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…