Time for a Change?

Proposed ‘Centers’ during the comprehensive plan update process

Portland is revising its Comprehensive Plan. Comp Plans are a State requirement and need to be revised every 20 years. Eliot land use and zoning is currently covered by the Albina Community Plan and the Eliot Plan within it. Previous columns discussed revisions to the Central City Plan. All these plans were adopted over 20 years ago.

City planners have adopted a “centers” approach to the new Comp Plan. They see Portland as a hierarchy of inter-related hubs where various services are available to area residents. The lowest level is the “neighborhood” center, which would include a limited number of retail and other services, including perhaps a school. A “town” center would include more services, such as a grocery, bank, medical and dental clinics, and library. The Gateway district is the only “regional” center in NE Portland, and it includes a shopping mall, car dealers, and multiple banks and dental and medical offices. The Central City tops the list.

Planners have associated each “center” with an expected level of nearby residents and mix of housing and employment options. For example, the neighborhood center is expected to have 3,500 to 7,000 residents surrounded by additional residents in mostly single family homes. Identification of “centers” in the Comp Plan will allow the City to more efficiently target its policies. For example, if a designated neighborhood center was below 7,000 residents, the City may change zoning to encourage more high density housing. If a center did not meet City expectations for low-income and special needs housing, it may target programs in that center (see related article “Keep or Lose?”)

The area between Mississippi and MLK along Fremont is a potential “neighborhood center.” It is early in the Plan process so Eliot has an opportunity to make other suggestions before the Draft Plan is revealed this fall.

The identification of “centers” in Eliot is one of six major issues Eliot needs to consider. The others are to change RX zoning that allows 100 foot tall apartments along Williams, change EX zoning to ensure mixed-use development and buffers adjacent to Historic Eliot, re-zone property that is in commercial use, but zoned “residential” and lots and blocks that have two different zones, and “down-zoning” Historic Eliot from R2 to R2.5 or lower. Each of these is briefly discussed.

A center from Mississippi to MLK as proposed may tempt Planners to designate property along Fremont for high density housing, threatening existing single family homes. The Eliot and Albina Plans both envisioned Eliot’s “center” at the intersection of MLK and Fremont. It may make more sense for an Eliot center along Williams or between Williams and MLK and a separate Boise center on Mississippi. It also may not make sense for a “center” at all because Eliot from Hancock to Broadway is expected to host higher density as part of the Lloyd District. If a “center” designation directs higher density development in the core of Eliot, it will threaten its historic character and designation. That leads to the suggestion Eliot’s current R2 zone should be reduced to R2.5 or lower, consistent with all other inner-NE neighborhoods except Irvington, which is zoned for single family only.

Eliot’s existing R2 zone makes it a magnet for developers of high density housing amidst our historic homes. Although Williams is not in the Central City area, several blocks are zoned Rx like downtown to allow for high-rise apartments. So far, those blocks have not developed because existing property owners have not sold out to developers. Unfortunately, some have wanted to develop small projects, more appropriate for the area, but cannot under the Rx zone. Similarly, a number of long-time businesses in Eliot sit on property zoned for high density residences. This prevents them from expanding and if those firms leave, new businesses will not be allowed. Many of these are on MLK, which has always been a commercial corridor. It may make sense to get rid of that “residential only” zoning, especially because some blocks, even some lots, are split between a commercial and residential zone. That isn’t rational and should probably be changed. In addition, the existing zoning regulations allow tall commercial or high rise apartments on the fence line of historic single family homes, especially along Williams and MLK. Preserving historic Eliot will be difficult unless new restrictions are imposed on zones abutting historic districts.

Finally, as noted, the only inner-NE neighborhood zoned for medium density multi-family housing is the Eliot Historic Conservation District. That zone is a threat to the continued existence of historic Eliot and the District as it allows the gradual conversion of single family homes to new, multi-family developments. Fortunately, the recent increase in housing prices makes it uneconomic for most developers to buy homes in Eliot to tear down. Nevertheless, they are trying as Lee Perlman’s article in the last News shows.

These are issues that Eliot’s Land Use Committee will be addressing over the next few months. To do so, we need to hear from Eliot residents and businesses, who we will also ask to support the decisions we make, probably at the October General Membership Meeting.

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