Monday, September 14, 2020

Grant NA Still Opposes Affordable Housing in Church Project

The affordable housing project proposed for the First German Baptist Church of 1928 is at the Planning Commission on Tuesday the 15th, and the Grant Neighborhood still doesn't like it. (Staff Report and Commission Agenda.)
Nearly Complete, October 14th, 1928

The project, analysis of it, and debate around it, together really underscore ways that our 20th century autoist zoning scheme is inadequate to the exigencies of our early 21st century. If we think Our Salem will be a success with only small, incremental changes, we are likely very mistaken. Especially with our double crises of climate and affordable housing, we need a new paradigm for our neighborhoods and for city planning. Fortunately, there are many elements from traditional neighborhoods from the 19th century and earlier we can retrieve. In important ways the way forward should draw on the past and be a new and improved version of it. This proposal for the adaptive reuse of a century-old church meets many of those challenges and deserves support.

Overwrought Criticism as "Existential Threat"

On the whole the Neighborhood's opposition to the proposal, framed as an "existential threat to the existing neighborhood," is exaggerated, and the result is a NIMBY move to preserve incumbency privilege. 

Project as "existential threat"
The NA "strongly opposes" the proposal

We accept that living in a city means sharing our neighborhood resources...

First, however, let's start with a high-level positive. One neighbor has written a very nice letter in support. They write:

As homeowners in Grant neighborhood who frequent the area on dog walks and trips to the farmers market, we enjoy the sights and sounds of the proposed area more than weekly. We fully support a project that would help extend access to this area to folks who could otherwise not afford it. We accept that living in a city means sharing our neighborhood resources with people who might have different needs, including residential on-street parking. The city's population is not going to decrease in the foreseeable future. So ignoring the lack of [affordable] housing in defense of places for cars to park will only further exacerbate the problem.

Yes, that is it. Housing for people should be more important than housing for cars, and neighborhoods rich with walkable amenities in and near them should want to share them with others so new arrivals are not forced out to car-dependent development on the edge of the city. When we look at zoning under the lens of climate, we have to make it possible for people to drive less. Transportation is a ground issue for so many things here.

Density is not merely an Abstract Metric

But the Neighborhood criticism around density is disconnected from transportation. One key reason density works is that more trips can be made by foot, bike, or bus, and do not require a car trip or car storage. Because there are few non-residences in surburban areas, even with more density, they will not be very walkable, and density will then in fact be less pleasant. In inner neighborhoods, gradually increasing density works with the existing urban fabric of the neighborhood and is not the rupturing transition and sardine-packing NIMBYs fear. It is not some abstract metric to be applied uniformly. Moreover, density is not crowding. An "equitable" distribution of density will not in fact be an equal and uniform distribution: Inner neighborhoods will be able to support and in fact thrive with greater density than outer neighborhoods. They did this a century ago, and they will do it again.

"Density" not at all connected with transportation

We confuse crowding and density
The Apparent Problem of RH Zoning

Interestingly, when the proposal indirectly came to Council as part of a housing funding plan, and prior to any formal zoning Hearing, the co-chair of the Neighborhood Association indicated that they were in favor of multi-family zoning.

The co-chair suggested multi-family zoning
of RM1 or RM2 on June 22nd to Council
Much of the argument against the project turns on the fact that the project is asking for RH, high-rise, zoning instead of one of the middle categories of RM1 or RM2 zoning, which which the neighborhood would still support (with some reservations and not exactly whole-heartedly, however). The neighborhood asks, if RH zoning is so critical, why not build on a site with existing RH zoning.

RH zoning and nearly "unlimited" parameters

Straw man:
Criticism of worst case, not proposed project
Fears of scraping and new construction

They fear the project as proposed will turn out to be too expensive, and the project team will use the new RH zoning to demolish and scrape the site, and to build even bigger. 

And even if much of the criticism of RH zoning takes as its object the straw man of a project that is not being proposed, still it is reasonable to have some sympathy with this. As proposed, this project to use the existing structure seems like a good adaptive reuse and a reasonable transition in upzoning. But brand-new high-rise on this site, an actual high-rise, something much larger than the existing church building, might be jarring, even disruptive.

Make Demolition more Difficult

One approach to a compromise solution might be to create additional barriers to demolition. I don't know if the Planning Commission could condition approval of the zoning change on retaining the building, but adding regulatory hoops to any application for a demolition permit probably would serve the greater good of allowing the project as proposed to move forward in a way that the Neighborhood will at least tolerate, even if they don't exactly embrace it.

The Neighborhood Plan has Exclusionary Intent

One of the weakest arguments in the Staff Report does not grapple with this objection very well. It says new RH zoning would "meet the intent of the Grant Neighborhood Plan."

This may be the weakest
part of the City's response

But even if you think the Grant Neighborhood Plan is wrong in some ways, it still very clearly calls for single detached homes here. The intent of the Plan is to exclude multi-family housing from this area. RH zoning here does not meet the intent of the Neighborhood Plan. That is just a very weak argument, even laughable, from the city. 

There is a clear exclusionary intent here, and we should be meeting that more squarely.

Original Grant zoning concepts
from the 1983 plan
(Comments in yellow and red added)

This intent to protect against "encroachment" is something we should criticize and a more widespread problem we should face in Our Salem. Even without explicit malignant intent, "single family residential character" codes for wealth and race, and that is indirectly intended as a feature not a bug of our exclusionary zoning scheme and our approach to historic districts. This focus on "character" deserves more general criticism and analysis.

We need to move past the rhetoric of "encroachment"

Problem of Subjective Criteria

Another possibly general problem is the applicant's repeated criticism of the evaluation criteria as non-objective. I don't know enough land use law to know how compelling this is, but I don't remember seeing this as so much of a refrain before. Maybe I just haven't noticed. But this will be interesting to follow in the decision and any appeals. This also may be something Our Salem needs to address. We know, anyway, that Neighborhood Plan policies that are not carried over formally into city statute will lack any controlling power in an appeal to LUBA, for example. Policies are advisory only unless given the force of statue.

The applicant objects throughout to subjective terms

"quality of life" and "neighborhood stability"
are examples of non-objective standards

There are many other side issues in the proposal and the Grant Neighborhood objections, and you might find other matters of interest. There are several ways to approach this proposal. As a creative housing and preservation solution that does not fit neatly into our current categories of analysis, this case shows ways many of those categories will not take us into the next few decades of change, and it is an interesting one.

The Planning Commission convenes at 5:30pm on Tuesday the 15th. You can submit comment to

For previous notes on the history of the church building and the proposed housing, see here.


I should have thought to make this comparison earlier. 

Last month, you may recall, the City opened the affordable housing project on Fisher Road.

August 2020
But Fisher Road is much less walkable than the Grant Neighborhood, and is less safe and less convenient for low-car and car-free living than Grant.

1 comment:

Sarah Owens said...

Hearing before Planning Commission postponed to October 6 at DevNW request.