The state of Interstate
Zoning proposals stress transit usage, higher densities
By Lee van der Voo
Taller buildings, more people, more businesses, fewer cars. That’s the aim of a proposal that would rezone North Interstate Avenue over the next 10 months and test the city’s goal of transit-oriented development along major transit corridors.
Acting at the request of the Portland Development Commission, which oversees the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area, the Portland Planning Bureau has drafted a new zoning plan intended to realize a vision for the street created while the Interstate MAX Yellow Line was being planned.
The strip’s sluggish economy, limited housing and ill-fitting zoning all provide opportunities for the new land-use rules along Interstate between North Greeley Avenue and Columbia Boulevard.
The PDC wants new rules to put people closer to the Yellow Line to boost commerce, encourage walking and use of public transportation and allow for denser housing.
The proposal – now being considered by the Interstate Light Rail Corridor Zoning Project Community Advisory Group, put together by the planning bureau – would increase building heights along most of Interstate Avenue, allowing up to nine stories near MAX stations. It encourages mostly retail businesses topped by housing and discourages auto-related business.
As officials brace for future population growth in Portland, Interstate Avenue will be the test case for a policy that aims to house the most people along MAX lines.
Similar plans in the Gateway area along the Red Line, and along other areas of the MAX light rail, are expected to follow.
So far, controversy has stayed at bay. Although the advisory group weighing neighborhood concerns against business and development interests has played a key role in crafting new rules, few others have seen the plan.
Shooting for a public unveiling in October and public testimony in November, the advisory group will meet twice more to resolve its toughest problems.
Among them: how to best place tall buildings in existing neighborhoods, balance density on both sides of Interstate Avenue and create transit-friendly zoning without causing problems for existing businesses.
Lawrence Nath at Pooja International, a market that imports spices, grains and juice, said the proposed new zoning on Interstate will benefit business owners who want to develop retail stores with residential units on top. His family recently paid to rezone its Interstate Avenue lot to erect a new building topped with residential units.
“It’s what we were looking for and the kind of business we’re looking for on Interstate,” Nath said. “If all of the zoning changes on this side of Interstate, it benefits growth for businesses, it’s going to attract more people and maybe it will invite more resources for people.”
Some homeowners are more cautious, however.
Amy Altenberger, who represents the Overlook neighborhood in the advisory group, said the prospect of tall buildings looms large in neighborhoods, where many feel the nine-story height limit will be too tall to abut single-family homes.
“It’s a residential neighborhood currently; it feels residential. You have a lot of people concerned it will lose that,” Altenberger said.
Each side is different
The last time the area was rezoned was 14 years ago, before Interstate Avenue was chosen as the route for the light-rail line. As a result, the current zoning does not allow the most dense development where the City Council wants it.
The last plan, called the Albina Community Plan, came at a time when no one knew for sure where light rail might land.
It plopped an anything-goes zone – one that allows the same mix of high-density housing, manufacturing and commerce now in use in Portland’s Pearl District – next to Interstate 5 east of Interstate Avenue between Mason and Emerson streets, where fewer property owners lived in their homes and property was less desirable.
In a fit of interest in housing, the Albina Community Plan also rezoned much of Interstate Avenue as residential. Along the old highway route to Washington – still dotted with neon signs advertising food and lodging for travelers – motels and businesses alike were converted to residential in 1993.
Today those patterns work against city goals and existing property owners. Some business owners have been forced to spend thousands of dollars changing their zoning just to expand existing operations.
Developers planning the mixed-use buildings that the PDC now advocates also can’t move ahead without applying for zoning changes.
“We’re getting a lot of folks who want to locate their businesses here, but they’re not finding the zoning to open up their shops,” said Kevin Cronin, the PDC’s senior project coordinator for Interstate Avenue rezoning.
Officials at work on the plan also want to address the basic inequities between the east and west sides of Interstate Avenue created by the Albina Community Plan.
At the time of the plan’s crafting, more west-side property owners lived in their homes and opposed zoning changes, while east-side homes mostly were rentals, many of them blighted, and residents there offered little resistance.
“A lot of these apartments that were just these awful, end-of-life, drug-infested apartments in the ’80s have been ‘condo-ized,’ and now they’re quite desirable,” said Doug Hartman, a real estate agent who also serves in the advisory group.
Properties on the west side of Interstate Avenue are likely to see the most change in the next 10 months as officials work to balance both sides of the street.
In the current proposal, new zoning for Interstate Avenue would allow more retail and commercial land on both sides of the road and calls for high-density housing on top of retail stores near MAX stations.
If land is redeveloped under the proposed rules, parcels within 1,000 feet of the MAX could build up to 100 feet tall, or nine stories high. Farther than 1,000 feet from the MAX, high-density parcels would be limited to six stories.
In between station areas, tall buildings would be interspersed with commercial zones or lower-density housing – buildings between four and six stories high. Near Overlook Park, new zoning would allow Kaiser Permanente room to grow.
Some sense a fishbowl
Altenberger, from the Overlook neighborhood, said homeowners near Interstate Avenue are concerned tall buildings will bring a new way of life to the area, one that compromises its residential feel and people’s privacy in their homes.
“I think a lot of homeowners are feeling like they’d be living in a fishbowl, especially those that back right up to those lots,” Altenberger said.
Altenberger said while change also is exciting – she looks forward to new projects – she also wants Interstate Avenue to stay funky, look attractive, retain some open space and stay family-friendly.
Parents, she said, worry that incoming singles likely to lodge in high-density housing will drive the business market as it develops, making it less friendly for families.
As neighborhood groups weigh in on changes, officials in the Portland Planning Bureau in charge of drafting the rezoning plan still are debating whether to allow the tall buildings to sit a full block west of Interstate Avenue.
The alternative would be to cut off tall buildings halfway through the block, where most commerce ends now.
Also being debated is whether to change the zoning of single-family homes that would abut those tall buildings, to create a future transition zone.
In the zone, more rowhouse-style developments would be allowed and buildings could stand one story taller than residences, which can be three stories high.
While city officials look west to add density, there also is disagreement as to whether high-density residential zoning also should line east-west streets like Rosa Parks Way (formerly North Portland Boulevard) and Killingsworth Street between Denver and Interstate avenues.
High-density zoning also is on the table for Ainsworth Court, a low-income housing development on Ainsworth Street.
Changes are blessing, curse
For business owners along Interstate today, new zoning is both a blessing and a curse. Those who have weathered current zoning rules, like the owners of Pooja International, say changes that encourage more development are a benefit.
But because new zoning aims to reduce auto use, auto-related businesses like gas stations and repair shops appear to be falling into the losers column.
PDC’s Cronin said new zoning could eliminate some of Interstate Avenue’s many gas stations in favor of housing. If their zoning were to change, the stations could stay in place but would be unable to remodel or expand. Those who pay for it ultimately may change their zoning by petitioning the city for a waiver.
Raschel Barton, who owns Vicious Cycle on Interstate Avenue, said the process seems geared toward big business.
Vicious Cycle paid $7,000 for a zoning variance in its last location on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, after Barton learned from city officials that the old BMW repair shop she leased had been zoned residential.
Now, she worries rezoning on Interstate could have the same effect on her business, which is again being eyed for retail topped by housing.
“What it does is completely eliminate the chance that small businesses will thrive,” Barton said. “Doesn’t someone drive down the street and look and see that it’s commercial?”
Cronin said officials want to hear more about business concerns and also want input from longtime residents. The PDC plans a mailer soon, and an open house is set for Nov. 3.
“We just want to get the word out that this project is going on. Despite our best efforts, we’re not getting very many phone calls or e-mails,” he said.