Get in the Zone

Zoning Out

Proposed Zone Map
Proposed Land Use Changes

Eliot is one of the oldest areas in Portland and the best representative of a pre-automobile, streetcar neighborhood. The resulting intimate scale is one of the top reasons residents give for living here.

Unfortunately, Eliot’s Historic Conservation District designation does little to preserve our history or character. The primary threat to Eliot is the existing zoning. Most people see zoning as something that interferes with the design and use of their property; however, its real purpose is to protect property owners from the designs and uses of their neighbors. No one wants to have a dirty, noisy industrial plant for a neighbor and zoning is there to prevent that.

Eliot’s existing residential zoning requires the highest residential density in all of NW Portland. It is a little known fact that our zoning requires you to build dense housing. If your house were to burn to the ground, on most lots you would be prohibited from replacing it. Instead, you would have to build a duplex or larger multifamily building!

As a result, the Eliot Land Use Committee has proposed residential zoning in Eliot be changed to reduce density to a level similar to other NE Portland neighborhoods. That change is from R2 to R2.5, which is described in another post.

In addition, The Albina Plan adopted over 20 years ago concluded that the commercial zoning along MLK was hindering rather than helping development because it was based on auto-oriented uses, such as used car sales and repair. A lot of those old zones were changed to support residential development. Unfortunately, that zone prevented a number of established businesses from expanding.

Accordingly, the Eliot Land Use Committee is also proposing changing the residential-only zoning along MLK to a mixed-use zone that allows both business and residential development. Finally, recent controversy over a high rise project at Williams and Fremont, the Committee is proposing to reduce high rise zoning south of New Seasons in favor of residential zoning that is more compatible with both the desires of those property owners and adjacent residential development.

The map provides a summary of the proposed changes, although it is not detailed down to the individual lot level. Property owners will receive notices of the zone change proposals from the City and will be able to object if they don’t want the change. The ultimate decision will be made by City Council as part of the Comprehensive Plan process, which may take a couple more years.

What’s in a (Zoning) Number?

A related article cites a proposed change in Eliot’s R2 zoning to R2.5. Most of Eliot’s residences are on property zone R2. A change to R2.5 reduces the number of housing units that must be built on an existing R2 lot.

This change rightly causes concern among affected owners, which this article attempts to address; however, zoning is a complicated topic and this article cannot cover all aspects.

Residential zoning dictates development density. The R2 zone requires a minimum of one unit for every 2,000 sq. ft. of lot area. Changing to R2.5 reduces that to one unit for every 2,500 sq. ft. For a normal 50 foot by 100 foot lot, or 5,000 sq. ft. area, the change has little effect. The R2 zone requires a minimum of 2 units, but allows higher density, whereas the R2.5 zone requires only 2 units, and higher density comes with some restrictions.

However, many of Eliot’s historic residences are on larger lots. For a 50 by 125 foot deep lot, the 6,250 SF size would require at least 3 units today, versus only 2 with R2.5 zoning. Again, 3 units could still be built with the R2.5 zone, but with some restrictions.

This slight change in development density can affect future property value. Predicting that affect is tricky, but a vacant lot in Eliot currently sells for around $200,000, which is the value of the land for infill development. In contrast, most single family houses in Eliot appear to be priced around $325,000.

In other words, an Eliot homeowner can make more money selling to another homeowner than to a developer. Partly because the most common infill project is the two-unit town-home or two skinny houses, either of which appears to sell new for $350-400,000. This summary is aimed at existing single family home owners. Individuals who own multiple adjacent parcels that can be combined have different options.

What is Wrong with _EX?

No, not s-e-x, just Ex, which is a zoning code that allows a mix of residential and “Employment” uses in the same building. Mixed use developments appear to be the preferred way to develop apartments in Portland and elsewhere. They provide ground floor amenities for the residents above as well as for nearby neighbors. Mixed use projects are a recent development in Portland. When the Albina Plan was adopted over 20 years ago City planners wanted to encourage mixed use development by zoning property along major transit corridors Ex so businesses didn’t have to have dedicated employee and customer parking. To accommodate housing over ground floor commercial use it allowed buildings as tall as 65 feet. At the time, banks were reluctant to loan money to developers for a building that wasn’t just commercial or exclusively residential. That changed during the housing bubble. When apartment developers “discovered” the flexibility allowed in the Ex zone, they began building 65 foot tall buildings with no parking immediately adjacent to the back yards of single family homes along Williams, Fremont, Division and most other major streets. Impacted neighbors complained loudly with little effect. The City is finally responding with a process to re-evaluate mixed use zoning in general, and the Ex zone in particular. An advisory committee of over 20 citizens was formed to address the issue over the next 12 months. I am now serving on that committee.

It should be noted that the Eliot Plan favored the Ex zone as a way to stimulate business expansion and development especially along MLK. The reasons were many Albina residents at the time needed jobs but lacked education. Although the demographics of Albina have changed since then, the poor graduation rates from area high schools suggests this need still exists. We have been fortunate not to have the problems Boise and other neighborhoods have had with no-park apartments in Ex zones, but that is probably just luck. Our goal is to continue to encourage business and employment in Eliot, including housing over compatible businesses by improving, not abolishing the Ex zone or a new, mixed-use replacement.

What is PDC?

The recent controversy over development of a Trader Joe’s on land currently owned by PDC (the Portland Development Commission) has a number of residents asking for more information about PDC; what it is, who is on it, and what it does. The Eliot Land Use Committee invited a representative to the April 21st meeting to answer these questions.