Portland’s demolition debate lands close to home

Portland’s demolition debate lands close to home

Mike Francis | The Oregonian/OregonLiveBy Mike Francis | The Oregonian/OregonLive
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on April 08, 2015 at 5:05 AM, updated April 09, 2015 at 9:40 AM

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(See charts and interactive maps.)

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For a little while longer, Addie Benfield and Barbara Pikus of Southeast Portland can look out their windows toward the red farmhouse that’s stood on their block since 1916.

It’s not a particularly lovely place, but to them, it beats what’s slated to replace it: Two 30-foot-narrow houses, snugged up to within five feet of the property lines on either side, according to plans submitted to the city.

Benfield and Pikus have collected signatures from neighbors opposed to the change and they hope they can block the plans, possibly on appeal to the City Council. The Bureau of Development Services is collecting comments until next Monday, but the proposal has received all but a final approval.

The disagreement over what happens to the house at 6108 SE Steele St. is just one small act in a continuing drama affecting almost every neighborhood in the city. Demand for housing keeps rising, but the inventory of houses and lots is tight. Small houses on larger lots and old houses that haven’t been well-kept are frequent targets of developers who can profit from tearing them down and building a new house – or two, three or even four.

That has spawned a chorus of neighborhood protests and the attention of City Hall, which recently adopted new rules for notifying neighbors and delaying demolition when developers aim to tear down a house. Under the new rules, developers won’t be issued demolition permits until 35 days after neighbors are notified.

On the edge of the Mt. Scott-Arleta neighborhood, 6108 SE Steele St. is near the center of the demolition activity.

“This neighborhood is under attack,” said Benfield, a teacher who lives with her husband and two children immediately east of the old farmhouse.

Renaissance Homes is finishing two houses in the middle of the 6000-6100 block of Southeast Steele. The city issued a demolition permit and a permit for a new house on the southwest corner of Steele and Southeast 60th Avenue.

City demolition data show that this neighborhood and the Brentwood-Darlington Neighborhood immediately south had the most demolitions per square mile of any part of the city from 1996 through this spring.

The change that’s sweeping over this part of Southeast Portland is occurring for a couple of reasons, said Bob Kellett, neighborhood planning program manager for the Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Coalition. The area has many single-family homes on large lots, and the area is seen as the “next domino” in the remaking that has overtaken Sellwood, Woodstock, Richmond and other closer-in neighborhoods, he said.

Douglas MacLeod, principal broker with Summa Real Estate Executives, will eventually sell the two houses that will replace the 1916 farmhouse. He says that kind of infill development employs workers, builds value and adds housing to a city that sorely needs it.

“It’s good for the community to have these homes built,” he said.

That won’t comfort neighbors like Benfield and Pikus, who say the new houses will intrude upon their privacy and block the sunlight. Benfield, who says she sees the change in Mt. Scott-Arleta as “a class issue,” said she wouldn’t have bought her house if she’d known two houses would be built next door.

Pikus, who lives directly behind the lot on Southeast Insley Street, said the two planned, narrow houses aren’t “context-sensitive.” She approves of the two nearby homes Renaissance Homes is completing, because they fit the neighborhood. Two tall and narrow homes the nearly fill their lots are a different story, she said.

Meanwhile, MacLeod said he doesn’t expect demolition to follow immediately after the city wraps up its review. And he said the builder doesn’t intend to remove any trees, despite a contrary note on the plan submitted to the city. In any case, the plan is going forward, he said.

If the city were to block demolitions and keep potential new homes off the market, he said, Portland would become less affordable.

In such a scenario, MacLeod said, “It’s going to look like San Francisco in 10 years.”

— Mike Francis

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