Open season for NIMBY appeals? Portland blocks 275 homes after Pearl District neighbors ask it to

Congratulations! Instead of living here, 275 higher-income households will soon be competing for housing with you instead.

by Michael Andersen | March 8, 2018

Commissioners said they didn’t block the building because of the loud, organized chorus of complaints from the nearby condo owners who had brought the question before them, but rather because there wouldn’t be enough open air above the riverside biking-walking trail. Image: TVA Architects via NextPortland.

On Wednesday, Portland’s city councilors tripped over one another to spell out their disagreements with a lineup of Northwest Portland homeowners who objected to the height of a proposed new apartment tower.

Then the council unanimously voted to give the anti-housing activists exactly what they had been asking for: no new homes on the site.

“We are a growing city, and there will be more height and there will be more density,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said.

Moments later, Wheeler joined his colleagues to block a tall, dense building, Fremont Place Apartments, that would have given 275 well-off renter households places to live that are not currently inhabited by poorer renters.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Fremont Place Apartments had previously been approved by the city’s staff and design commission, but was appealed to the city council with money from an anti-housing campaign headquartered in a two-year-old condo tower two blocks to the south.

“The city is so desperate for housing that it’s sacrificing the integrity of our city,” opposition leader Stanley Penkin, who bought his newly built Pearl condo in 2016 for $866,603, told Willamette Week in January. “Is it just build, build, build to the maximum at any cost?”

Today, the site of the proposed apartment building is a surface parking lot.

It wasn’t the height or density Wheeler objected to, the mayor said Wednesday, but the building’s proximity to the river. The city requires 25 feet of open space for the biking-walking trail, and the proposed design meets that standard. But the city also requires the building to continue to shift its mass away from the river at its higher levels:

The architects had asked for and received permission from the city design commission to pierce that higher-altitude greenway setback, in part because the building had already been voluntarily scaled down from other angles to preserve views of the Fremont Bridge from nearby Fields Park — an issue that project opponents had hammered on for months.

The city’s five elected leaders, however, weren’t having it.

“We need to aggressively protect the greenway,” Mayor Wheeler said.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz agreed.

“I don’t consider the view from Fields Park to be at all germane to this discussion,” she said. “It is all about the greenway to me.”

The encroachment on the greenway space means that the building “doesn’t celebrate the river,” Fritz said. She compared the proposed 25-foot-wide greenway with a similarly wide stretch of trail running alongside a restaurant further south on the Willamette River.

“It’s unpleasant to be on the trail … and it’s unpleasant to have sweaty people trying to run past when you’re trying to have a nice dinner,” Fritz said.

The river and offending trail ran along the right (east) side of the proposed building.

Commissioner Nick Fish was more general, saying height was not his concern either but that there were “fundamental failings in the design of this building.”

One issue, he said, was a “pinch point” where the biking-walking trail briefly narrows to just under 11 feet wide. (For comparison, the Hawthorne Bridge’s sidewalks are 10 feet wide.)

In a separate decision Wednesday, the council split 2–2 on a proposal to raise the height limit in the Riverplace area just south of downtown. That opposition from Fritz and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly seemingly killed a somewhat more conceptual proposal for 2,500 homes there, 250 to 500 of which would have been offered below market rate.

But regarding that vote, Eudaly staffer Jamey Duhamel wrote in a Facebook forum Wednesday that “there are efforts underway to find another way. Losing 500 units of affordable housing is not what anyone wants.”

“It’s not good for housing affordability”

According to Iain MacKenzie, the publisher of development-news site (and, as he discloses on his posts about Fremont Place Apartments, an employee of that project’s architecture firm), it’s the first time since 2006 that Portland’s council has overruled its design commission to block a new building.

MacKenzie was one of a number of pro-housing activists (including, for full disclosure, me) voicing dismay Wednesday.

In an interview Wednesday, Cameron Harrington of Living Cully and the housing affordability coalition Anti-Displacement PDX said he hadn’t followed the Fremont Place Apartments in particular, but that in general, building more new homes in well-off areas tends to help reduce the number of well-off people who bid up home prices in other areas.

“In the neighborhoods where rich people would like to live, it’s probably good for the rest of us if there are as many opportunities to live there as possible,” he said. “It’s not good for housing affordability to not have these apartments being built.”

That echoes the summary from the Obama White House’s 2016 “Housing Policy Toolkit” detailing the costs of “local barriers to housing development”:

When new housing development is limited region-wide, and particularly precluded in neighborhoods with political capital to implement even stricter local barriers, any new development tends to be disproportionally concentrated in low-income communities of color, causing displacement and concerns of gentrification in those neighborhoods.

But Harrington added that fair, affordable housing also requires homes for lower-income people to be integrated with homes for higher-income people, including in generally rich areas.

Last year, Portland started requiring below-market-rate homes to be included in big new buildings. But the Fremont Place Apartments was one of many submitted for city review before those rules were in place.

“It would be better if this building were built under the inclusionary zoning,” Harrington said.

Unpredictability has a chilling effect

Development review in Oregon is meant to be based on a predictable set of standards that are established in advance — largely to prevent scenarios such as this one.

MacKenzie, for his part, warned that the council’s decision to reject a project after an appeal by angry neighbors would result in fewer below-market-rate units being built going forward:

Another, maybe even more destructive possibility after Wednesday’s vote: it may send signals to well-financed anti-housing activists everywhere in Portland that they can block a building by appealing it to city council — even if the council doesn’t share their specific objections.

Portland for Everyone supports abundant, diverse, affordable housing. This is a reported blog about how to get more of those things. You can follow it on Twitter and Facebook or get new posts by email a few times each month.