Mandatory Confusion? 

Murky Outcomes for Proposed Parking Rules

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SAY WHAT YOU WILL about Portlanders opposed to the multitude of parking-free or parking-light apartment buildings taking root throughout the city: They come out in numbers.

For well over three hours last week, the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission listened to a torrent of testimony—culminating in a vote to put mandatory parking minimums before city council. It was a small victory for the groups insisting Portland should not add housing stock without also creating room for cars.

But there's a problem: It's not clear what the parking requirements might mean—or whether they'll apply to any of the buildings currently irking neighborhood groups.

Under the changes, developments of more than 40 units would need to provide one space for every four apartments—an expensive add-on often passed along via higher rents. Developers could offset some, but not all, of the required spaces with bike parking and car-share access.

It's a straightforward bit of legislation made murky by the vagaries of the permitting process.

Planning commissioners and staffers with the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and Bureau of Development Services (BDS) couldn't tell the Mercury what concrete changes the updates might bring to projects currently waiting for their permits. Most folks assumed the code updates would simply apply to future projects—meaning the proposed apartment buildings that have drawn the most ire would continue on unchanged.

But it's more complicated than that, says BDS Supervising Planner Mike Hayakawa.

If the code changes take effect before applicants receive their permits, then those developers could be forced to drastically alter the scope (and costs) of their projects.

That's got one builder making dire warnings. Dennis Sackhoff, whose Urban Development Group has helmed parking-free buildings throughout town, sent his attorney Michael Robinson to last week's meeting.

In a letter submitted on Sackhoff's behalf, Robinson warned affordable housing would be harder to find if developers are forced to construct expensive parking spaces, and that developers would simply build smaller to avoid the requirements.

And, tellingly, Robinson wrote that developers of existing projects must have assurances they would be "vested" in current laws.

"This ordinance is on an extraordinarily fast track even though there is no need to do so," Robinson wrote.

Sackhoff has reason for concern. His 81-unit project on SE Division and 37th—a building that's received considerable backlash from neighbors—could feasibly fall under any new rules.

A citizens' group last month secured a ruling from the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals reversing the city's decision to permit the project. Depending on how the company tackles required design changes, there's a chance it could find itself subject to new rules, Hayakawa said.

David Mullens, the project's manager, declined to comment.

Other projects face uncertainty. Based on a review of city permitting data, at least five apartment projects with more than 40 units and no planned parking are still waiting for zoning permits.

If BDS determines there are significant holes in those plans, the process could slow or backtrack, and new rules could apply.

"It would be dependant on a case-by-case basis," said Rebecca Esau, manager of BDS' land-use services division. "It's challenging to deal with."

Of course, much of this depends on how swiftly city council acts. No hearing dates have been set, but city commissioners have signaled an intention to move quickly.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz stopped by last week's planning commission meeting, and asked a BDS staffer to communicate her "sense of urgency" on the matter.

Mayor Charlie Hales was also present, all but commanding the commission to put a proposal before city council.

"We shouldn't delay," Hales told the planning commission. "We're eager to take this up and to take this up soon enough so as to make a difference in the next wave of development."

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