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Council starts to show interest in citizens group proposals

The City Council got a lesson in effective community organizing last Thursday.

That was when a grassroots group, which came together this past summer, presented a powerful case that Portlanders across the city are angry about the increasing number of residential demolitions and infill projects.

The hearing is tentatively set to continue on Jan. 20, when it could become the second big controversy of 2015 after the street fee.

The group calls itself United Neighborhoods for Reform. It includes activists, members of dozens of official neighborhood organizations, and members of preservation organizations. They want the council to appoint a task force to study such controversies as the replacement of small, older homes with one or more larger ones.

“This whole issue was off the radar just a couple of years ago,” said UNR co-founder Alan Ellis, a former president of the Beaumont-Wilshire Neighborhood Association. “Then all of a sudden, we started getting phone calls and emails, and people started coming to our meetings saying we need to do something about this.”

The discussions resulted in three demolition summits held over the summer where the UNR was formed and its members agreed to ask the council to appoint the task force. The request was made in a way that could serve as a model for groups wanting to get the council’s attention in the future, even during the hectic holiday season.

Planning ahead, the UNR maximized its use of the standard council procedure that allows three people to come up to a table and testify on an issue for no more than three minutes each. This frequently produces conflicting and completely random back-to-back remarks. But the UNR testimony was organized into panels that spoke on specific problems within the larger issue. Some focused on hazardous materials in the homes being demolished, while others talked about the loss of affordable housing, the need to identify and preserve historic structures, and the environmental benefits of encouraging the deconstruction of houses instead of demolition.

The witnesses didn’t just talk. One panel pooled its time to present a video slide show titled “Demolishing Portland: A Gallery of Lost History.” It featured before and after pictures of mostly small, old homes and the much larger new ones that replace them. The contrast was frequently jarring, even though some of the new homes seemed well designed and built. It was accompanied by an acoustic protest song written by Bill Deene when 23 people were arrested trying to stop the replacement of older houses on Northwest Overton and Pettygrove streets with row houses.

The presentation all but hijacked the original purpose of the hearing, consideration of a series of recommendations to provide more public notice and delay on pending demolitions. It was prepared by the Development Review Advisory Committee, an appointed body that consults with the Bureau of Development Services, which issues demolition, remodeling and construction permits. Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees BDS, had asked DRAC to study the issue and recommend any changes by the end of the year.

The UNR members welcomed some of the recommendations, including a mandatory 35-day delay on all demolitions. But it objected to others, including the elimination of a 120-day delay that neighborhood associations can request. But mostly the UNR testimony revealed its members don’t think the DRAC recommendations go far enough. For example, the recommendations do not address the larger size and different character of many replacement houses because that is outside BDS’s jurisdiction.

Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Nick Fish seemed especially interested in the UNR testimony. At one point, Fish seemed concerned that there are no requirements for a developer to maintain a vacant house that eventually will be demolished. Some UNR members speculated that is because a developer has bought a small, older house next to where Fish lives in Northeast Portland and plans to remodel it into a much larger one.

No member of the council agreed to appoint the citywide task force requested by UNR at the hearing, but that still could happen. There were around 20 people wanting to testify when the council lost its quorum a little after 6 p.m. after more than two and a half hours of testimony. They will be the first to speak when the council takes up the issue again next year.

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