Paranoid Parking

Mayor Charlie Hales' plan to change rules on big apartments has everyone fired up.

When smoke drifted out of the halted construction site on Southeast Division Street early March 29, the owner of nearby Victory Bar called the cops. It wasn’t his first call about the unfinished 37th Street Apartments: Two weeks earlier, he’d reported seeing a man ripping out copper wiring.

Police said the latest incident at the controversial project wasn't a political statement: just three drunken men in their 20s who broke into the half-finished building, set fire to a page of blueprints and shot off fire extinguishers. 

But Beaverton-based developer Dennis Sackhoff is hiring 24-hour security for his project, which has already been incendiary enough for many people along Division.

The building is at the center of a political fight over the city's planning and transportation policies. A decade ago, the City Council approved rules allowing developers to forgo onsite parking for new housing close to transit lines. The idea was to encourage more density and help developers keep down costs.

The change has spurred a rash of large apartment buildings—including seven along Division—with no parking for tenants. Neighbors have complained the streets in front of their homes are now jammed with cars.

The issue blew open last summer as one of the commissioners who wrote the change, Charlie Hales, was running for mayor ("Block Busters," WW, Sept. 19, 2012). Since then, Hales has been backpedaling from the policy.

Sackhoff's 81-unit building project has four stories of bicycle racks but not a single automobile parking space. He's waiting for the city to let him apply for a new building permit after a state land-use board disallowed the project on a technicality unrelated to parking.

When city officials tried to find a quick legal fix for Sackhoff's project last month—without a promised hearing—Hales stepped in to quash the plan.

The hearing is set for April 4. What's clear is that the city's current policy is all but dead. The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is now proposing that developers offer at least one parking space for every four apartments in buildings with more than 40 units.

Division Street activists want the city to require Sackhoff to add 20 parking spaces to his half-finished building. "The best interest of the city should be in serving its neighborhoods," says Richard Melo of Richmond Neighbors for Responsible Growth, "not bailing out land developers who have impulse-control issues."

Even in a town famously enamored with public process, this is a free-for-all. At least a dozen organizations from competing sides will present their case for how the city should change its policy.

"This is out of control now," says Tony Jordan of Portland Neighbors for Sustainable Development, a group advocating against rule changes. "It's a circus."

Here's who else is joining in:

Naysaying Neighbors: Homeowners who thought the neighborhood associations too milquetoast started their own splinter groups, such as Richmond Neighbors for Responsible Growth, to fight the apartments.

What they want: One space for every three apartments, though nobody agrees whether the rule should start at 20 units or 40. They also want sign-off privileges on designs of new projects.

The Enviro-Planner Coalition: The yin to the homeowners' yang, smart-growth fans—who want the city to stay the course on dense neighborhoods—created Portland Neighbors for Sustainable Development in December. The group includes  pedestrian group Oregon Walks and two old lions of Oregon land-use fights—former 1000 Friends of Oregon directors Robert Liberty and Bob Stacey, neighbors who live near Division.

What they want: The city to stick to its guns and say no onsite parking is needed. But they'll settle for the city's proposal, plus neighborhood parking permits.

Home Builders: Hales used to be a lobbyist for the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland. But large apartment complexes aren't really home builders' bread and butter, so they're willing to give Hales a pass.

What they want: One onsite parking spot for every eight units, increasing for buildings with more than 40 units.

The Commissioner: City Commissioner Nick Fish was unusually visible as the apartment controversy heated up last month—even calling himself "outraged" when Bureau of Development Services officials tried to gin up a new permit for Sackhoff without a hearing. 

What he wants: A compromise that starts with one onsite parking spot for every five apartments for buildings with more than 30 units, and moves to one spot per three apartments for buildings with more than 50 units.

The Developer: Sackhoff—until now mum as nine apartment complexes he's building in Portland have been denounced as huge, cheap and ugly—tells WW he's being unfairly scapegoated for following the city's rules.

What he wants: His original deal with the city: no required onsite parking for the 37th Street Apartments.

"It's just punishment after punishment," says Sackhoff. "If they want a public flogging, I'll agree—maybe next Friday we could do it. I'll take my whacks, and then let’s get going.” 

WWeek 2015

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