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September 19th, 2012 AARON MESH | Cover Story
 

Block Busters

The urban density Charlie Hales championed has arrived on Division Street. Why isn’t he celebrating?

lede_blockbusters_3846ILLUSTRATION: nickstokesdesign.com
Judah Gold-Markel has trouble parking in front of his house these days. 

He’s lived in his green bungalow on Southeast Sherman Street, two blocks north of Division Street, for eight years. He’s watched Division transform from a gritty thoroughfare to a trendy destination, making his once-quiet corner of the Richmond neighborhood busier and more congested. 

But it’s only recently he has seen big apartments—gleaming three- and four-story buildings that look like cuboid spaceships—land on Division, with more on the way.

Seven of the 11 new buildings won’t have on-site parking—thanks to a city zoning rule that exempts developers from having to provide it. That’s 224 new rental units in 13 blocks without a single new parking space.

The Portland City Council more than a decade ago created this exemption—a huge financial benefit to developers—to increase density and discourage people from owning and driving cars. 

If there’s a single fragment in the zoning code that encapsulates the ambition of city planners and the ethos of Portland, this may be it.

But the policy has its costs, and nearby residents such as Gold-Markel are paying for it. He and his neighbors have become increasingly loud in their opposition to these new apartments—including what one local calls “a dormitory without a college.”

Gold-Markel, a 38-year-old physician assistant, says he has tried repeatedly to get city officials to listen to him.

So he turned to Charlie Hales for help. 

RAISING HALES: Neighbors in July give Charlie Hales (far left) a tour of the Move the House Apartments at 38th Avenue and Division.
IMAGE: charliehales.com
Hales, a former city commissioner and current candidate for mayor, in July went on a tour led by Gold-Markel and other neighborhood activists. They showed him big, new buildings without on-site parking at Southeast 31st and 38th avenues, and the weedy lot at 37th Avenue where a new, parking-space-free building with 81 units has already been approved.

Gold-Markel says Hales didn’t like what he saw. And, he says, Hales offered this suggestion: “What about a moratorium on building until we figure out the zoning laws?”

Hales has since wrung his hands over this kind of development and promised to seek a stop to such development until the city can reassess the policy.

It’s a curious position for Hales. No one worked more fiercely than he did to push dense development on Portland’s east side, and to pass the no-parking-space requirement. His love of promoting streetcars won him the nickname “Choo-Choo Charlie,” but he could just as rightly have been called “High-Density Hales.”

“Charlie was a champion,” says former Commissioner Erik Sten, who voted for the zoning change. “You have to see this in the context of a debate he was leading about the need for more transit-friendly development: The harder you make it for cars, the less people will drive.”

And for good reason. Increased housing density, less reliance on cars and creating a walkable city have all been hallmarks of Portland’s smart approach to planning.

Both candidates for mayor say they are champions of this kind of growth and planning. But as opponents to parking-free apartments grow louder citywide, the candidates have joined their side.

State Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-Portland), for example, says he wants a more sustainable city in which planning takes into account “climate change, multimodal transportation, environmental protection and environmental justice.” Yet Smith has joined the chorus of critics opposing the parking-free buildings.

Hales’ election-year turnaround is more striking. He’s become such a convincing ally to these activists that many didn’t know he was the one who pushed the original policy 12 years ago.

“The city can’t blow the time-out whistle,” Hales tells WW. “But what the city can do is reassess. All these good-hearted neighborhood activists support the big idea of Portland being dense and livable, but they want it to be done right.”

SPACE JAM: Traffic can back up for blocks on Southeast Division Street at the Cesar Chavez Boulevard stop light.
IMAGE: nataliebehring.com

 

Long a sleepy little sister to Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, Division Street is a time warp. Many businesses are still mom-and-pop shops that offer basic services: Division Hardware. Ralph Colby & Son Furniture Refinishing. Village Merchants—a flea market in a wooden building, with Formica tables on sale. The Oregon Theater, one of the last big-screen pornographic movie theaters left in America.

But if you want a snapshot of what Portland chic has become, just drive—well, maybe you’d better bicycle—down Division Street between Southeast 31st and 44th avenues.

Celebrated restaurants with interchangeable names—Xico, Cibo and Roe—are opening around the city’s most beloved Thai destination: Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok. There’s a Little Big Burger—the gastronomic seal of approval for any Portland “it” district. Townshend’s Tea serves kombucha on tap. Last month, the ramen spot Wafu became the first Portland eatery to install “Street Seats,” a tiny, wooden dining deck built atop what was once a street-parking space. 

Developers are putting up housing to catch the heat: an estimated $60 million to develop the 11 new apartment complexes—two of them finished, two under construction and another seven issued permits by the city. 

The pressure all of this is putting on the neighborhood includes traffic congestion on Division and commuters speeding down side streets.

But the prospect of seven of those buildings not providing residents with parking has neighbors fuming over a building that’s not even there yet.

The northeast corner of Southeast 37th Avenue and Division used to be home to the Egyptian Room, an ivy-covered lesbian bar. It was razed to make way for a four-story, 81-unit apartment complex—one with bicycle racks on every floor but not a single automobile parking space.

“It really seems like a monstrosity,” says Elisabeth Varga, whose house at 37th Avenue and Caruthers Street will be in the new tower’s shadow. “Not everybody can understand what it’s going to be like until it goes up. And then it’s going to be too late.” 

The developer refuses to scale back the project to meet homeowners’ demands. Opponents are so upset that they’ve broken away from the neighborhood association—which has stayed neutral—to form their own group, Richmond Neighbors for Responsible Growth.

And few homeowners buy the idea that a policy that exempts developers from offering parking will produce the kind of socially engineered results the city wants. 

“This is America,” says Blake Sliter, who lives on Caruthers near Southeast 33rd Avenue, near two new apartments. “Everybody’s got a frickin’ car in America.”

Portland has spent years trying to reduce the use of cars. City officials had outside motivation: the state’s 1991 Transportation Planning Rule, designed to “promote the development of safe, convenient and economic transportation systems.” The state and Metro, the regional planning agency, told cities to reduce parking spaces by 10 percent. 

For nine years, the city couldn’t find a way to meet those goals.

Enter Charlie Hales. 

STREET HASSLE: Homeowners (from left) Richard Melo, Judah Gold-Merkel and Elisabeth Varga have formed a volunteer group to fight big apartments in the Richmond neighborhood. They’re sitting in front of Wafu—on a deck built over a street-parking space.
nataliebehring.com

 

Nobody in city politics pushed for density as fiercely as Hales, a commissioner described by The Oregonian in 2001 as “the current crown prince of transportation alternatives.” 

The previous year, Hales oversaw the Portland Bureau of Transportation when the city reached a breakthrough in its planning for density: remove the requirement to build parking at new housing constructed within 500 feet of public transit that arrives within every 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, the city increased the requirements for bicycle amenities at new residential projects. In short, a new apartment complex outside downtown is now required by the city to have 1.1 bicycle parking spaces for each unit, but not necessarily a single car parking space.

Sten says Hales battled then-Mayor Vera Katz to get the zoning change through—with the intention of motivating developers to build bigger projects at less expense.

“If you want to build a city with less cars,” Sten now tells WW, “you have to divert some of the substantial amount of money that goes into underground parking into other things.”

The code offers developers the chance to save a bundle: Each surface parking space costs $2,000, according to Planning Bureau figures, and each parking space in a structure costs $20,000. 

For years, few developers took the city up on the offer: Banks wouldn’t finance projects without parking, and nobody was building apartments anyway. 

That’s changed.

Pent-up pressure on development and growing demand for housing helps: The economy is waking up, Portland’s rental vacancy rate is the nation’s second-lowest, and banks have changed their attitude to financing these buildings because the market is changing.

For young people moving to Portland—the “millennial” generation born after 1980—an apartment without a parking garage isn’t a deal-breaker.

“Developers aren’t building parking because their own studies and market research are showing they don’t need to supply it,” says Megan Gibb, a transit-oriented development planner at Metro. “Research shows that demographics are changing: Millennials are driving less, and have a lower car ownership rate than in the past.”


BICYCLE RIGHTS: The Irvington Garden Apartments near Lloyd Center has a four-story tower of bike parking.
The builder behind the most hated of the new apartment complexes on Division won’t talk about it.

Dennis Sackhoff is a Beaverton-based developer whose Arbor Custom Homes, co-founded with Wally Remmers, builds suburban tract housing across Multnomah and Washington counties. (He’s the father of a local celebrity: Katee Sackhoff, the actress who played Starbuck on television’s Battlestar Galactica.) 

Sackhoff’s company, Urban Development Group, is seizing the opportunity to build large, parking-free apartment complexes like no other developer. 

It has finished one 50-unit building in the Irvington neighborhood, and it is completing construction on a 47-unit project in the Hollywood neighborhood that partially obscures the iconic marquee of the Hollywood Theatre. And it has four more buildings in the works: another 47 units in Hollywood, 50 units on Hawthorne, 71 units in Buckman, and the 81-unit Division Street building on the former Egyptian Room site, which it’s calling the 37th Street Apartments.

Neighbors don’t have a lot of options for stopping Sackhoff—or even getting him to scale back his plans. The city has already issued permits. Even before that, developers often aren’t required to submit plans for design review unless they want an exception to development standards. His company hasn’t asked for special treatment.

Sackhoff declined repeated interview requests, saying further publicity wouldn’t benefit him. But he allowed his development manager, David Mullens, to give WW a tour of the finished building on Northeast 15th Avenue and Hancock Street.

The building, called Irvington Garden Apartments, is a fairly anonymous four-story compound with peaked-roof turrets and blue siding, four blocks north of the Lloyd Center mall. It opened last summer, and rented all of its 50 studio and one-bedroom apartments, for rates starting at $650 a month, within three months. 

The building has innovative features, most of them centered on bicycles. There are no elevators, but the stairwells all have grooved metal runways for people to slide their bicycles up and down the stairs. The building’s centerpiece is a four-story bike tower with 54 bike racks; Sackhoff gives each new tenant a complimentary bicycle lock.

But the building has no storefront space—or any engagement with the street other than gates. Its concrete stairs and siding, and the closely spaced units, suggest a complex built cheaply for economy living. It feels like a bicycle-themed Comfort Inn.

Sackhoff’s Division Street project will have 3,000 square feet of street-front retail. But its design—boxy and without on-site parking—is otherwise what many Division-area homeowners dread. 

Not all developers think the city’s policy is a good idea.

Randy Rapaport, a longtime developer of condominiums and apartments on the east side, including the Belmont Dairy Apartments and Lofts, disagrees with the parking exemption. He says it simply allows developers to cut costs while creating gridlock for the neighborhood.

“These are sophisticated developers,” Rapaport says. “They know they can fill their units because this area is so hot. They know better. But they’re not required to know better.”

GOOD FENCES: Apartments without parking near 43rd Avenue and Division are reflected in the windows of Fox Fence—which is slated to be demolished to build apartments without parking.
IMAGE: nataliebehring.com

 

On a recent weeknight, Mike Gerel jogs with his chocolate Lab, Mocha, outside his new home: Move the House Apartments, at 38th Avenue and Division, one of the no-parking buildings that neighbors dislike.

Gerel, a 41-year-old project manager for environmental nonprofit Sustainable Northwest, usually gets around on foot or bike. He rarely uses his Subaru Outback, which he parks in front of someone else’s house on Southeast Ivon Street.

“It sits there,” Gerel says, “getting crapped on by birds.”

Gerel is a recent transplant from Richmond, Va., which he says has far worse traffic and parking problems than Portland. He appreciates living in a building that represents the city’s goals—and that Portland is a place “where people live the ethic.”

WW conducted a survey of residents at Gerel’s 23-unit apartment complex. We talked to 10 residents, who own a total of 11 cars and 14 bicycles. Every resident owns a car, but many of them say they rarely drive.

Many of the residents work in the environmental and sustainability fields. “Personally, I don’t mind the extra motivation to not drive,” says Andy Davidhazy, a creative director who designs MAX stations. “I’d like to ride my bike more. So it’s a good challenge.”

All the residents WW spoke to said they liked their new building, even though some don’t like the lack of parking, or worry they’re alienating neighbors.

“It wasn’t built with the neighborhood in mind,” says Abbie Murray, a Portland State University community-development major. “If you tell people you live in the apartments, I can tell that they’re not super thrilled.”

The building’s developer is Urban Development Partners, not Sackhoff’s Urban Development Group. This company had been here first, before Sackhoff’s sound-alike firm came along.

Urban Development Partners executive Eric Cress is getting used to fielding irate phone calls about Sackhoff’s 81-unit project one block away. Cress’ firm has two finished new buildings, one without on-site parking along Division.

“Quite frankly, we worry and talk about the concerns of the neighbors quite a bit,” he says. “We’re building a responsible city.”

Cress says about half of his renters own cars—and that number doesn’t vary much at either location, regardless of parking availability. 

That matches a study issued last month by sustainability think tank Sightline Institute showing weekly gasoline consumption in Oregon dipped to 7.1 gallons per capita in 2011—the lowest level in decades. 

Robert Liberty, a former Metro councilor who now directs the University of Oregon’s urban planning think tank Sustainable Cities Initiative, says less parking is a good sign for Division—his own neighborhood.

“Would you want to live in a neighborhood with abundant parking because no one goes there?” Liberty asks. “Neighborhoods change. They are constantly changing. The people who live there now are not the people who will live there 20 years from now.”

IMAGE: nataliebehring.com

 

If this is the Portland ideal—and it’s working—where are the city leaders to champion it?

Slowly backing away, from the looks of things.

On Sept. 12, Richmond neighbors and residents of other parts of town who have seen these new apartments going up packed a City Council hearing. During the presentations, Judah Gold-Markel presented his plan for a moratorium—the idea he’d gotten from Charlie Hales.

By the end of the week, Commissioners Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz told WW they want to find a way to increase parking requirements for new construction. Mayor Sam Adams, who has stood his ground on the issue, told the activists the city is studying whether there’s a parking crunch.

“Not fast enough!” someone shouted.

The candidates for mayor are moving faster. Jefferson Smith is the darling of environmental activists, social-justice advocates and bike-firsters. He presents himself as pressing for eastside growth and public transit. 

But Smith made infill housing an issue in the mayoral primary, attacking Hales for enabling cheap, skinny houses in East Portland.

Now Smith is careful to walk both sides of the debate. 

“We need to have housing for 5,000 to 6,000 new people a year, and that’s a lot of people,” Smith says. “Do we need this many units in this many blocks? My hunch is that whenever this was happening, the folks were saying, ‘Whatever you want to build, let’s build.’ We were a little too lax.”

Hales is a different story.

The moratorium presentation to the City Council included a quote attributed to Hales: “Division Street is facing the perfect storm of developers taking advantage of outdated zoning codes.”

The irony, of course, isn’t just that Hales pushed this policy, but that the code is hardly outdated. It’s just now beginning to bring the kind development Hales and other city leaders foresaw.

In his nearly two terms as city commissioner, Hales was routinely described as a “new urbanist,” a mantle he embraced as he shepherded the streetcar and argued for density as the proper outcome of the Urban Growth Boundary.

In 2001, he spoke at a conference in Hungary titled “A Vision of Car-Free Cities in Central and Eastern Europe.” The same year, he told The Oregonian’s Steve Duin that Portland—by emphasizing walkability, transit and density—was becoming “the best European city in America.”

Hales tells WW that when the city was rewriting the zoning code in 2000 to eliminate the parking requirement, he never thought developers would actually build apartments without parking.

“We were trying to get developers to put in one [parking] spot instead of two,” he says. “I certainly wasn’t smart enough to anticipate that banks would finance projects with no parking whatsoever.”

Hales says he wants to halt any new building permits on Division until the city reconsiders the no-parking rule, as well as the details of design review.

“Live in the present day, even while you’re making the changes to get to a different future,” Hales says. “That’s not just words. We’ve got to keep people on board. We’ve got to adapt as we go along.” 

With his new take on the issue, Hales is on one hand defending his creation, while offering so much sympathy to opponents it’s as if he’s handing out ammunition for the revolt.

“I don’t see pitchforks and I don’t smell torches,” he says. “We’re pioneers in Portland. We keep trying things that other cities haven’t done yet. We will have to make adjustments, because we’re making the map.”

Liberty says Hales runs the risk of clouding the rules so much that developers will stop building. 

“People need to know what they can count on,” Liberty says. “He knows this.” 

But Liberty says Hales also knows he can’t dismiss homeowners’ fears in an election year.

“Charlie had a tendency to dismiss people as NIMBYs,” Liberty says. “Can he demonstrate that he listens to people? It may seem like just political opportunism, but it’s also a lot of common sense.”

Gold-Markel is just happy to have Hales—whom he didn’t know had once championed the policy—on his side.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Gold-Markel says. “People make laws in the time that they live in. He’s listened to us.” 


Addition On Division

Eleven new apartment buildings are rising along Southeast Division Street—seven without on-site parking.

News intern Troy Brynelson contributed reporting to this story.
 
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