Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Pros and Cons of Being Awesome - Long Version

A surge of awesomeness is wrapping itself around me and my inner southeast Richmond neighbors, whether we like it or not.  My husband and I moved into our home right off SE Division Street 17 years ago when the businesses here represented the trades, not the service sector.  A solitary furniture refinishing business remains where once there was a plethora of quirky, low-brow shops and industrial businesses.  Gone from our main thoroughfare is the flaking red paint of the Laughing Horse revolutionary bookstore, which housed hippies in all their disorganized glory on the corner of 37th and Division.  It was replaced by Victory, a wine bar that most nights packs a house full of spiffy, shiny kids in glasses-without-lenses and a corral full of bicycles.  Closed is the metal engraving and etching shop.  Ditto the discount furniture store, Rose City Reptiles (Owner Thuyen Pham is still one of the best reptile experts in the country), and multiple resale shops and hodge-podge stores.  Division was a bit down-at-the-heels, but friendly and unique - never snooty. 
Now, we brag of the ‘best ramen in the country’ at Yataimaru by Shigezo on 38th, 2011’s ‘Best Chef Northwest’ winner, Andy Ricker at the ever-popular Pok Pok Thai restaurant on 32nd, and, my current favorite, Sckavone's restaurant in the old Ever Ready Drugs building on 41st near the Japanese Immersion School (even our public schools are upscale!).  There are over 80 places to eat between 11th and 45th Avenues on our little ‘main street’, many of them expensive and/or delicious.  My bucket list is to try each of them at least once before the owners go out of business or follow a new creative impulse.
From Ava Gene’s to Lauretta Jean’s, one will never go hungry in Richmond (unless they go bankrupt first).  There’s Cibo, Xico, Wafu and Roe with the shortest names; and New Seasons Market (yes, you can get a great hot lunch there), Le Petit Provence Bakery (Parisian pastries to die for), and Clays’ Smokehouse Grill (even good for vegetarians), with the longest.  The neighborhood makeover is not panoptic, yet.  Even though our family of four can choose our nightly meal from 30 different international flavors, we still have the grounding experience of walking by our very own adult theater on our way to dinner, reminding us of Richmond’s roots.
Apart from the fabulous food festivities, Division is blossoming with new apartments and condos.  Where once we saw tiny, moss-covered rental homes with hanging gutters and foot-high weeds, now we witness the placement of large concrete forms and watch as steel frames grow into mostly well-done, multi-family living places. (One extreme exception is a particularly repulsive monstrosity on 31st Avenue that appears to be covered in a claustrophobic chain link fence, giving the entire street-side façade the impression of a giant jail cell.  I wonder if the renters feel incarcerated?).  This building-boom consists of over 12 new developments within walking distance of our house, with even more in the permitting stage from what we hear.  Portland is making room for hundreds of new residents in our lovable, and now fashionable, close-in neighborhood.  

One of those developments is currently underway on SE 37th Avenue.  A few years ago, the only lesbian bar in the entire city, The Egyptian Club, fell on hard times, changed venues and eventually sold to a developer.  The apartment complex that is now under construction there looks promising; crews recently completed four floors of steel framing, with nice, tall storefronts for its Division side and a cozy side-street entrance for residents.  The high-quality, neighborhood-friendly bones of the building are encouraging.  I have been eagerly looking forward to seeing “The 37th Street Apartments” with its skin on – hopefully a finish more attractive than the penitentiary down the street - and a lifeblood of customers flowing in and out its Division street doors. 
On March 21st, I was imagining myself someday walking the half-block to buy something warm and comforting from one of its future shops, when I read an Oregonian article about the project that got my hackles up.  Our new Mayor ordered Portland's Bureau of Development Services to stop reviewing revisions for this specific project’s building permit – one more twisted chapter in this building’s soap opera.  Perhaps you are aware of it…
The 37th Street Apartments is the largest of its kind under zoning code 33.266.110.B, which allows buildings in certain zones close to frequent-service transit to forgo off-street parking.  The building includes 81 units, a number of retail storefronts - and no off-street parking.  Some of my neighbors don’t like this.  They are, in fact, outraged.  They formed a coalition - Richmond Neighbors for Responsible Growth (RNRG) – to combat the threat of losing their customary on-street parking spots to newcomers.  With a potential for 160 new residents living among us who have no underground parking garage, their prediction is almost certain to become a reality.  But what sets me off isn’t the apartment’s design – The 37th Street Apartments is the development that City planners envisioned when they wrote code 33.266.110.B.  The bee in my bonnet is the indirect and underhanded manner the players have acted in this matter.
The controversy surrounding the parking issue has been a heated topic of debate for at least a year, but when RNRG appealed the building permit, they were shot down by the City’s Bureau of Development Services because the builder’s plans clearly met code requirements.  But RNRG appealed again, this time not on the basis of their true contention – parking - but on a vaguely-worded land-use requirement for an ‘entrance’ on Division Street.  The building’s residential entrance consists of a quiet, nicely-designed courtyard on 37th Avenue.  Shops will presumably open their doors onto Division Street. 
In a highly unusual move, the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals ruled on this building permit, stating that the project did not meet zoning requirements.  They overstepped their customary boundaries and reversed the Bureau of Development Services’ decision to grant the building permit.  Typically in this situation, when code is written ambiguously and it bumps up against a decent project that meets the code’s intent without meeting the letter of the regulation, the code is quickly re-written to clarify the intent.  Typically, projects that meet the code in spirit are allowed to continue.  Perhaps a new building permit is issued, or an exception is granted, or the code is amended to address an unintended consequence identified by the court.  Typically.  But this project is anything but typical. 
First, RNRG attacked well after construction started – too late for any meaningful discussion of major design changes.  The ensuing shenanigans looked republicanesque in their ‘ends over means’ approach.  Second, the land use decision was unintelligible because the shops on Division will obviously have entrances on Division Street.  Third, when the City bureau that oversees building permits began to re-review the permit, Mayor Hales put on the executive brakes.  He even suggested that new code may be hurriedly written while the project is on hold.  That new code would be a requirement for the development to continue, even if it means ripping down the half-done building and starting from scratch.
This circus is not what I would call fair and responsible behavior.  Many of the NIMBYs involved are my well-intentioned neighbors and friends.  But these actions may end up causing large financial losses to a single property owner, and I see where this is headed, friends – a lawsuit against the City, which is expensive for all of us.  The last thing I want to see at the end of my block for the next ten years is an unfinished skeleton of a building, wrapped in fluttering sheets of yellow Tyvek.           
Some of my neighbors cling to the status quo – they got theirs, so to hell with the rest of y’all – and cannot see the benefits that accompany the inevitable parking inconveniences.  They are not appreciating what lies at the foundation of this issue: equity.  Without required onsite parking, property owners can build apartments that can be rented at more affordable prices.  Affordable prices allow people with less money to live in Richmond, close to all of those fab new eateries I enjoy.  But more importantly, the new residents will be close to our world-class bus system; our-soon-to-be, very own, inner SE lightrail station; a drugstore, six public schools and a grocery store.  These community resources are important to upper-middle class residents who have been here for years.  But they are especially important to the lower-middle class people who work at The Hedge House, Division Street Hardware and Tom’s Restaurant.  Richmond should not be reserved for the rich. 
But the rich actually benefit directly too.  Affordable prices mean more people who work at New Seasons or Division Coffee can live close to work.  It means more young people will be our neighbors; more families with children, more diversity.  It also introduces a new look and feel to our mostly caucasian community, many of us in our 40’s and 50’s.  Integrating well-done affordable housing into the fabric of a successful community brings variety that goes beyond international restaurant fare.  Our rich-in-amenities Richmond neighborhood will be richer with a wider array of cultural and racial representation.  Our kids especially will benefit from the broader spectrum of people passing through their daily lives as they grow into adults who respect peoples’ differences. 
Sadly, throughout its history, the City lacked incentives for different economic groups to live side by side, and this in part, has led to Richmond’s blinding whiteness (it doesn’t help that Portland is 76% caucasian - most neighborhoods face this same problem).  Lucky for us, the 90’s brought both a progressive shift that fed the booming foodie and creative community, and created building codes that financially allow different people to mix and mingle. 
Professional planners have carefully thought these things through and purposefully allowed buildings like the 37th Street Apartments.  People smarter than I have decided that the extra effort of walking a half-block from car to home is a small price to pay for the planned, inclusive density that this kind of project promotes.  Density is coming, Portland, like it or not.  With the flurry of new establishments lately, Richmond will perhaps someday feel like a mini-NW 23rd Avenue, with all the same parking conflicts and traffic issues – and rising property values. 
The bottom line for Richmond is that change is a-comin.  There is no way around it.  And believe it or not, it doesn’t have to lead to neighborhood in-fighting over limited street parking.  Most people don’t realize that the true ratio of available long-term spots to cars will shift from both sides of the equation.  Some residents of the 37th Street Apartments won’t own cars.  But, as RNRG rightly submits, many will.  The complex, in and of itself, will increase demand for street parking.  But the forgotten elements in this formula are the changes that will be made by nearby home owners, most of whom also own cars and park on the street.  This ingrained habit (hypocritically begrudged to the newcomers) is already a lifestyle of choice for far more than 160 of us.  We may need to re-examine this habit. 
It may surprise folks to know that most of the single-family lots in Richmond actually do include off-street parking.  It may not look like much, but those tuck-under garages, shared driveways and cramped, one-car garages from early in the century are intended for cars, not ladders, table saws, flower beds and recycling bins.  If home-owners grow weary of searching for spots on the street, they have options.  Uprooting sentimental plants and getting rid of years of accumulated junk will be hard, but using our lots as they were designed to be used shouldn’t be a shocking concept, and it’s only fair.  We have grown entitled to space, considering the street as our own personal resource.  In reality, it belongs to everyone.  But a driveway is truly a reserved space, just for its owner! 
Another way current residents will affect the car-to-space ratio is by choosing to own fewer cars.  Maybe teenagers will have to share dad’s car when they get their licenses.  Perhaps families will carpool more often, use car-sharing services (prolific in our neighborhood), or junk their junkers instead of leaving them on the street for ‘just in case’. In this close-in, alternative-transportation-friendly neighborhood, what household really needs three or more cars?  With the many benefits of a hipper, cooler, more equitable Division Street comes change for us old-timers.  That change can and – yes – should be made. 
The development on 37th and Division will negatively impact me and my family in the short term.  But I am willing to share my little slice of this wonderful neighborhood with others – families that can’t afford a car, environmentalists who choose to eschew driving, young people who don’t mind walking a few blocks from front door to car door...  In the spirit of the big picture, I try my hardest not to say, “Not in My Back Yard.”  I trust that the City and the State have a well-defined set of planning regulations and procedures to ensure that Portland will grow in ways that are better for all of us.  In the end, the spirit of the code must be upheld.  Change and compromise are required in order to handle Portland’s population-expanding popularity with poise and equity. 

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