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Density creep is coming to a neighborhood near you

Density. Does that word conjure the vision of multi-story buildings with scores of multi-family units? Those structures capture public attention. But another form of increasing density in Lake Oswego is scarcely noticed.

Density creep is a more silent encroachment that moves like the fog, “on little cat feet. It sits looking” over the city and moves in, but does not move on. In fact, like fog, it can blanket its surroundings.

Slow encroachment is hardly noticed: down with the old and up with the new-new-new. No stutter here. This simply reflects a different approach to achieving density: one good home is torn down, and two or three or four go up in its place. It’s called infill - or, depending on your perspective, demolition and redevelopment.

Why is this becoming commonplace in our Metro area?

A mandate was established more than 40 years ago with the passage of Senate Bill 100 that Metro protect a tight Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) in order to preserve farm and forest land. The UGB is designed to help prevent urban sprawl in favor of “compact land development.”

I remember reading an old publication from the state that attempted to define sprawl, and concluded that you know it when you see it: commercial development with large parking lots and homes on large lots. Really? Some of us see well-placed parking lots not as unwelcome sprawl, but as comfortable accommodation, and homes on large lots not as a nuisance that detracts from public green space, but as lovely spaciousness for those who seek it.

To Metro’s mandate, add its population growth data that undergirds its predictions on housing inventory. Metro has predicted that - given our mandate for compact land development - the region has the potential for 228,000 new housing units in the next 20 years using “available land,” with a whopping 75 percent of them being high-density, multi-family units for 725,000 new residents!

Without significant vacant land in the UGB, there is a silent and powerful push for demolition in order to achieve greater housing capacity. A recent forum was held in Portland on this phenomenon of tearing down one good house to replace it with more than one (often more expensive) house.

Don’t confuse this with tearing down an uninhabitable house in order to build a new home in its place, or remodeling an updated home with no new structure for additional families, or citizens buying a heritage home in order to preserve history.

For those concerned about the impact on the character of a neighborhood affected by density creep, some issues can be dealt with through strict code enforcement. A neighborhood zoned for housing units requiring 5,000-square-foot lots need not agree to variances for 4,700-square-foot lots after subdivision, as some have done. Density issues also can be tackled by serious examination of public safety, because street parking and pedestrian and bicycle safety are impacted. If zoning did not seem important before, maybe now is the time to reconsider it for you and the candidates you support.

Most importantly, if increased density is of concern, support candidates in the November elections who understand the effects of density, will stand up for maintaining your neighborhood character and will not passively accept Metro’s imposition of its own brand of social engineering.

Karen Bowerman is a Lake Oswego city councilor.



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