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Define ‘compatibility’: Ben Ross on the evasive language of zoning

Posted by on February 6th, 2015 at 10:18 am

N-NE-SE Portland Good-Bad-Ugly Houses 84

Which is incompatible with which, and why?
(Photo: Mark McClure)

Why does Portland require every new house to have a driveway big enough to fit two cars?

Why do we forbid most lots from having two separate dwelling structures unless one is 25 percent smaller than the other and has a roof with an identical slope?

Why do we ban second kitchens within a single home unless the owner essentially pinky-swears that only one household will be living in the building?

In a city where a chronic shortage of housing in walkable and bikeable areas has driven prices up and up, driving major changes in the culture, these aren’t trivial questions.

The most familiar answer to all of them is one of the most-used words in urban zoning: “compatibility.” But what exactly does that mean?

In his book Dead End, a political history of the suburbs, transit and biking advocate Ben Ross takes a close look at a vague word that shapes our cities one neighborhood association meeting at a time. From page 152:

Developers and nimbys, although everyday antagonists, share a common interest in the prestige of the neighborhood, and both use words as tools to that end. One party directs its linguistic creativity into salesmanship. Row houses turn into townhomes; garden apartments grow parked cars in the gardens; dead ends are translated into French as cul-de-sacs. The other side, hiding its aims from the world at large and often from itself, has a weakness for phrases whose meaning slips away when carefully examined. …

A tour of this vocabulary must begin with compatibility. The concept is at the heart of land-use regulation. In the narrow sense, incompatible uses are those that cannot coexist, like a smokehouse and a rest home for asthmatics. But the word has taken on a far broader meaning. …

The key to deciphering this word lies in a crucial difference between compatibility and similarity. If two things are similar, they are both similar to each other, but with compatibility it is otherwise. A house on a half-acre lot is compatible with surrounding apartment buildings, but the inverse does not follow. An apartment building is incompatible with houses that sit on half-acre lots.

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Compatibility, in this sense, is euphemism. A compatible land use upholds the status of the neighborhood. An incompatible one lowers it. Rental apartments can be incompatible with a neighborhood that would accept the same building sold as condos. An apartment house and a ten-room mansion are both incompatible with an older subdivision of small expensive homes: the one because apartments are inferior to houses; the other because its yard, overshadowed by the structure, fails to manifest the conspicuous waste of land that gives such areas their special cachet.

The euphemism is so well established that the narrow meaning has begun to fall into disuse. Neighbors who object to loud noises or unpleasant odors just lay out the specifics; incompatible has come to mean “I don’t like it and I’m not explaining why.”

ben ross

Ben Ross in Portland in 2014.
(Photo: M.Andersen/BikePortland)

That’s from Ross’s chapter “The Language of Land Use.”

It’s a provocative take, though no harsher than the language we’ve heard in the last few years from some Portlanders discovering that their compatibility concerns won’t prevent new buildings in their neighborhood. And Ross, who lives and advocates in suburban Washington, D.C., is responding to slightly different dynamics than the ones we have in Portland, where everything is now shaped by the torrent of demand for homes in the parts of town best suited to low-car-life.

Still, it seems worth asking, every time we use the word “compatible” or allow someone else to do so, whether the values it implies are actually ours.

At least when it comes to driveways.

— The Real Estate Beat is a regular column. You can sign up to get an email of Real Estate Beat posts (and nothing else) here, or read past installments here. This sponsorship has opened up and we’re looking for our next partner. If interested, please call Jonathan at (503) 706-8804.

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Ben Schonberger (@SchonbergerBen)Trek 39009wattsLenny AndersonMichael Andersen (News Editor) Recent comment authors
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bjorn
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bjorn

The roof slope must match requirement for adu’s is completely indefensible in my opinion. The structure is already required to be significantly smaller than the main house and tucked into the back yard, who cares if it has a slightly flater roof. If we really wanted people to build ADU’s we would relax some of these unnecessary requirements.

dan
Guest
dan

“A house on a half-acre lot is compatible with surrounding apartment buildings, but the inverse does not follow. An apartment building is compatible with houses that sit on half-acre lots.”

Shouldn’t that be: “An apartment building is _not_ compatible with houses…”?

Dave
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Dave

I’d love to see a study on how market pricing of housing, which is a significant factor in causing long single-occupant-vehicle commutes, affects energy use and climate change.

don arambula
Guest
don arambula

Good discussion. From your article…”A tour of this vocabulary must begin with compatibility. The concept is at the heart of land-use regulation.” Actually it is not. Regulations (zoning ordinance) must be clear and objective (i.e. permitted or conditional uses). Form and massing can be regulated (setbacks, active frontages,etc.) but must be done with caution. “Compatibility” is discretionary and best defined and addresses through design guidelines and design review process. Where communities get in trouble is when they over-reach and try to regulate development ‘style’ that may be best addressed through a design review process.

Peter W
Guest

Michael, good questions.

I’d love to see one long list of all the small policy changes that could have a big impact on the housing problem.

David
Guest
David

“Why does Portland require every new house to have a driveway big enough to fit two cars?”

I’m either confused, or this isn’t actually true. The website you linked to shows a diagram with a required spot for car parking and another non-required (but allowed) spot for a second car.

Huey Lewis
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Huey Lewis

Not totally related but since there is a post about housing/zoning here, and I just read this, here you go. Ignore, rip it apart, defend it, whatever.

Closer to my home in New York, I’ve found that upper-middle-class people are the chief culprits behind the gentrification wave that is driving many poor families out of close-in neighborhoods in Brooklyn, my hometown. Stephen Smith has done an excellent job of explaining the dynamic. Most affluent people would be just fine with living in condos in Manhattan if they could afford to do so. But rich Manhattanites fight new development with every fiber of their being, which forces slightly less rich people to move to Brooklyn. Here is where things get interesting. Early on, as gentrification first takes root, these new upper-middle-class arrivals root for development, particularly when it means things like a new Whole Foods and other amenities that make their neighborhoods seem less “sketchy.” Once they have their fancy grocery stores and their Pilates studios and whatever else it is that floats their boat, however, they sharply shift toward absolutely hating new development, as new development means having to share their new amenities with more newcomers. These new restrictions on supply mean that homeowners who arrived at the right time, before the drawbridge was raised, see their homes get more and more valuable. Landlords can charge higher and higher rents.* The neighborhood gets less and less “sketchy,” which is to say less diverse and less inclusive. How convenient.

J_R
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J_R

Early in my career, I worked in a planning job where I helped with some of the zoning interpretation and development review. I can tell you that it’s really complicated and can certainly become contentious.

I urge readers to click on some of the links Michael has provided, such as the first one on parking. Look at some of the things they are trying to accomplish, such as preventing your neighbor from parking his semi-trailer rig in his driveway.

You may not agree with some elements of the zoning code, but it was developed in a public process that involved lots of compromise.

The compromises represented by the zoning code involve tradeoffs such as those you have to make when selecting a new bike: weight/price; on-road/off-road; responsiveness/stability; hauling capacity/lightness, etc.

There are many in my neighborhood who want to make it an historic district to prevent what they see as monster house and excessive infill and or even to “protect” the style of housing. I’m opposed because I know it would have prevented me from changing the façade of my house by installing new windows that make the house more useful, comfortable, and energy efficient.

The zoning code involves lots of compromise and it’s extraordinarily difficult to foresee and adequately describe the clear and objective standards that need to be applied in all cases. That said, if any of you want to get involved, I’m certain opportunities will arise. The land use or transportation committees of your neighborhood group would be good places to start.

Martin Vandepas
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Martin Vandepas

How can people get involved to make changes to these laws so they create the type of development that they want?

Lenny Anderson
Guest
Lenny Anderson

gentrification is the exception, not the rule for urban neighborhoods. Check out Joe Cortright’s CityObservatory.org for more analysis.

davemess
Guest
davemess

Seems like a catch 22 for this site: Many on here hate the idea of allowing free car storage in the public right of way (I think I fall into this camp when it makes sense), yet bristle at the idea of a requirement for off-street parking.

ktmhz
Guest
ktmhz

Maybe someone can clarify this “required parking space” stuff. I recently bought a house that had essentially a gravel parking lot in front of it. Since I have no car, and therefore no use for a gravel parking lot, I have been removing the gravel and building the soil over my entire yard up to the front lot line. The idea is to plant the entire front yard with useful plants instead of having an empty, barren gravel parking lot.
Is this somehow disallowed or incompatible?

9watts
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9watts

A chronic shortage of housing or a persistent longage of people?

Stretchy
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Stretchy

Incompatible: The neighboring property owners have enough clout with the city to prevent new construction they don’t like.

Compatible: The property developer(s) have enough clout with the city to build whatever they want.

Doug Klotz
Guest
Doug Klotz

Inclusionary Zoning is illegal in Oregon, thanks to the Oregon Legislature, some years back. On Portland’s legislative agenda is changing that. The Mixed Use Zones project of the city is trying to write incentives into the codes in these zones (all Commercial zones), i.e. if you include affordable units you get more FAR. It may result in the situation where if you include enough affordable units, you’ll actually be able to build to the height you were able to by right, before the code rewrite.

Chris Hagerman
Guest
Chris Hagerman

There is an exemption to the required parking space/driveway for housing sites (with < 30 units) within 500' of frequent transit service (a significant portion of the City, particularly for close-in neighborhoods). However, few of the homebuilders that could use the exemption do (orange splot is the most visible exception).

Lenny Anderson
Guest
Lenny Anderson

see Joe C’s response to Governing on CityObservatory.org
Cortright’s data on Portland shows census tracks with poverty rates above 30% increasing from 8 to 18 between 1970 and 2010. Population in poverty increasing from 7.6k to 23k.

For the better part of 50 years following WWII we dis-invested in our cities, throwing all the public and private money at the suburbs. That began to shift at the turn of the century, and we should be celebrating that. Yes, capitalism sucks and the rich need (for their own sake!) to pay more, but re-investing in cities has been one of the best things to happen here and elsewhere with the upside way outweighing the down side.

Lenny Anderson
Guest
Lenny Anderson

If you rent, and your neighborhood takes off, and you want to stay put…its either pay more rent or downsize. If you own, its just sit back and watch your equity (and to some extent your taxes) grow. We need to make sure that low income home owners don’t get taken with “cash now!” offers, to make sure they can get loans to do necessary repairs, etc.
For renters, we need to build, build and build some more…no more vacant lots, no more parking lots on major transit lines, no more parking requirements that jack up rents.

Lenny Anderson
Guest
Lenny Anderson

Oregon “enjoyed” out migration in the early 80’s. It was not fun.
Joe’s data is by census tract, so you can see where change is happening and not by clicking on each one. Go to CityObservatory.org for his response to Governing and for the research showing gentrification as the exception, not the rule.