Reports from the Editor

Making Neighborhoods More Walkable – Part 2

August 1st, 2013

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D is for Design, and for Darn Quick Approval

Portland has added a very interesting provision to its zoning ordinance. It’s called “Community Design Standards,” and it’s an option for developers in certain parts of the city — such as along commercial corridors.

The purpose of the Community Design Standards is to:
A. Ensure that new development enhances the character and livability of Portland’s neighborhoods;
B. Ensure that increased density in established neighborhoods makes a positive contribution to the area’s character;
C. Ensure the historic integrity of conservation landmarks and the compatibility of new development in conservation districts;
D. Enhance the character and environment for pedestrians in areas designated as design zones; and
E. Offer developers the opportunity to comply with specific objective standards as a more timely, cost effective, and more certain alternative to the design review and historic resource review process.

Did you catch the language in Section E? It’s probably the most significant aspect of the ordinance.

As Portland planner Radcliffe Dacanay told me during our walk, not only has the ordinance made it easier and quicker for developers to proceed, but it has led to some more exciting, creatively designed buildings (though, as he acknowledged, not always admired by neighborhood traditionalists).

While there are various caveats and exceptions, the basic idea is that if a developer of a relatively modest sized project (with under 20,000 square feet of floor area) chooses to meet the “Community Design Standards,” there’s no public review of the building design. You know: no controversial public hearing.

We walked past this new mixed-use project on Division Street and discussed its design. It met the zoning code's Community Design Standards.
We walked past this new mixed-use project on Division Street. It met the zoning code’s Community Design Standards.

The Community Design Standards cover a broad range of building features: roofs; the main entrance to the building; vehicle areas; exterior finish materials of the building; architectural details; windows; and more, such as landscaping. They’re certainly quite detailed standards (just browse through their 31 pages). But — and this is a big but — they’re specific and well-defined. So a developer can avoid the often subjective, hard to predict, and time-consuming aspects of going through a public design review process.

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