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Infill, Historic Preservation and Corridors

February 1, 2010

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to attend an excellent workshop hosted by the Architectural Heritage Center on “Infill in Traditional Neighborhoods”.

Infill is not a new topic for me. I had a chance to study it in depth when I served on the City Club’s study on “Increasing Density in Portland” that looked at how Portland could achieve the increases in housing suggested by the Metro 2040 Growth Plan adopted in the mid-’90s. Two take-aways from that study that have continued to guide me are:

  • As much as possible put density in new neighborhoods on brownfields (like the Pearl and South Waterfront).
  • Where infill must be used, design will be critical.

Traditional neighborhoods are also not new to me, having served for almost a decade on the board of my neighborhood association in NW Portland. During my service a big chunk of our neighborhood was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the “Alphabet Historic District” through the efforts of a number of dedicated volunteers and support from the City (I get none of the credit, I was working on parking issues at the time…).

So while the topics weren’t new to me, the workshop did open up some ideas for me, principally around the idea of “compatibility”. In the past I’ve thought of compatibility of new development with the existing neighborhood primarily in terms of building height, building mass and building style (e.g., modern versus traditional, etc.). But some important ideas that the workshop brought up were issues of compatibility with the development patterns of surrounding buildings: does the new development match the setback patterns of surrounding building? Is the use of green space similar? Are the building types (e.g., residential over storefront) similar even if the style is different?

In particular, this got me thinking about our major transit corridor streets, since our strategy is to focus much of our housing growth on these streets. It seems to me that as this planned growth occurs, we are necessarily going to see (indeed are already seeing in some somes places) buildings that are often larger than their neighbors (the current zoning generally already supports this). Given this reality, what other elements can we focus on to retain the character of our main street corridors, while helping them evolve to meet our future needs? How should the Portland Plan create supportive policies for this?

While we’re speaking of growth and buildings, I would note some opportunities for citizens to speak to these issues NOW in the Portland Plan process. The Urban Form Report gives a very educational view of what kinds of building heights and massings the current zoning supports. At our last hearing we received testimony that these heights and masses would surprise many people! The good news is that there is enough existing zoned capacity for housing that the Portland Plan should not need to do wholesale up-zoning to support projected growth. Indeed, there might be opportunities from some selective down-zoning to protect environmental assets. Your next opportunity to testify is at our February 9th hearing. Tell us how you think Portland Plan policies should focus this growth.

And on the topic of growth, there was testimony at our last hearing that the growth numbers appear to keep changing. At our meeting on March 9th, we’ll be visiting assumptions about land supply and staff will have the opportunity to review how the growth projections were arrived at. Come out, list, learn and testify!

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