, and most insulations) can be reused or creatively upcycled into other products. [Editors note: this paragraph was originally confusing, hopefully the edits make it more clear]

Contemporary housing needs are different than before. Houses are generally bigger and more open, a side effect of our consumer culture and modern lifestyles. Have you ever tried to fit contemporary furniture into a Victorian? It’s difficult to say the least, but that awkwardness has its own merit for some. Most new contemporary homes start with less character, as character in a house is built slowly over time as each new owner makes their own changes and additions to the shell and interior. There is also a net density benefit of replacing a smaller home with two houses or a single larger home that could someday be divided.

Portland has become a magnet for creativity, yet the city’s urban fabric barely shows it. There are a plethora of great designers, architects, and crafters in this city, and those resources should be allowed to make their mark, forever becoming the continuing story of Portland. Lately, new developments have come under scrutiny for not fitting in, namely SE Division, Williams-Vancouver, and the Northwest Alphabet district, which is in itself a subjective conversation. New development should look its age, to be looked back on from the future as an epoch, a sense of place and time. Faux-historic buildings muddle our collective consciousness, blur the lines of what is truly historic, and are not respectful. We should hold trust in our local designers, and recognize the importance of freedom of speech, freedom of design.

Businesses, like homeowners, come and go, and that is something that will never change despite what those at the Willamette Week lament over. Cities are dynamic, cultivators of change. Jane Jacobs understood the importance of maintaining both new and old buildings in order for cities to thrive. A city must be adaptive as technology and culture changes, and Portland has utilized its natural setting and resources to quickly respond to our industrial heritage and move toward a climatically-sensitive future. In order to be sustainable, Portland must be able to change, and change again when need be. As Heraclitus once noted “the only thing that is constant is change,” and 2,500 years later Portland native Chuck Palahniuk similarly advised “hey, even the Mona Lisa is falling apart.” As a city, we must embrace change, because it occurs everyday whether we want it or not…


16 responses to “in defense of change

  1. The author mistakes the preservation of our neighborhoods for anti-density. They are not the same thing. Having been an apartment dweller for many years, it is a benefit to live on the edge of a nice, walkable, SFR neighborhood with plenty of trees. There are many surface parking lots and available spaces along our major corridors and no need to start dismantling historic neighborhoods. As for the brittleness of old growth fir – the author has no idea what he’s talking about and should refrain from making statements about construction. The people in neighborhoods who are upset about changes are property owners who are justifiably upset about changes that affect their property. It’s easy to throw around terms like NIMBY, but the anger in this piece sounds like jealousy and the desire to take away what others have.

  2. If the owner of a property wants to tear a house down and build a bigger house, the owner should be able to do that. The neighbors shouldn’t be able to stop this. All the NIMBY’s telling people what they can and can’t do with their own property is annoying.

  3. Nice piece but I have a different take on buildings in historic districts. While we should discourage false-historicism, new construction should be a ‘good neighbor’. A good designer always take clues from her sites surrounding context. Too many architects disregard this fundamental.

  4. There is no one rule or precept that can guide us through the murk and swamp of preference. Most people like older buildings simply because they’re handsomer than the new stuff. Yes, change is a constant that will, over time, change Portland irrevocably. You can’t hold back the dawn but you can slow it down a bit. Portland is a magnet for growth for the paradoxical reason that it has excellent old bones. Take care that the scaffolding of transformation is something you don’t discard easily or too soon. If Portland looked like Phoenix, it probably wouldn’t be nearly so attractive to newcomers and the economy would be less dynamic. Fortunately, there are a vast number of parking lots screaming for something new. We don’t have to make a false battle over a word – NIMBY – if we play our cards right.

    • Indeed, I am not worried about things changing too fast because most of the development has been focused on city designated ‘parking lot’ corridors like Division, and 99.8% of existing houses will remain unchanged every year. My main point is that increasing our already tight zoning laws and regulations, which have created low housing production compared to demand, will cause further gentrification of the very neighborhoods people are trying to preserve. Quick responses, such as the regressive minimum parking standards reintroduced last year, are negatively effecting how the city grows.

      • I agree with the urban planners about those parking standards, but there’s little political utility in angering besieged burghers in their ‘hoods. I’m car-free myself but most people don’t bicycle, and as any cursory glance out your window will confirm, most people still drive. Which means they also park. Portland is improving but it’s still a car town. Transitioning to something denser is not something you can loudly trumpet. Liberals in Irvington and Laurelhurst may love the idea of a more urban playground in theory but not when it comes to their own convenience. For the newcomers, the choice already boils down to living someplace affordable, charmless, and remote or the spinach-eating lifestyle of urban apartments. Portland is a much better city than it was 30 years ago but progress as an idea is better explained in urban planning classes than neighborhood meetings. It’s slightly ironic how Portlanders love their city’s reputation for being progressive but detest the density program when it comes to their own lives.

  5. “New materials are also far, far more energy efficient than the older ones, and an existing home is not more sustainable than a newer one contrary to common rhetoric.”
    Hm. This is a curious statement. New houses going up in the inner SE right now are of a deplorable quality if you take a close look. Plenty of vinyl, hardiboard, OSB amidst the second growth fir studs and galvanized nail plates. Calling those materials (more) energy efficient hardly captures the material complexity of houses, old or new. I’ve been salvaging old growth fir from dumpsters for my entire adult life. And have remodeled numerous structures using those materials. I wouldn’t dream of using a 2×4 from the lumber yard if I had one from a hundred-year-old house via the dumpster parked out front handy.

    Here’s a study of this subject that comes to a very different conclusion that you may find interesting:

    Click to access The_Greenest_Building_lowres.pdf

    The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse

    “For those concerned with climate change and other environmental impacts, reusing an existing building and upgrading it to maximum efficiency is almost always the best option regardless of building type and climate.”

    • Yes, I summed up several doctoral thesis-like subjects into a single paragraph, which never reads well, and should have been further explained. [Disclosure: I do own an old single family home in a Portland streetcar suburb, I work as an architect, am LEED certified, am an amateur woodworker, go to the Rebuilding Center often for my materials, and have gone to many lectures on the very topic found in your PDF above.]
      Upgrading most commercial and institutional buildings is generally better environmentally than new construction, except when a higher design load requires more space, etc. Houses are not as simple and straightforward, especially as they age. Americans, in general, love our federally subsidized single family homes, so we keep building them, but a streetcar suburb single family home is terribly unsustainable and inefficient in energy use and materiality: most are comprised of old growth wood, solid metals, lath and plaster walls, carcinogenic materials and finishes, are not passive at all, and like most homes relies on land consuming transportation technology of some sort to be viable (a whole topic on its own). That inefficient use of old growth lumber could be better used or upcycled when the house reaches the end of its life-cycle (as could the unadulterated metals) especially since contemporary wood products can sequester far more carbon by using much younger trees and give us far more strength, rigidity, and longevity than traditional lumber (e.g. OSB floor joists). This is where it gets tricky, because we have different design standards for houses than all other buildings, e.g. try to get a vinyl window through a central city design review, yet Renaissance Homes can build their garbage without a bat of an eye. We have an unbalanced system, one that is slowly getting better through industry-wide construction practices, but as far as quality design only 2% of single family homes have an architect involved at all. As a side note, an older Portland home is almost also guaranteed to have now-illegal toxins, molds, and vermin remnants in its bones unless completed stripped down to the frame and rebuilt (if the wood was well protected it can last well beyond 100 years easy, see Northern European home building standards).
      We are at a century-old turning point here in Portland where our foundations are crumbling, exterior shells need major renovations, and antiquated plumbing and electrical systems require upgrading. Since rebuilding can be as costly as starting fresh, I recommend deconstruction (as opposed to landfill), reuse of materials for more appropriate uses, rebuilding using contemporary (but not cheap!) long-lasting materials, utilize passive strategies,and enjoying the energy savings in a much healthier environment that is custom made to our modern cultural needs (while being more energy efficient, material efficient, and sequestering more carbon to boot!). If you enjoy your house and its early 1900’s charm the way it is, great! Enjoy it, and repair as needed, but do not look down on your neighbor for tearing theirs down or selling to a developer who will. People have the right to build whatever they want within our societal limitations as they change (a.k.a. zoning regulation and structural code).

      • I was with you until we got to this part:
        “a streetcar suburb single family home is terribly unsustainable and inefficient in energy use and materiality: most are comprised of old growth wood, solid metals, lath and plaster walls, carcinogenic materials and finishes, and relies on land consuming transportation technology of some sort to be viable (a whole topic on its own). ”

        I think this sentence captures (at least for me) our different views on the matter.
        (1) “terribly unsustainable and inefficient in energy use and materiality” – not sure what to say about that. When energy use has been compared across different vintages of housing stock, the older ones almost always win. Here even the NYT is saying this:
        (2) “old growth wood, solid metals, lath and plaster walls” – I am not sure what the problem is here. These are local, durable materials that have stood the test of time. Each can last another hundred years and is hands down more durable & more local than what today’s houses are being built with. Their embodied energy is already sunk. Amortizing it over another decade or century is relatively painless.
        (3) “carcinogenic materials and finishes” – I suppose, but the things we are putting in houses today: vinyl, the myriad glues in OSB and plywood, are hardly any better, even from today’s perspective, which doesn’t yet include all that we may yet find out about their hidden dangers.
        (4) “relies on land consuming transportation technology of some sort to be viable” – ? I’m not sure what you are saying except perhaps obliquely suggesting that lower density equals more driving? But that is hardly the fault of late 19th Century settlement patterns or the building materials which were used then. Just as an example, like you, I live in one of these 120 year old houses – but we do not own a car. Yet all the oversized Renaissance Homes that are springing up around here are typically occupied by a young professional couple with one or two Subaru SUVs. There is little to be gained I think from tarring our older housing stock with this particular brush. Rewarding carfree households wherever they live would be a far more direct way to address this problem of too much driving.

        (5) “Since rebuilding can be as costly as starting fresh, I recommend deconstruction”
        Now you’ve switched to relative costs as the metric. But I’m not even sure this is accurate. Knocking down and building from scratch is not cheap. I’d wager–and would love to see any study that purports to compare the actual costs of these two approaches–that rehabilitation or renovation is in most cases also cheaper.

  6. Pingback: Weekly Roundup: changes in the Central Eastside, Downtown and Goose Hollows - Next Portland·

  7. As the author of the two links cited in the opening paragraphs of your post, I want to clarify that Restore Oregon is not advocating for a “freeze” in the city’s evolution nor do we argue that additional housing supply on corridors is a bad thing (you’ll note that in many of our other posts and in much of our public testimony, we readily acknowledge that not every building is worth preserving and that good infill should be congratulated). The policy recommendations that Restore Oregon has been seeking do not include provisions to prohibit demolition of non-designed houses, but intend to add reasonable delays and processes to minimize the negative impacts of change. According to data from the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, over 50% of recent demolitions have resulted in no increase in density and less than 9% of demolitions have made way for the type of corridor/center development that meaningfully take pressure off of the UGB. Restore Oregon has worked to approach Portland’s demolition trend with moderation and thoughtfulness so to find a pragmatic balance balance between encasing the city in amber and allowing a development free-for-all. I hope that Places Over Time links to Restore Oregon again in the future, but that the hyperlinked text better captures our position on an issue.

  8. I find sympathy with many sides of this argument. After some consideration I keep coming back to the principles of good urban design. When we follow these principles much of the friction caused by new development is reduced. For instance height and massing should be appropriate for the area. A six story apartment building should not be allowed in a low rise neighborhood. It should be located along transit corridors or in the dense center. We spend entirely too much time challenging the aesthetic choices of the proposal with design review and not enough on getting the code correct in order to maintain and promote good urban design. We can’t force good design of individual buildings but we can ensure new development respects its context and becomes an urban contribution rather than a mere expression of property rights.

  9. The problem in Portland is that almost every transit corridor consists of 100′ deep lots that directly abut, currently, “low-rise development”, often 1-story bungalows. We need the density along the corridors. The city, 30 years ago, zoned or Comp Plan designated about two blocks on either side of these corridors R2.5, rowhouse zoning with a height limit of 35′. So, theoretically a 45′ multifamily building abutting it would be a reasonable step-down.

    But how do you deal with a 20′ building in a 35′ zone? Do you say the building on the transit street must step down to respect the 20′ house? If so, then when the 20′ house gets replaced with a 35′ house, do you then allow more stories to be added onto the multifamily building?

    It would seem reasonable to step down to the height that is allowed on the adjacent lot, not what’s there now.

  10. I am not an Urban Planner or Developer. I moved to PDX in the late 1970’s….. like many other’s escaping the dense cities of the Eastern Seaboard. I came for the livability. Now, after living in PDX for over 35 years I find myself looking for another place to live. I raised children here, had a house and good work. In many ways it is so much better….. creative, open, deliberate, yet also, restrictive, smothering, and yes crowded. That’s what happens with human migration. I accept that. What I can not/will not accept is the lack of affordable housing for families living at the poverty line. Where do single Mom’s live with children? In the big boxes with no yards being built by public transportation corridors?

    Anti-Development rhetoric? No….. just a plain old sentiment that our beloved Portland isn’t the same. It’s losing something and some of us are simply sad. We have that right. Nothing stays the same. My hair color has changed to white….a natural progression….. certainly. Let us not however, in our excitement, create/build a new Utopia in PDX …….forgetting those who are not hipsters, educated professionals or the Creative Class. Diversity is healthy.

    Perhaps it is time for me to change my internal expectation’s (traffic, wait-times in restaurants, noise, Uppty-behavior in The Pearl) or find another place to live my golden years. Back to Providence, Boston, or maybe an island in Narraganset Bay? Where to go? The Future is built for and by the young. If only I could “put an old, wise head on young shoulders”. Exciting and Exasperating. I pray for balance.

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