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My View: Demolitions meet city's growing needs

Some neighborhood and anti-growth advocates recently have been using the word “epidemic” to characterize the demolition of existing housing that has been occurring in our city.

In 2013, 273 demolition permits were issued by the city of Portland’s Bureau of Development Services. Portland has approximately 150,000 existing homes within our city. At a rate of 273 demolitions a year, that puts the average home on a 530-year replacement schedule. This is well beyond the useful life of almost all but the most historic of houses. This rate of demolition can hardly be described as an “epidemic.”

In our region, we have chosen to protect surrounding farm and forest land around the Portland Metro Region, with the employment of a tight urban growth boundary. The boundary is designed to direct growth and redevelopment within existing cities to handle our new homes, businesses and industries.

During the next 20 years the Metro regional government and the city of Portland are predicting that approximately 700,000 new residents will move into our area. A large number of these residents are projected to be within the city of Portland. In order for the city to achieve this growth, there will continue to be pressure on neighborhoods in Portland to evolve, redevelop and grow. If the growth is not accommodated within the city, then the growth has to go elsewhere, which results in added pressure on suburban development and growth boundary expansion.

Demolition opponents claim that very few current demolitions result in any meaningful increase in density. This is not the case. Of the 273 demolitions in 2013, 57 percent of them resulted in an increase in density on the site.

Furthermore, the 273 demolitions resulted in 553 new living units. On average, demolitions in Portland doubled the capacity of new residential units beyond the original use. Additionally, opponents claim that almost none of the materials from a demolished house are salvaged for reuse.

This again is not the case. If a home is demolished, 25 percent of the material is recycled. If a home is deconstructed, 40 percent of the materials are recycled or reused. While there is no argument that a demolished home does add materials to the landfill, it is also important to acknowledge that these new homes are more efficient than their older counterparts and use much less energy. Further, they fulfill a need for more families looking for homes closer to the city. If these needs were not met in Portland, then families would have to look to suburban and exurban areas. This would result in further commute times and equate to more energy use and pollution.

Some opponents of new infill development also like to point out that newer homes are larger than the existing homes which they replaced. While this is generally true, there are legitimate reasons behind this.

First, as Portland historically developed, the overwhelming majority of residences were single-family homes. There was an assortment of sizes to provide for all housing types and choices within our city. As our region and city grow and become more dense, more pressure is being put on multifamily development (apartments/condos) to handle the needs of our region. Typically these types of units are smaller and fill the needs of residents in search of a smaller housing unit. There is a demand for newer homes in our city, and generally the demand is for larger homes that cannot be found elsewhere. Many people do not understand that it costs approximately $40,000 to purchase a building permit from the city of Portland for one single new home. Between the land costs and permit fees it is very difficult to build smaller homes and make the numbers work.

Many neighborhoods have been working with the city of Portland, the Bureau of Development Services and the Development Review Advisory Committee to examine demolitions and try to address some of the concerns. The three primary concerns that are being examined are: historic resource protection, asbestos removal, and notifications. DRAC has formed a subcommittee including stakeholders from the development community, neighborhoods, city hall and the Bureau of Development Services. This fall the committee will provide recommendations to City Hall on how best to respond to the genuine concerns around demolitions.

People do not like change to their city, and more specifically to their neighborhoods. However, if our city is to grow and develop in the direction we have chosen since the passage of Senate Bill 100 in 1973 and the creation of our urban growth boundary, it is important that we realize that infill and redevelopment are key pieces for the future of our region. New homes and businesses do not destroy the character of neighborhoods, but rather enhance it as our city grows and evolves.

Justin Wood is with the Home Builders Association of Metro Portland and Fish Construction NW Inc.