Population growth spurs demolitions, new infill projects

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Local home builder Jeff Fish is chairman of a city advisory committee working with neighbors upset about demolitions and infill projects.Neighborhood activists and preservationists are scrambling to prevent the demolition of another old house in Portland, the Markham home at the entrance to the Laurelhurst neighborhood. A developer has bought the rambling 1911 structure and requested a meeting with the Bureau of Development Services to discuss its future.

“I’m not against change, but this is a historically important home to the neighborhood,” says Terra Wheeler, who was circulating fliers asking people to sign an online petition to save the home. She operates the Facebook page Portland Historic Building Demolition Alert.

The buyer, developer Peter Kusyk, says he has not yet decided what to do with the home. But the property has been heavily modified over the years and the house shows signs of serious deterioration.

“I’m still in the planning stages, but I’m leaning toward tearing it down, dividing the lot, and replacing it with two homes that reflect the character of the neighborhood,” Kusyk says.

Local homebuilder Jeff Fish says such controversies are being driven by Portland’s growing popularity and land-use planning laws that limit available homesites.

“As long as people want to move to here and there are limits on where new homes can be built, existing homes in established neighborhoods will be torn down and replaced with new ones,” says Fish, whose company, Jeff Fish Construction, specializes in infill developments.

Fish is not just any builder. He is also the chairman of a citizens advisory committee to the Portland Bureau of Development Services. In that capacity, Fish is on the front lines of the growing battle over how and where new homes should be built in town. He has spent many hours during the past few months listening to angry residents upset about existing homes being torn down in their neighborhoods and replaced with one or more new ones.

According to Fish, such complaints are escalating as the economy recovers and new home construction begins returning to normal levels.

“The neighbors have some legitimate complaints, and the city should respond to those. But a lot of people are simply upset about change, and there’s not much the city can do about that. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m not saying it’s wrong. It’s what it is,” Fish says.

Voluntary notification urged

As Fish sees it, neighbors have a right to be upset when a nearby home is torn down without warning. And they need to know that hazardous materials in such homes — including asbestos and lead paint — are properly handled. Toward that end, he is behind a new effort by BDS to encourage builders to voluntarily notify neighbors of pending demolitions.

If complaints don’t decrease within six months, Fish says he will support making the notifications mandatory before the end of the year, when his term as chairman of the Development Review Advisory Committee expires.

“I am telling all my builder friends to use them, because if they ignore them, then something more troublesome will probably appear,” Fish says.

But Fish also thinks they are not a realistic solution for many of the other complaints he has been hearing. For example, many neighbors are upset because the new homes are larger than the ones they replace. Fish says that’s simply a matter of marketplace demand, something his committee cannot even begin to address.

“Every generation wants to live in a larger home. Who am I to say my children can’t live in the house they want, if they can afford it?” Fish says.

But more than that, Fish says many of the neighbors are upset about the logical results of land-use policies they support. Public opinion polls consistently show Portlanders support the urban growth boundary administered by Metro that limits where new development can occur. Portland voters also have helped defeat several ballot measures to change Oregon land-use planning laws over the years.

“People say they support saving farmland, and then are surprised when someone builds a new home down the street from them. If they think that’s a problem, they need to be talking to Metro about expanding the boundary to create more places to build new housing,” Fish says.

Neighbors object

A lot of people are talking about the home demolition issue, largely because of several high-profile incidents. A recent one played out over a few weeks in June when Google executive Kevin Jones took out a demolition permit for a Willamette Heights house that he and his wife bought for $1.3 million. Thousands of people signed an online petition protesting Jones’ plan to replace the 1892 house with a new one. City officials declined to intervene, including Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who is in charge of BDS. The couple relented by the end of last month, however, and sold the house at 1627 N.W. 32nd Ave. for $75,000 more than they paid for it.

Before that, more than a dozen neighbors in Northwest Portland pooled their resources in May to buy a 1902 house from a developer who planned to replace it with multiple homes. And in April, neighbors in Eastmoreland bought a house from a developer who planned to replace it with two homes.

But those purchases are the exceptions. Last year alone, 273 demolition permits were issued in Portland — more than the 270 issued in 2006, shortly before the housing bubble burst. The number is expected to top 300 this year, and that does not even count homes that are almost completely torn down but classified as remodeling projects under current city policies.

“Demolitions have been going on for a long time, but now they’re happening in more expensive neighborhoods where they haven’t happened before,” says Fish, who expects the trend to accelerate to help accommodate the 725,000 people who are projected to move to the region over the next 20 years.

So far, neighbors have struggled to even find a forum to explore all of their concerns. A number of neighborhood coalition offices organized a panel discussion on demolition-related issues several weeks ago. Fish attended and says he would be willing to speak at any follow-up forum. None has been announced so far.

Door hangers first step

In the meantime, some neighbors have agreed to work with Fish and his committee on the demolition issue. He has appointed a subcommittee that helped craft the new voluntary effort. It includes a pre-printed door hanger that BDS will give to everyone who applies for a demolition permit. It includes the address of the house to be torn down and BDS contact information for anyone who wants more information. Permit holders will be encouraged to hang it on the doors of surrounding houses. BDS also has launched a website with information on its demolition process.

Some neighbors are unhappy about the voluntary nature of the news notification effort, however. They say irresponsible builders will simply ignore the door hangers.

“Creating the appearance of addressing a problem is possibly the only thing worse than ignoring the problem entirely,” says Robert McCullough, chairman of the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Assocation.

But Maryhelen Kincaid, one of two DRAC neighborhood representatives, disagrees.

“Door hangers are better than nothing,” McCullough says. “I believe they are a good first step in an attempt to solving some issues brought forward by various neighborhood associations.”

Despite his disappointment, McCullough is still working with Fish on some of the other demolition-related issues, including when to require a homeowner to apply for a demolition permit for a remodeling project. McCullough also wants to make sure that anyone intending to tear down a home follow the correct procedures for removing hazardous materials, something enforced by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, not the city.

Fish says BDS is not interested in assuming DEQ’s role in the hazardous materials abatement process because of budget concerns. He and McCullough have agreed the subcommittee will discuss the issue, however.

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