Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Easing Missing Middle Housing: At the Planning Commission

Tonight, Tuesday the 19th, the Planning Commission will hold a formal Public Hearing on some new code for multi-family housing, especially for modest Missing Middle triplexes and fourplexes, and larger Missing Middle forms up to 12 homes. At nine pages the Staff Report is manageable, as is a two page summary, but the proposed code itself is over 400 pages of material. The devil's in the details and without specialist knowledge, you have to trust the City's summary.

Alas, in too many cases the City has shaded truth or misrepresented things, and it's not always easy to trust them. So, it's hard to say really how good is the proposed package of changes.

Preview and summary for proposed code amendments
on missing middle housing.
On the surface, the changes seem good, if timid. HB 2001 (see below) will almost certainly call for another round of adjustment and change.

Small plexes that fit into the neighborhood fabric easily will conform to more of the standards for existing single detached homes. This is a move for continuity and for historic norms.

There's also a modest reduction in off-street parking requirements, which drive up the cost of building.

Details on lot coverage, lot size, and setbacks could still plug up the works, however. I haven't seen any informed comment on those details, and maybe there will be more to say after the Hearing.

It would be helpful for the City to provide more concrete detail in pictures and case histories. That preview image above shows three Salem projects, but does not have any discussion of ways they exemplify problems, solutions, or illustrate any part of the proposed new code.

On HB 2001
As framing, the Staff Report buries HB 2001 a little under "additional considerations," perhaps since the code changes were initiated before HB 2001 was passed. But now that it will be law, the City should consider leading with HB 2001 and making that more centrally part of the framework for analysis and debate.

Fourplexes are going to be legal, no matter what! The City should be clearer that this is coming down the pipeline and we should want to start preparing for it.

Over at LUN, people involved with the neighborhood associations have talked a little about the proposal, and I want to argue with a number of their claims and observations.

Autoism and some NIMBYism
First off, by not talking more about HB 2001, the City allows people to draw inferences like this, that neighbors should be able to require a hearing or give input on a fourplex. The reason State action was necessary is because of this kind of neighborhood resistance to missing middle housing. (Indeed, this is one of the reasons the City of Portland is looking to phase out neighborhood associations. They may no longer be fair and equitable, and instead too often serve exclusionary ends.)

Why should neighbors be able to cancel a next-door fourplex? The Strong Towns formula on change neatly recognizes the historical reality of cities. Our current zoning scheme characteristic of mid- and late 20th century freezes residential neighborhoods in a way that is very much an aberration in history. It's not "natural" and it's bad. Urban renewal, the "cataclysmic money" Jacobs talked about, was also bad. (Though Strong Towns may also not give enough thought to our climate emergency and its exigencies.) These two concepts together are much closer to a "natural" concept of a city, the way they actually change in normal, organic history, apart from things like war or famine.
  • Premise #1: No neighborhood should be exempted from change.
  • Premise #2: No neighborhood should experience radical change.
The abnormal conditions of our 20th century contribute to an entrenched autoism and incumbency bias.

The more open space we have, the farther apart things are placed, the more auto-dependent the distances between them. Open space drives demand for cars. We have not thought through the mutualism between our fondness for open space and our fondness for cars.

The older parts of town are also the most walkable, and we should want more people to be able to enjoy walkable neighborhoods and the amenities that cluster in and near them. "Fencing" walkable neighborhoods with exclusionary zoning is a form of resource hoarding and maintaining incumbency privilege. If we want a larger quantity of affordable housing, and we want to be able to have a broad and diverse middle class, we will need to have greater numbers of smaller-footprint housing in walkable areas. We should want to share!

More than this, walkable neighborhoods are also conducive to lower-car and even car-free living. This points to another disconnect: Neighbors fear more cars in walkable neighborhoods, but by pushing development out into car dependent areas, we guarantee more cars in the city driving and too often zooming. The only way to have fewer cars and fewer trips is to leverage walkable neighborhoods. (Parking reform has to be a part of this.)

Proposed changes for bigger projects
There are also some changes on larger developments of 13 or more homes, and, honestly, I wish the three and four, and then four to twelve home pieces were being done first and done separately from the 13+ part. The two sizes of missing middle housing are a convenient unit, and it is easier to assess them alone. On the 13+ piece, case studies and concrete examples would be more useful.

On one of the elements, it turns out there's a helpful word!

"Demise lines" create articulation
Walkable City Rules by Jeff Speck
In his book Walkable City Rules Jeff Speck has a chapter on "breaking up big buildings," and this is what our code is doing on "building mass and articulation."
A demise line is an artificial vertical boundary that breaks a facade conceptually into several smaller units. There is as yet no theory of demise lines nor literature of demise lines, but they are used often...Architects are often uncomfortable with the concept of demise lines, because they are essentially a lie. They misrepresent the buildings behind them, and dishonestly reduce the scale of buildings that should be smaller. As such, they can be considered white lie...They should be required on private buildings that otherwise threaten to create a monotonous streetscape.
I have often wondered what to call these seams of articulation that don't actually correspond to a different building, and now I see we have a word for that. Demise lines. Remember that!

One kind of demise line at Southblock - via CB|Two
If builders, developers, and architects have public comment on the details and potential unintended consequences, there might be more to say. I fear, though, that most comment will be strong on emotion and weak on policy.



Susann Kaltwasser said...

I wonder if the writer to the blog attended the Planning Commission hearing. I did. There was only one Neighborhood Association there to comment....East Lancaster Neighborhood Association. There were three other people who said they belonged to a NA, but they made it clear they were not speaking for them. I think this is in part because the topic is very complex and intimidating (400+ pages). But also the staff did not offer to go out to the NA meetings to make a presentation. I am sure that if asked they would have done so, but...

At the hearing Eunice Kim, the staff person in charge of the project, had a very good PowerPoint that summarized the goals and the proposed code revisions. This would have been good for NA and others to have seen. Maybe they still can before the City Council has their hearing on the subject.

At the hearing staff made it abundantly clear that they were not going to talk about the issue of zoning and the legislation that will essentially do away with single family residential zones by allowing 2-3-4 unit housing anywhere. I think this was a big mistake because the design codes need to be meshed with the idea that eventually these kind of middle housing types will be worked into existing single family neighborhoods.

There was, however, a lot of testimony by builders and the Home Builders Association....and one architect. They are complained about any restrictions in the code, more flexibility to do what would ensure they could build on any land, and to 'let the market decide' what was best.

Some of the ideas in the proposed code revision were struck down. For example the Planning Commission took out the reduction to parking requirements; relaxed the codes on balconies putting them back into the requirement; returned to the current language about garages being counted as parking spaces; and allowing for storage areas to be part of multifamily housing so that people could rent units on site. There might have been other issues that I missed that will come out in the staff report later.

There was some discussion about whether they should reduce open spaces if the apartments were close to a park, but I can't recall if they kept or removed that option.

One thing that got some discussion and might have been removed was the fact that all of Salem streets are not the same size and to remove on site parking and require on-street parking might not work so well as a universal code. The discussion was around whether there needed to be consideration that some street were already full of local parking due to no garages in older neighborhoods; streets as narrow as 24 feet; and bike lanes that restrict any parking. As one member of the PC pointed out, he chose not to live in Portland although he works there, because due to some of their reductions in parking spaces, people are now forced to look for parking in the neighborhood 3 or 4 blocks from their homes. This is unlivable for families since they open time and gas looking and they also must walk blocks in the dark or the rain to lug children and groceries home. He did not think Salem wanted that to be the norm.


Susann Kaltwasser said...

One of the things that did not get much discussion that the issue of disparity between single story houses and one that could be as tall as 35 feet and the proposed reduced setbacks. Noted was the possibility that with only 5 feet side yard setbacks a 35 ft house has the potential of blocking the sun on a lower house, so that they could no longer benefit from the use of solar panels. This might be cause for a suit claiming a 'taking' of solar rights. While they talked about perhaps some sort of way to create transitions they didn't do anything in the code to address it.

My guess is that a lot of issues will surface after the codes are changed and builders will complain more than neighbors will.

There was no discussion about livability, walkability or preservation of the character of a neighborhood. While SBOB wishes for such things, as one developer pointed out, the market drives what you get more than codes. People just won't buy houses that do not match their needs. And renters may rent because they have no choice, but they can also choose to live out of the city and drive into work. Not sure that this point should not have been given more attention in light of what the city is also trying to do with Our Salem.

The comments about the NYMBYism of neighbors is insulting and presumptive. Most neighbors are more contentious and anti-development than neighborhood associations. What is true is that there is a need to balance the property rights of home owners with the development needs. If you have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into your home, you want to protect that. This is not something to take lightly.

But as a final thought for now, I was struck by a comment by one developer, who made the point that some of the codes that they have now and are proposing are not likely to increase the amount of infill or redevelopment to higher density as might be hoped. They told of one person who wanted to increase a lot from 1 house to 3 units found that there was absolutely no way to do it at a reasonable cost. As he pointed out, it is more a dream than a reality, because it has to pencil out for the investor.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Re: your very last point on the costs of new missing middle housing.

Over at City Observatory, they discuss part of this in a new piece, "Want more housing? Build a landlord."

"the lack of attention to the needs of small landlords in both the tenants’ rights acts and the Residential Infill Project does not bode well for encouraging a large new group to become the landlords that Portland needs."

There is work to be done on regulations and financing for small scale landlords and missing middle housing.

On parking, sadly this is our autoism, and it's just going to eat us up. Builders would still be free to build more parking if the market demanded it. The fact they seem to want higher requirements in code - a kind of subsidy! - shows how they aren't actually committed to the principle of the market.

(But also: The idea that a lack of parking in Portland caused someone to undertake a 50 mile daily commute from Salem shows that driving is too cheap. Only when we subsidize driving so much is this choice a reasonable trade-off. Related, parking is underpriced because if we priced parking better, a person would be able to find parking nearby at a price they were willing to pay; but because that price right now is "free," the "cost" is circling the neighborhood 3 or 4 blocks away looking for a spot. Parking reform is key in so many ways.)

On some of the other points, we will continue to argue!

And once comment and a revised Staff Report is published, there will doubtless be more to say.

Thanks for the detailed comment!

Evan said...

I was struck one of the Commissioners seemed to think he should regulate everything according to how he wanted to live.

He argued he usually was free market but doesn't want to live "in Portland" or somewhere he may have to walk a couple blocks from where he parks. Nothing in this proposal would have required him too.

Even if we built places without a heap of on-site parking, he could select from the rest of the 99% of housing stock in Salem.

Parking requirements for all housing based on our own preferences are ridiculous. If we want to manage parking, manage parking and let people buy parking.

But don't require housing to bundle parking with it - 12.5% of renter households own no cars. They shouldn't be required to subsidize drivers through their rent.

By requiring parking, we are subsidizing and accelerating climate change.