This is the fourth and final installment in our series exploring Portland's land use issues. For tips, resources and a general overview, please see our first story. For more information on reading land use notices and interpreting zoning codes, please read our second story. Our third story details methods you can employ to preserve the character of your neighborhood.
Your neighborhood is your home. Consequently, you’re likely invested—financially and emotionally—in the character of your neighborhood, especially as it grows and changes.
It’s easy to feel like the helpless little guy when a large-scale commercial or residential developer proposes construction in your neighborhood. You may feel strong opposition to such a project, and navigating the bureaucracy of land use issues is no simple task—at least not individually.
It may sound tired to simply say, “get involved,” but the reality is that you and your neighbors have the ability to influence the way your neighborhood changes, if you get involved in the process early enough. Developers looking to build in your neighborhood are making a substantial investment in your community, and, in an ideal world, they’re interested in hearing the concerns of community members so they can work with their future neighbors to create a vibrant, livable neighborhood.
When a developer begins to eye your neighborhood, your best bet is often the simplest one: engage the developers during the planning stages. You might even be surprised when they engage you first, long before the first bricks are ever laid.
An Invitation Goes A Long Way: Engage The Developer
Not too long ago, the residents of Beaumont-Wilshire learned about a new development slated for construction in their neighborhood.
The original development, put forth by Everett Custom Homes, was for a four-story, 68-unit residential apartment complex to be built on NE Fremont Street, right on the neighborhood's commercial corridor.
But what struck the neighbors of Beaumont-Wilshire was what the development lacked. Despite its commercial corridor location, the layout for the new complex had no plans for ground-floor retail, nor did it have plans for on-site parking.
Instead of flat-out objecting to the project, neighbors got together to clearly outline their concerns before representatives from the Beaumont-Wilshire Neighborhood Association invited representatives from Everett Custom Homes to a neighborhood meeting. Community members took this opportunity to learn more about the proposal and collectively express their concerns to the developers.
According to Dave Anderson, who serves on the neighborhood association's board, the developers came to the meeting, explained their plan, and listened to neighbors. Anderson credits the developers for not only showing up, but for actually listening and caring enough to make concessions.
And in the end, the developers agreed not only to provide ground-floor retail space, but even offered to reduce the number of units to 56, turning studio and one-bedroom apartments into two-bedroom units that could accommodate families.
Sometimes, The Developer Engages You
Last year, representatives from Con-way, the international freight and logistics company, presented to city planners and bureau heads its vision to prepare for the redevelopment nearly 15 acres of Con-way-owned properties in the Slabtown neighborhood.
Its plan will ultimately take an industrialized area and create a brand new neighborhood comprised of condos, apartment complexes, parks, plazas, and vibrant commercial corridors, much in the same way the Pearl District was planned and built.
But many years before presenting its plan to city officials, Con-way representatives engaged representatives from the Northwest District Association (NWDA) in order to encourage residents to help shape the proposed neighborhood in ways that would mesh with the NWDA's goals.
Con-way officials asked what NWDA neighbors wanted in a new neighborhood. Public transit options, parks, plazas, and open spaces were all bandied about and are now part of Con-way's redevelopment plan.
Lobbying For Influence
Getting involved in shaping and preserving your neighborhood's character requires a lot of commitment. But it’s important that neighbors get involved early in the process.
For years, Bonny McKnight has chaired the Citywide Land Use Group. The group meets monthly and is open to anyone who wishes to share the experiences and strategies used to preserve a neighborhood's character.
"The worst part about land use at a neighborhood level is all the surprises," McKnight says. People who live for years in the same neighborhood make a financial and emotional investment in the area, and developments, she says, have the power to "change residents' lives" and "change the way people live."
That's why she and her peers have long lobbied city agencies to involve neighborhood associations at the earliest stages of planning. In other words, the sooner a neighborhood's residents know about a pending project, the sooner those neighbors can engage the developers and help shape how a development will be built, ideally satisfying all parties.
Influence How Portland Is Zoned
Back in Beaumont-Wilshire, the developers may have agreed to add retail space and decrease the number of units for their proposed development on NE Fremont Street, but they aren’t budging on two issues: the size of the building and the absence of on-site parking, both of which neighbors fear might lead to increased traffic congestion. And ultimately, the developers don't have to compromise.
That's because decades ago, city council put in place policies that allowed the city to develop in ways that reflected its smart growth strategies. And because of the municipal goal to encourage Portlanders to rely on public transit, many properties were zoned in ways that didn't require developers to provide on-site parking.
Over the next 18 months, the Comprehensive Plan, which paved the way for such policies, is getting an update. That means the clock is ticking. If you're concerned that your neighborhood is currently zoned for large-scale residential projects that don't require on-site parking, then now is the time to make your voice heard.
The Comprehensive Plan update calls for the formation of several Policy Expert Groups (PEGs), which are comprised of 15 to 25 city officials and community volunteers who will determine how to best turn the the city's strategy for growth into policies that will determine how the city is zoned, says Christina Scarzello, the East Portland district liaison at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.
Your best bet to express your concerns is to attend PEG meetings, which are open to the public and allow for comments at each meeting's conclusion.
By the end of 2013, any PEG findings will be presented to city council, and many of those findings will be included in the Comprehensive Plan update.
As the city and your neighborhood continues to evolve, now is an important time for you to influence not only how the city grows as a whole, but how that growth will positively affect your neighborhood.
Don't feel intimidated by developers or the city's processes. It's important that your voice is heard. The voice of your community has the ability to influence developers as well as future land use guidelines. You may not get everything you want, but if you make strong, reasoned arguments, you just might get more than you think, and maintain your neighborhood’s character in the process.