City bets on courtyards
TRIB TOWN • Planning agency contest seeks designs that meld density, family-friendliness
By Anna Johns
The Portland Tribune, Jul 31, 2007
After years of hearing complaints from neighbors, the city of Portland’s Bureau of Planning is taking the first step to encourage real-estate developers to build high-density housing that is family-friendly.
This month, the bureau launched a nationwide design competition for courtyard housing. Traditional courtyard housing rises only two or three stories high and wraps around a courtyard on three sides with all the units opening up to the courtyard.
The fourth side of the courtyard is open to the street.
“As higher density housing is a larger component of new housing, we want to look at how family housing might be part of that mix,” said Bill Cunningham, city planner.
Courtyard housing, Cunningham said, is an obvious choice for families because of the semiprivate courtyard that is shared among neighbors. Courtyard units – with up to three bedrooms and two levels – tend to be larger than many compact condominium units that are popping up throughout Portland.
The city already has courtyard housing complexes sprinkled throughout its neighborhoods. Many of the complexes were built in the 1930s and 1940s, often as affordable housing for families after World War II.
The design competition is meant for lots that are typical for two areas of Portland most likely to experience high-density housing:
• Inner Southeast: 100-foot-square lots, which can accommodate four to 10 units facing a shared courtyard space.
• East Portland: lots 95 feet wide and 180 feet deep can accommodate seven to 17 units facing a shared courtyard space.
Courtyards can be limited to pedestrian-only use or can be mixed-use with narrow streets that provide pedestrian access, but no through traffic. The designs are intended to be on quieter streets in the neighborhoods, not on main business streets where complexes featuring retail on the ground and housing above are most profitable for developers.
Cunningham said courtyard housing is meant to be an alternative to row houses or “skinny” houses that developers are building on those lots.
The advantage to developers, he said, is that they can fit more units on a lot in a courtyard-style development than with row houses. The disadvantage is that courtyard housing developments tend to be better rentals than ownership opportunities because of liability insurance costs.
Resident loves the design
Caroline Skinner has lived in a courtyard housing complex in Northwest Portland for 20 years. She raised her daughter – now college age – in their two-bedroom apartment in the Quimby Court Apartments.
“For years, I’ve been saying the city should get more courtyards like this one,” she said. “I love the design.”
For Skinner, the shared green space provides limited privacy from the road but also provides limited intimacy with the neighbors who live in her building.
Because of the courtyard each of the 16 units in the building are far enough away from one another that no one looks directly into someone else’s living space.
“I’m really glad that Portland is recognizing the seriousness of the situation that housing is just about out of reach for ordinary people,” Skinner said.
In inner Southeast Portland, the word “infill” has a negative connotation. The Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood – which borders the Willamette River, 29th Avenue, and Hawthorne and Powell boulevards – has approximately 100 new condominium units under construction.
“People within this neighborhood and this inner-Southeast area have been concerned for a long time with trying to find a way to take our share of the increased density and hold on to what makes our neighborhood special to us,” said Linda Nettekoven, vice chairwoman of the Hosford-Abernethy Neighborhood Association.
More families wanted
Nettekoven identifies families and local businesses as key assets to her neighborhood. Hosford-Abernethy has seen growth in local businesses along Hawthorne and Division Street, but new families have been slow to move into the neighborhood.
“We’re always nervous about enrollment at the neighborhood schools,” Nettekoven said.
Nettekoven is supportive of the design competition and hopes that the city actively encourages developers to build family-friendly, high-density housing once the contest is complete. And, she said, it will take more than development opportunities to entice families to return to the inner city.
“We need community centers and settings where families can come together,” Nettekoven said. “If families are going to settle for less space so they can live in the city, we need some amenities for them.”
The designs are due Oct. 24. The winner will receive $20,000. Information is at www.CourtyardHousing.org