What UNR does, and why

Portland grassroots group United Neighborhoods for Reform seeks to stem the demolition of viable, affordable housing. Our demolition/development resolution, developed through significant neighbor outreach, gathered endorsements from 43 neighborhood associations citywide. We also regularly take our message to City Hall, starting in December 2014, continuing in 2015 on Feb. 12, June 3 (UNR presenters start at 51:20), Oct. 14 (UNR at 1:07:35), and Nov. 25 (UNR at 1:05); in 2016 on Feb. 17, Nov. 9 and 16, and Dec. 7; in 2017 on May 17; in 2018 on Feb. 1; and many dates since.

"The time is always right to do what is right."
—Martin Luther King Jr.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

DRAC can't do it

Last week's second City Hall session dedicated to demo issues remains a much-mitigated success. 
UNR's second trip to City Hall yielded mixed results.

Getting ready for showtime: UNR activists gather to give
another round of testimony about the devastating effects
of demolitions on neighborhoods, affordable housing stock,
and public health.
Among the good news: a pledge from the mayor to move forward on a new-construction task force that will revise guidelines for such parameters as setbacks, footprint, and height of single-family residential housing. As I noted in testimony Thursday, city code already regulates such things, it's just that no one thought to build to the maximums until now—the direct result of considering a neighborhood a profit center rather than simply a place to live.

The council also overrode the objections of Commissioner Fritz in deciding that the public-safety issue of hazmat control deserved more attention than a check box placed on the demo application that only attempted to convey that regulations existed for lead and asbestos. A check box does nothing to protect Portlanders and their neighborhoods from materials known to cause irreversible damage, especially to the most vulnerable among us. Because it's no secret lead and asbestos are hazardous, why is it demo crews and developers continue to release toxic clouds on an unsuspecting public? Is it because their children and families don't live within 300 feet of the site, which is how far these materials are found to travel? Public safety should rank higher than one company's profits, and it's the job of good government to ensure that it does.

Until the city adequately protects neighbors from a known public-health hazard, neighbors can bond together and apply for a temporary restraining order to ensure the demo is safely conducted. It may cost some money, but so does lifetime care of illness brought on by lead and asbestos.
Until the city enforces hazmat control during demolitions,
this is about the only recourse for protecting neighbors.
[Click to enlarge.]

The council also smiled on deconstruction, at last acknowledging that a self-proclaimed "green" city could do better than annually sending hundreds of homes built of old-growth materials to the dump. 

At United Neighborhoods for Reform (UNR), we applaud this progress—it's been countless hours of volunteer work for more than a dozen people for almost a year now—but we abhor what happened next. At the City Council session Portland's leaders decided to hand off hazmat control and deconstruction to the Development Review Advisory Committee (or DRAC), the developers' body that recently took seven months and two City Hall visits to come up with lukewarm fixes for Portland's record-breaking spate of demolitions. 

In coming up with the changes, DRAC also took the opportunity to successfully weaken a law that had been on the books for 25 years and saved some homes, making it even harder for neighbors to save affordable housing. Adding insult to injury, DRAC also instituted a $1,318 fee to those who wanted to try to save a home from the landfill—this probably prompted by a bureau with $30-plus million in reserves. Leave it to DRAC and the Bureau of Development Services to monetize neighbors' efforts to improve Portland even while approving every neighborhood-damaging project that comes over the counter.

There are other reasons to decry this maneuver, which calls into question how serious city leaders are about standing up for Portland neighborhoods.

DRAC is not good public process. Until reminded to do so last month, the industry body has seen no reason to comply with Oregon's Public Meetings Laws, required for any entity doing the public's business. That public business is the use of the city's finest resource (land) for development among us earlier investors who worked to create and maintain some wonderful neighborhoods.

DRAC is not equipped to make far-reaching policy. For the record, its mission statement reads:
The purpose of the Committee is to foster a timely, predictable and accountable development review process that implements the City's goals for land use, transportation, housing, economic development, neighborhood livability and the environment. The Committee advocates for and supports consistent and fair application and implementation of regulations.

Nothing in this job description speaks to creating code, a task that should involve a wide range of stakeholders and fair transparent process. If anything, the laborious seven-month effort to come up with changes to the demolition code shows how the body struggles with tasks outside its purview.

DRAC considered these issues, and took a pass. The committee looked at deconstruction, and tabled it, even when City Council directed it to come up with something. The committee also looked at hazmat control, and settled for the check box that changes nothing about how demolitions are performed. If developers never cared about controlling hazmat before, why would they want to now?

Other Oregon cities such as Medford, Tualatin, Lake Oswego, and Hillsboro require such measures as surveys for hazmat and certification of proper disposal before a demo permit can be obtained. This could be the real test of the City That Works, whether there's enough commitment to public safety and accountability to control hazmat.
Unprompted, a passerby wondered if this home "couldn't represent
a bigger middle finger to the neighborhood." Until a proposed task
force brings improved guidelines for new construction
(demand it!), there will be more.

DRAC must stick to business. And that's the business of permitting. If the Bureau of Development Services revises a fee or form, that's for DRAC. Per DRAC's mission statement, the industry group can return to advocating, supporting, and fostering—but not making—regulations.

Congratulations if you've read this far! UNR has lodged a protest with City Council over this ill-conceived assignment, but the mayor and commissioners need to hear from others, too. The 41 neighborhoods that endorsed the UNR resolution are full of people who care about how Portland grows.

Hazmat control and deconstruction deserve real action, from those with Portlanders' interests at heart.

If you are ready to engage more with the cause after writing those letters and emails, come on out to the UNR presentation and recruitment event 10 to 11:45 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 28, at Ambridge Center, 1333 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Again, you are invited

Can a "green" city dedicated to thoughtful planning put a damper
on demolitions? Come see for yourself on Thursday, Feb. 12.
As United Neighborhoods for Reform prepares for another presentation at City Hall this week, we extend a second invitation to anyone concerned about the loss of affordable housing in Portland neighborhoods and the new construction taking its place.

The Details
What: United Neighborhoods for Reform responds to recommendations proposed by the Development Review Advisory Committee, or DRAC, and presents its ideas for a more responsible path forward
When: 2 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 12
Where: Portland City Hall, 1221 S.W. Fourth, Council Chambers

This time around, we expect the mayor to announce the task force (item No. 2 of the UNR demolition/development resolution) that will provide guidelines for new construction as well as hazmat control during demolitions (item No. 3). This is encouraging news, but we need as many eyes and ears as possible on the proceedings to ensure the measures happen and to show the rest of City Council the overwhelming neighborhood support for them.

For those still wondering if UNR is some renegade group with far-fetched ideas, it's worth excerpting here UNR member Jim Heuer's testimony from Dec. 17, the first time UNR went to City Council, to present the demolition/development resolution. Heuer showed that the resolution's proposals dovetailed with policies of the draft 2035 Comprehensive Plan, and in fact would actualize them. He reported:

"Policy 5.33 of the draft 2035 Comprehensive Plan calls for 'preservation of small resourceefficient and affordable single family homes.' Similarly, Policy 4.13 calls for infill construction that is consistent with the 'general scale, character, and natural landscape features of neighborhoods. Consider building forms, scale, street frontage relationships, setbacks, open space patterns, and landscaping.' We agree!
 "Policy 3.79 on Inner Neighborhoods Infill says, 'Integrate new development into these districts’ historic development patterns.' Again, we agree.
"Other policies include promotion and retention of privacy and solar access at the time of infill construction. Once more, we agree."

If Comprehensive Plan policies translate into action,
homes like this Alameda bungalow could remain standing.
These city policies show support for UNR's effort all along, and perhaps the city will come to appreciate that the hard work of outreach, fine-tuning, and brainstorming has already been done by UNR. All we need now to make the policies a reality and put an end to the Irresponsible Era of trash-and-build is a green light from the five in charge.

We hope you'll join us Thursday.