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Guest Post: How to build a neighborhood with character(s)

Posted by on June 1st, 2016 at 10:51 am

Fall leaves on SE Ankeny-7

An illegal neighborhood in southeast Portland.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

This post is written by Neil Heller, a Portland-based planning consultant.

I recently visited a shop to get a new bike. I was shown two options: a gorgeous, yet expensive, custom-built single-speed cruiser and a massive cargo bike with all sorts of gleaming add-ons including an electric assist.

I like both of these bikes but they don’t quite fit my riding style — short commutes but also a bit of recreational road cycling on the weekends. I asked about a more versatile bike, one in between the two I was being shown, but was told road bikes are illegal.

Certainly I had seen some road bikes being ridden on my way over? These types are all an older style, I was informed, and can only be purchased used. No new road bikes are being built right now. Sorry.

By now it’s likely that you already see the metaphor and realize I never visited such a shop. I think this metaphor for housing choice is a good one because it highlights how laughable having such limited options can be.

Many of Portland’s most-loved neighborhoods are awash in beautiful single-family homes and wildlife-habitat-certified landscapes. Having leafy streets lined with front porches and landscaped yards so close to the Central City is a lovely pattern that defines Portland character, one not found in many other large cities on the West Coast. It is rare to find a city where one can find so many of these in such a setting a mere three miles from a downtown.

Post-recession, and in response to changing market preferences for denser urban living, another prominent type of housing being built in popular neighborhoods is the four-to-six-story mixed-use, mid-rise apartment building. Some of these have received criticisms of being “out of character,” or even worse, “soulless.” But much like the cargo bike, these types have a lot of capacity and go a long way to capture much of the population growth we are currently experiencing. For some of us, they’re the right answer.

In the current market we are mostly seeing these two products being built: single-family homes and the mid-rise apartment buildings found along our neighborhood corridors and centers. These options tend to cater to only one or two life phases. These products have their place, but what if you cannot afford the custom-built single speed and the high-capacity cargo bike doesn’t fit your lifestyle? What other options do you have?

The missing middle housing types: Already next door, but illegal to build

Sunnyside Missing Middle_v3

Examples of missing-middle housing, already found in Sunnyside.
(Photos and inventory: Neil Heller)

What if the available options covered a wide spectrum of housing choice with enough variety to meet a range of differing lifestyles and incomes? One term aptly describes these options as the ‘Missing Middle.’ The term is a straightforward description: the ‘Middle’ portion of the term represents the unit types found between single family and mid-rise apartments, where the ‘Missing’ describes the housing trends of recent history where these types of housing option have been largely ignored or prohibited by municipal regulations.

The following list describes the range of Missing Middle unit types that can be found around the city with the highest concentration of these types found in the Inner Southeast neighborhoods of Buckman and Sunnyside. The fee structure for these types can be for rent, for sale, or as collective ownership. The associated visual inventory are ones found in my neighborhood:

  • Carriage House (ADU)
  • Duplex (side-by-side/stacked)
  • Triplex
  • Fourplex
  • Mansion Apartment
  • Townhouse
  • Bungalow Court (attached)
  • Cottage Court (detached)
  • Apartment building (small/large)

Reintroducing these housing types to our city offers a response to the most salient of current housing concerns — flexibility, affordability, compatibility, and local investment. Fortunately Missing Middle allows a softer approach toward new development that some have called “invisible density.” Regardless of what clever phrase is used, the idea is to improve neighborhoods while still providing common-sense solutions that meet the needs of everyday Portlanders. In other words, providing neighborhood character for our neighborhood characters.

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Portlanders’ stated priority: Housing affordability

1408 se 22nd ave 7 apartments in mansion built 1904

1408 SE 22nd Ave: one building, seven apartments. Built 1904.

Responses from the Portland’s Residential Infill Project survey indicate that affordability is the key concern among respondents. This is currently a topic of immense concern and Missing Middle contributes to the solution by increasing choice and thereby flexibility — flexibility that allows workable solutions for a variety of housing needs and situations over time and, ideally, in place.

Being modest in scale, wood frame construction methods allow Missing Middle to be built less expensively. These costs do increase slightly when buildings reach greater than four units due to safety requirements of the building code but still far less than a concrete and steel mid-rise. Additionally, costs to the end users are split across the number of households on the lot versus one family bearing the full expense.

Adding supply without sacrificing compatibility

2250 ne flanders garden condos built 1930

2250 NE Flanders: garden apartments, now condominiums. Built 1930.

Our existing Missing Middle types go a long way in defining the perception of current neighborhood character. Without these housing types, our most loved neighborhoods would appear overly homogenous — and the people who live there would be more homogenous, too.

New Missing Middle housing offers compatibility by the ability to honor our architectural legacy, which reflects our values, cultural expressions, and response to local climate. This range of options allows for new units being built to also respond to existing context through massing and architectural detailing. For example, a cute fourplex can have similar height, width, and details of a large single-family Portland Foursquare, making a welcomed neighbor.

The best developers are local small-scale developers

Missing Middle housing types are most likely to be executed by local, small scale developers. Certainly, the desire for a local developer depends on local capacity, which Portland has no shortage of. Local capacity also includes municipal policies that remove obstacles for small-scale developers.

In terms of finance, a project generally needs to be at least $25M to garner interest from large institutional equity investors. Capital investment for Missing Middle is much more modest and likely to come from local folks who take interest based on factors deemed important by the community such as the long-term health of a place or ability to address specific needs because they are also members of that community.

Along these same lines, a large out-of-town development firm probably has profit margins, operational standards, and lot size requirements that Missing Middle housing types do not meet.

Finally, smaller projects equal less risk but require more time and attention to execute these projects well. A local, small scale developer is likely to have relationships with local trades and the ability to provide the time and care necessary to, ideally, ensure a higher quality product. Having local knowledge of the area also allows them to find the lot types suitable for Missing Middle housing developments.

The way forward: A home for every household type

MMH-diagram-w-lables-for-featured-image2-1100x350

(Image: Daniel Parolek, Opticos Design)

As we update our citywide comprehensive plan and look into our crystal ball to the near and far future, Missing Middle as a strategy will become increasingly crucial to filling a variety of housing demands, particularly as our definitions of household continue to change, a huge portion of our population continues to age, and job duties become increasingly fluid. This strategy also aids in attaining a livable density that strongly supports neighborhood retail, transit ridership, and general daily activities that enliven public spaces.

Point being: the range of bicycle options are almost infinite. Our housing options are not. We should change this.

Neil Heller holds an advanced degree in urban planning and has worked for many years as a planning/urban design consultant. He’s currently looking for work in the Portland region.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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RH
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RH

Has anyone actually crunched the numbers as to what a new construction duplex or townhome would go for in an inner Portland walkable neighborhood and does it make sense for the average Portland household income?

I did a quick look and they start at $700K…Yes, that is a bit cheaper than a new single family home on the same lot, but it’s still a crazy amount of money. Some of the nicer new townhomes are $1 mil+

Adam
Subscriber

Great article. In my experience, many neighbors in the area I live in agree we need missing-middle housing, but disagree where to put it. Missing-middle needs to be integrated into the existing residential neighborhoods, but projects like the Division Design Initiative propose missing-middle on arterials like Division instead, and propose the medium-density only at major intersections (e.g. Chavez and Division). I have also heard outcry over lot-splitting (R5 to R2.5) in the residential areas. How do we get neighbors on board to the point where they are okay living next to a duplex or small-scale apartment building?

m
Guest
m

“It is rare to find a city where one can find so many of these in such a setting a mere three miles from a downtown.”

This is, of course, the irony of what attracts so many people here. The best of urban and suburbia. It is going away for better or worse and we are headed toward the Queens, NY model. Pros and Cons….

Chris
Guest
Chris

Great article Neil. Thanks for putting this out there.

Cory P
Guest
Cory P

Great article! I couldn’t agree more but you didn’t mention one of the key obstacles in bringing back all of these great housing options.

PARKING

How are we going to convince a public to allow new construction in neighborhood settings without off street parking? We have seen bikeways canceled over a few parking spaces. What are the odds that the city will adopt this bold approach towards density when it is sure to result in many more cars parked on streets?

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

I love those old cottage/courtyard-style apartments. I don’t think you’d find many homeowners objecting to living near those (except re: parking issues). So much new construction utterly lacks charm.

Granpa
Guest
Granpa

I am lucky enough to have a house that has charm, a certified wildlife garden and lots of carbon sequestering trees. The 80 year old brick house is well kept with routine maintenance taking this owner’s time away from bike riding on most weekends. I want this house to last for another 80 years, but the market is so hot that it is now worth 4 or 5 times what we paid for it. It is financially stupid for me not to sell to a developer who would tear it down, raze the property and build two $800,000 houses on the lot. That won’t do squat for the affordable housing I so often hear bemoaned over in this blog. The neighborhood has lots of properties and a sense of community that are not broken and do not need “fixing”. The current development model will fix them anyway and posters on this blog will delight to see the history, character, foliage and wildlife (and me) be gone from the area.

ac
Guest
ac

“zoning” is the word missing from this article
read up on zoning
areas already exist, but my guess is that no developer will build to a middle size unless forced to. they will maximize the zoning envelope, such as it is for any given location.

q
Guest
q

Great article. I wish the City would do MUCH more to eliminate zoning barriers so more of the types of housing that have proven themselves over time–duplexes, courtyard apartments, etc.–could be built, instead of spending so much effort trying to restrict what can be built, and what it looks like.

Unfortunately, I can just as easily see the City spending energy to restrict modern design as I can seeing it making it easier to build duplexes. Or it’ll do both–you can build a duplex where you couldn’t before IF it has a gable roof and double-hung windows.

Daniel Costantino
Guest
Daniel Costantino

Something I’d like to see addressed at some point: how much cheaper could residential units be built if there were only 1 bathroom per unit, as things were actually built in the 1920s/1930s era that produced all the lovely cottages/duplexes/triplexes/courtyard apartments that we all love? Modern development seems to assume you need at least as many full baths as bedrooms, usually an extra half-bath on top. I don’t dispute the convenience (though I do dispute the extra effort of cleaning multiple bathrooms), but how is this truly necessary and is it just not unnecessarily adding to construction cost with extra square footage, electrical and plumbing?

q
Guest
q

9watts
Now that seems like kind of an unwarranted simplification. Eli Spevak’s a great example of someone who advocates and builds things that I don’t think fit either of your caricatures.

I have no idea what you mean by this.

I said developers who build higher quality projects get slammed for building unaffordable stuff to make obscene profits, and ones who build less expensive stuff get slammed for building cheaply in order to make obscene profits. It was a general statement, and it’s true. In fact, developers get criticized simply for being developers, regardless of what they build or how much it costs.

It doesn’t mean all developers fit into exact categories, or it isn’t possible to have good design without extreme expense, or that all expensive projects are high quality, or anything else like that. And you gave an example of a developer who builds some nice projects that I admire that are not extremely inexpensive or extremely costly. So what?

Doug Klotz
Subscriber

I think one of the points of allowing Missing Middle Housing, is that it is another way to increase our housing supply, and to do so in close-in areas where residents are less likely to drive.

Take Inner Southeast, for instance. The only place you can build apartment buildings with small units economically, is in the Commercial zoning (CS, soon to be CM-2) along transit streets. Even the so-called “apartment” zoning (R-1) along these same corridors only allows 1 unit per 1000 s.f. of site, about a fourth of what you could build in CS/ CM-2.

There is a one-block swath of R-2.5 (rowhouse) “Comp Plan designation” on either side of most of those corridors. Much of this will soon be actual R-2.5 Zoning. But even where the R-2.5 zoning exists now, such as between Division and Clinton, only a few rowhouse developments have been built, such as the one at 2553-2555 SE 31st. And, yes, they’re expensive, but given all other factors being the same, they should be less expensive than a single house on that same lot.

But if fourplexes were allow in R-2.5, for instance, a similar math should apply, and they would be less per unit than the two rowhouses. Given this is a really hot area, everything will always be more expensive than at, say, 80th and Division. But the code changes would (or could) apply to all areas.

And, all of these approaches could add to the amount of housing built closer in, which will help, in the long run, keep housing prices from rising so high. It will also let more people live where they can bike, walk or take transit for many of their daily trips, as well as bring more residents who can support neighborhood businesses, instead of destination retail drawing from all over the city.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

“I think one of the points of allowing Missing Middle Housing, is that it is another way to increase our housing supply, and to do so in close-in areas where residents are less likely to drive.”

Doug, I couldn’t agree with you more. I find this discussion of basically building low-density housing in inner Portland very amusing and not at all unexpected, given that Council is about to approve the first comprehensive land use plan since 1980, when the city was less than half the size it is now.

Where were all these folks during the past 9 years of the Portland Plan, Comp Plan, and the TSP update? I know you were there, as I was, up to the hilt in the details, but I wonder about some of the other bloggers.

The city is faced with an expectation that another 300,000 folks are going to be moving to Portland within the next 20 years. Normally, most of those folks would go to where land is cheapest – East Portland, Cully, North Central, and Southwest Portland, the areas with the worst infrastructure and transit service. Much as I might criticize planners in Portland, I give them credit for attempting to curtail much of this future growth in the areas that can least accommodate it, by “down-zoning” large swaths of multi-family and medium-density single-family zoning in those areas, especially along outer Powell Blvd, Sandy, & Foster. Such down-zoning forces a higher density in inner parts of Portland, obviously more than existing residents want (at least those who have responded to this blog.)

To carry the original analogy further: “Road bikes aren’t illegal in all of Portland, just in the inner trendier areas of “Portlandia”. You can buy and use such bikes in the outer areas, but good luck in finding a shop that will sell you one, and even better luck finding a safe place to ride one. You will need to dodge hostile homeless campers, busy car traffic, and SUVs with gun racks driven by Trump voters. Be warned, police will pull you over and arrest you if you try to ride west anywhere of 80th.”

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

When you include land, design, development, construction costs, the “per-unit” cost to build a three-or-four story apartment building, that places 20 to 30 units on a given parcel, is lower than the cost to build a “missing middle” duplex, triplex, or garden apartment that places 2 to 6 units on the same parcel. And newly constructed duplexes and garden apartments can only add units to the city at a slow trickle, because each such development ultimately produces only a handful of units.

Thus, if you are trying to encourage affordable housing, you’d want to construct apartment buildings rather than missing middle buildings. Note, however, that newly constructed units are never going to be super affordable, that’s inherent in the economics of developing new structures. Existing older structures are the most affordable type of housing,

Apartment buildings can be placed on commercial corridors, replacing parking lots, underused old commercial buildings, and derelict structures, without negatively disrupting the character of the neighborhood, indeed the result is usually an improvement in the neighborhood and an increase in property values (e.g. see the increase in values around SE Division). This is a win-win.

Placing missing-middle buildings in a single-family home neighborhood usually requires demolishing one or more existing houses, changes the character of the neighborhood, and can negatively impact property values which hurts the people ashtray living in the neighborhood. This is a win-lose.

Thus, adding housing through apartment buildings on commercial corridors will be faster and less contentious than adding housing through missing-middle buildings in single-family house neighborhoods.

Missing-middle construction has a role to play, but I think it is a much smaller role than some think. The apartment buildings now being constructed at a furious pace, all over the city, are the main solution to our housing shortage.

The other solution is to encourage other neighborhoods, farther from the city center, to develop and become as vibrant, livable, and desirable as the closest-in neighborhoods are today. That means improving transit and bike access in those areas. As an example, ten years ago Woodstock was a boring place, today it has nice shops and eateries, an interesting main street, and is an attractive neighborhood to live in.

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

“Already”, not “ashtray”. Damn autocorrect, and damn the lack of any edit feature here.

q
Guest
q

9watts
“…even crap is expensive.”
“How many people making a median wage in Portland would say their housing is ‘high quality’? Some, but not many. And they’d be right.”
How do we know this? I think you may only be thinking here of new construction, and we’d probably agree if we limit the discussion to that slice, but why would we since most of the housing, and certainly most of the housing that changes hands, in this town is not new construction but much older than that. I don’t like cliches much, so when I come across what looks like one I disagree. If I misunderstood you I apologize.
Recommended 0

How do we know “crap” is expensive? Look around the city, and listen to what people here and elsewhere are saying. Housing here is very expensive, no matter what the quality.

I’m glad you agree with me that most people making a median wage would not think their housing is “high quality” if it’s new. And I WAS talking mainly of new housing, because my comments were in response to someone’s comment about NEW housing, in an article about NEW housing.

But given how expensive housing is, and the fact that rents are based on what people will pay, not what it cost to build or buy a building decades ago, I’d bet most people making a median wage living in non-new housing would think it was high quality, either. No, I don’t have a scientific study to prove that. But again, look around at rents and affordability, and what people are saying in these comments, and elsewhere. It’s really not a controversial idea at all to believe that the average person doesn’t think they live in high quality housing, whether it’s new or old.

Brian
Guest
Brian

Our neighbors across the street just had all the horrible vinyl removed so that they could have the original wood siding repainted. You are absolutely correct. These things do matter.
Also, I felt the same way you did in Connecticut when I moved here 18 years ago. I felt that I had to put some time in to get to know the place, get involved, volunteer and help build our community.

Matt S.
Guest
Matt S.
Jeff
Guest
Jeff

soren
i find the idea that someone who has lived in a neighborhood X years deserves more respect than a newcomer to be truly awful. imo, this kind of xenophobia merits all the sarcasm i can muster.
Recommended 2

spoken like someone who recently moved to PDX.

Darvel Lloyd
Guest
Darvel Lloyd

Excellent article by Jeff Gudman–a man who really knows what he’s talking about! Looking forward to seeing a big crowd at the “Infill” hearing in the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood tomorrow evening.

q
Guest
q

Anyone planning to attend the open houses might want to look carefully at the less obvious impacts of the regulations being proposed. For instance, in the “compatibility” regulations, the floor area limits will apply to existing houses as well as new. So if you want to add onto your house in the future, and it’s currently over a size that’s only about a third of what’s currently legal, or if it’s smaller but adding on would put it over that size, you won’t be able to add on without a land use review, with no particular likelihood of getting approval. In fact, that would even apply to converting an attic to livable space–you’d need a land use review for compatibility, even though you’re not touching the exterior. This would apply to thousands of existing houses in Portland.

Also, the regulations are viewing “density” as number of units on a site, not number of people. So, for instance, someone who wants to build a structure with two one-bedroom units, that might have one occupant in each, for a total of two occupants, may get some incentives because they are adding “density”. The person who wants to build a house conducive to having roommates or an extended family, say 6 or 8 occupants total, may be treated less favorably, because their 6 or 8 people are on one unit, so are viewed as being half as dense as the 2 units with 2 people total.

There’s lots to like about the proposals, but also lots that sounds good at first glance, but isn’t.

rubenfleur
Guest
rubenfleur

SIMPLY THE BEST.
BETTER THAN ALL THE REST.