Multifamily housing and other higher density housing types now constitute the majority of new housing being built in Portland. This trend reflects the increasing scarcity of land available for the development of conventional detached houses with sizable private yards – the housing type traditionally associated in Portland with “family housing.”
This highlights the need to foster the creation of higher-density housing types that provide quality living environments for families with children if families are to be part of the mix of residents drawn to the opportunities provided by new housing in Portland’s neighborhoods. The primary medium-density ownership housing types built recently in Portland neighborhoods have been rowhouses and small-lot houses, which at higher densities often provide little opportunity for private yards of sufficient size to accommodate the needs of families with children.
Studies have indicated the importance to families of having direct access to outdoor spaces from their residences, especially for those with young children, for whom the majority of outdoor play takes place immediately adjacent to their homes. Housing oriented to shared courtyards presents opportunities for larger, useable outdoor spaces that are not possible in the form of private yards at higher densities,
providing some of the advantages usually associated with lower-density detached houses.
An additional opportunity of courtyard arrangements is the space they can provide for stormwater management and plantings – which, however, have proven difficult to integrate with other potential courtyard functions in the limited space typical of infill housing projects in Portland neighborhoods. While courtyard apartments, “bungalow courts,” and other forms of courtyard housing were frequently built in the Streetcar Era and are part of the cherished urban fabric of many Portland neighborhoods, few courtyard housing projects have been built recently. This competition will be an opportunity to revive the courtyard housing type as an option that can contribute to meeting today’s needs in Portland’s neighborhoods.
New ownership housing possibilities
Courtyard housing in Portland historically consisted of rental units. As ownership housing, courtyard arrangements were only possible as condominiums, which many developers in Portland have tended to avoid for small infill projects because of legal complexities and liability insurance costs. Builders have tended to prefer “fee-simple” ownership housing arrangements with each unit on its own lot, which in the past was not practical for courtyard-oriented projects because of requirements that each lot have street frontage. Recently adopted zoning code provisions for “common greens” and “shared courts” now allow housing units on separate lots to front onto courtyards that serve as access tracts. Common greens are pedestrian-only access tracts that have a landscaped emphasis, while shared courts are access tracts that accommodate both pedestrians and cars within the same circulation space (both common greens and shared courts are considered to be private “streets”). These courtyard provisions have opened up new opportunities for family-friendly ownership housing and facilitate ownership housing on sites that would otherwise lack enough street frontage for the creation of street-oriented lots at higher densities.
The above comments notwithstanding, some builders in Portland have pursued condominium ownership for medium-density projects; favoring condominiums over arrangements involving land divisions because of the former’s shorter review and approval timelines, infrastructure cost savings, and greater design flexibility.
An issue Portland has been working to address is the relatively low homeownership rates among minority households. Larger families are more common among some minority groups than in the general population. For medium-density housing development, providing housing of adequate size for larger families has proven to be a challenge. In the Portland area, families with children tend to favor units with at least three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Four or more bedrooms are in demand by larger families, but are a very scarce commodity, especially at higher densities.
Housing affordability is a related issue that entrants are encouraged to address in their designs. With an increasing gap between home prices and the amount that families can afford to spend on housing, there is a growing need in Portland for ownership housing that is affordable to low- to moderate-income households. The median sales price of a home in the Portland area is now $282,500 (as of April 2007), while $247,000 is the maximum amount considered to be affordable to a family of four earning the median family income of $66,900.
This competition focuses on courtyard housing at densities appropriate for Portland’s R2 and R1 multidwelling zones, which are medium-density zones intended for housing unit densities ranging from 17 to 44 units per acre. The R2 zone allows a maximum density of 1 unit per 2,000 square feet of site area and requires a minimum density of 1 unit per 2,500 square feet of site area; while the R1 zone has a maximum density of 1 unit per 1,000 square feet of site area and a minimum density of 1 unit per 1,450 square feet of site area. These zones serve as the predominant multifamily zoning in neighborhoods outside Portland’s downtown area (see map, page 23).
Together, the R2 and R1 zones occupy more than 6,500 acres of Portland, constituting the majority of land zoned for multidwelling development and accommodating a large portion of Portland’s new housing construction. These zones are typically located adjacent to or near transit lines and stations, serving as a key part of Portland’s strategy of concentrating new development near transit facilities. The R2 and R1 zones are also often located at the fringes of mixed-use areas, providing a transition in scale between the high-density cores and surrounding single- family areas. Development standards for the R2 zone are intended to foster housing types that are “compatible with adjacent houses,” while policy language for the R1 zone states that “the scale of development is intended to reflect the allowed densities while being compatible with nearby single-dwelling areas.”
This competition provides options for focusing on two differing site configurations representative of the two areas where the majority of the R2 and R1 zoning is located: the inner neighborhoods originally platted during the Streetcar Era (prior to the Second World War) and the eastern Portland neighborhoods located primarily east of 82nd Avenue, mostly annexed to Portland since the 1980s.
Areas with R2 or R1 zoning include a mix of single-family and multifamily development, although single-family structures remain predominant in most areas. Most neighborhood residential streets in Portland are characterized by a “green edge” of landscaped setbacks between the fronts of buildings and sidewalks (front setbacks vary from around 5 feet for areas built during the late 19th century to 10 - 20 feet for areas built in the 1910’s through 1940s, and to more than 30 feet deep in many eastern neighborhoods).
The Streetcar Era neighborhoods are characterized by a fairly regular pattern of residential lots approximately 50’-wide by 100’-deep. This original platting provides a fine grain pattern of relatively small-scale buildings, which was typically also reflected in the massing of multifamily structures, such as the courtyard housing built in the 1920s through 1950s which frequently were built on sites 100’-wide, but whose building frontages were typically divided by landscaped courtyards into building wings that continued patterns established by houses on 50’-wide lots.
Residential areas in the eastern Portland neighborhoods have far less consistent lot and block patterns than the Streetcar-Era neighborhoods. Rather than consistency in street frontage patterns and architecture, trees and other vegetation are often key character-giving elements of residential areas in eastern Portland. Scattered stands of native Douglas Fir trees in the eastern neighborhoods provide a distinctly regional feel and a tie to the area’s natural heritage. In the eastern neighborhoods, lots in multidwelling zoned areas are relatively large but disproportionately deep (often 200’-300’ deep). Because of the great contrast between existing low-intensity development and allowed densities, integrating new development with established aspects of community character has been a key challenge in the eastern Portland neighborhoods.
Solar access and privacy impacts are typically key concerns of neighbors in regards to higher-density infill development. In all areas intended for medium-density infill development, City design directives call for development that:
• contributes to a pedestrian-oriented environment,
• respects context and enhances community character,
• provides a strong street orientation,
• includes usable outdoor space, and
• utilizes sustainable development approaches.
Accommodating automobile parking and maneuvering areas has been a key challenge to meeting these goals, especially given the small sites typical of infill development. This is complicated by the fact that most areas in Portland lack existing alleys, which necessitates that parking access come from the street frontage.
Schools, Families, Housing Initiative
This design competition is a program of Portland’s Schools, Families, Housing Initiative. Through this initiative, the City of Portland is working with Portland’s school districts and other community partners in developing a comprehensive approach to retaining families with school-age children and attracting new families to Portland’s neighborhoods, as well as responding to the challenges faced by the school districts.
During the last decade, families have been leaving inner neighborhoods due to the lack of affordable housing of appropriate size and quality (much of the affordable ownership housing in close-in neighborhoods consists of older 2-bedroom houses with maintenance needs – a survey of families who have left inner neighborhoods cited housing as the primary reason for leaving, with housing size and quality the most frequently indicated reasons for relocating).
The loss of families has had profound effects on school enrollment in close-in neighborhoods. Portland Public Schools has experienced an 11,000-student decline in enrollment, while enrollment is up precipitously in school districts in eastern Portland, creating unfunded capital needs. The design competition is intended to help address issues in both areas: 1) in inner Portland areas, by fostering additional housing that can serve as an attractive option for families with children, and 2) in eastern Portland neighborhoods, by encouraging higher-density housing better suited to meeting the needs of families, many of whom live in higher-density housing that often includes little useable outdoor space besides parking lots.
The Schools, Families, Housing Initiative will also include home ownership loan programs, and strategies related to parks, transportation, planning, and neighborhood-based community development.
While housing design oriented to families with children is a key focus of this competition, it is not intended to be its sole focus. Courtyard housing is also a typology that is suited to a wide-range of lifestyles in addition to families. It can accommodate the needs of singles, retirees, and couples interested in a housing type that offers more opportunities for community engagement than the typical single-family house or apartment complex. Competition participants are encouraged to think broadly about the needs of families, including consideration of the diversity of families and how the housing needs and mobility of family members change over time.