The Changing Face of an Old Neighborhood
By Chris Deppa
Molly Farrington has lived in the Jefferson Westside Neighborhood since 1990, and has always enjoyed the urban atmosphere of her neighborhood. “We have, however, been negatively impacted by the recent construction of several multi-unit infill developments in close proximity to our house. We have lost privacy in our backyard, listen to nearly constant music and conversation of nearby rental tenants and have noticed greatly increased traffic,” she said in a letter to the City of Eugene Planning Commission. “Also, since none of these new multi-unit alley-buildings have adequate parking tenants and their guests routinely park on Monroe Street, making it difficult for Monroe Street residents, many without driveways or garages, to find a place to park,” Farrington said. This is a classic example of incompatible residential infill, and this is exactly the type of situation JWN residents and the City of Eugene hope to avoid in future development.
Residential infill is something that affects every Eugene resident. If the Urban growth Boundary is to remain unchanged, the only option to meet the demand for new housing in Eugene is residential infill in previously developed areas. The challenge is creating compatible residential infill that can meet future housing demand without degrading the character of specific neighborhoods, or the city overall.
In the Jefferson Westside Neighborhood (JWN) many residents were alarmed by the changing face of their beloved neighborhood, and many voiced their concerns to the City of Eugene Planning Commission. Over 50 residents sent in letters urging the Planning Commission, urging them to adopt new regulations which allow for an increase in population density while simultaneously protecting the character of the neighborhood.
The City of Eugene Planning Commission took such overwhelming community interest seriously, and they are making every effort to create appropriate land use legislation. The Infill Compatibility Standards project (ICS) was created as a means of addressing the affects of residential infill development. According to Rene Kane, of Neighborhood Services for the City of Eugene, it is possible to find a balance between promoting residential infill and protecting the character of established neighborhoods. In an email interview, Kane said, “One method is to implement Opportunity Siting (OS) as a companion to the ICS project. The idea behind OS is that with infill standards in place to protect neighborhood character, the city and a willing developer/owner working with neighborhood associations can identify appropriate places for infill that will allow increased density in a way that improves/protects neighborhood character.” On top of the ICS project and OS, for those willing to put in the work there is another option, the development of a Special Area Zone which is what happened in Jefferson Westside.
The development of a Special Area Zone is not something that happens overnight, it takes a lot of coordination between different groups to reach an agreement. According to Kane, “The Special Area Zone that was implemented in the JWN was developed over several years of neighborhood-based planning work that JWN initiated. It involved assessing the positive characteristics of the neighborhood, cataloging the negative impacts of innapropriate infill and developing standards for new development that protect the positive characteristics and reduce or eliminate the negative impacts.” It was a long process involving many different interest groups, but the results speak for themselves. This is something that any neighborhood in Eugene can do to protect their neighborhood’s character. Terri Harding, of the City of Eugene Planning Division added, “Special Area Zones are one tool that can be used to create standards for a specific area. The Special Area Zone created for JWN through the ICS process was atypical in that it relied on so much neighborhood participatory planning. No other neighborhood has (to this point) developed the capacity to replicate what JWN has done.” Go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back JWN, you deserve it for all your hard work. The community involvement in the creation of a Special Area Zone in JWN is a good sign for the future development of Eugene. The City of Eugene Planning Division has a very positive outlook about the progress of residential infill in Eugene, but not everyone shares their opinion.
Laura Potter, Director of Government Affairs for the Lane County Home Builders Association, sees some issues with the City of Eugene’s plans for residential infill. “Looking at the code for the JWN Special Area Zone, I would guess it will be very effective if retaining neighborhood character is your only goal. The City of Eugene has made infill and redevelopment a goal, so the real goal of these neighborhoods is to retain their character without hindering infill and redevelopment.” According to the JWN neighborhood association the coding of the Special Area Zone allows for for an increase in population density that is compliant with City of Eugene requirements, but Potter sees issues for attracting infill projects to that area. “Even if a Special Area Zone allows for the same technical density, that doesn’t mean from a practical perspective that neighborhood will continue to see the same infill and redevelopment. Many times the measures taken by the Special Area Zone to preserve neighborhood character increase the cost for potential projects and thus turn those projects away.”
The implementation of Special Area Zones is not the only concern Potter has about the way the City of Eugene is handling residential infill and redevelopment. She feels the City of Eugene has created a very difficult situation for themselves. “They have made the policy decision to grow up and not out, to hold the Urban growth Boundary and meet future housing demand through infill. yet at the same time they have started a campaign to protect neighborhoods,” said Potter. This may be a situation where the City of Eugene is promising too much. Not everyone is going to get their way, and one way or another the City of Eugene has to increase housing and population density. “The City of Eugene has told neighbors they can have a say in what is built in their neighborhoods, and through projects like ICS they have given residents that say. Yet the policies that neighbors support limit the amount of infill and redevelopment you can create. From the builders’ perspective the City of Eugene has told them to build infill, and when they do the neighbors fight it and the City of Eugene tends to side with the neighbors. This makes it very hard to get much building done,” Potter said. She makes a very important point. If the city is serious about creating the necessary housing to meet future demand there must be some clear guidelines for builders, or they will not want to risk starting a project. The Lane County Home Builders Association is not the only group that sees a few problems with the way residential infill is being handled by the City of Eugene.
Kevin Mathews, of Friends of Eugene, also sees some major issues with the way the City of Eugene is approaching infill and redevelopment. According to Mathews, “The basic goals of the City of Eugene’s plan for residential infill are at odds with the actual outcomes in both scope and flavor.” That is a very serious allegation, and Mathews has many reasons for feeling this way. He sees very basic problems with residential infill’s potential to add the housing needed to meet future demand, with or without Special Area Zones. “The amount of new housing that can be added through residential infill has never been properly estimated by the City of Eugene. Estimates by Friends of Eugene suggest that the magnitude of contribution to meeting compact growth objectives via residential infill has been greatly exaggerated. Simply put, there isn’t that much growth in it, while there is really a lot of damage.The cost-benefit ratio is way out of whack,” says Mathews. Despite the recent adoption of a Special Area Zone in place in JWN, there has been significant negative impact from incompatible residential infill, and there hasn’t been much population density added as of yet.
There are many different perspectives to view residential infill from, and they all have valid arguments. What we can be sure of, is the City of Eugene needs to increase population density to meet future housing demand, and the community wants to be involved. The Special Area Zone in JWN has been successful in protecting the neighborhoods character, but if every neighborhood in Eugene takes the same measures there is the risk of making residential infill not economically viable. The fact that so many different interest groups were able to come together and create a Special Area Zone in JWN that everyone can live with is an amazing feat. If we all work together, we can ensure a future where housing demands are met in Eugene without degrading the character of this unique city.
Understanding the Ecological Goals of Residential Infill
According to Kevin Mathews, of Friends of Eugene, “Infill is encouraged in Eugene in order to meet particular community goals – especially, especially for the benefits of densification and compact growth. In the Oregon statewide land use planning framework these goals are largely organized around the measurable goal of reducing Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). Mathews elaborates much more on this topic in “White Paper on Infill and Climate Change.”
Mathews believes that climate change and reducing Eugene’s carbon footprint need to be considered in residential infill and redevelopment planning policy. “Land use code in Eugene today should be aimed, along with other objectives, at meeting the state adopted goals for greenhouse gas emissions as enacted in Oregon (HB3543, signed on 7 August, 2007). In an email interview, Terri Harding of the City of Eugene Planning Division, had this to say about reducing VMT, “The city reports our progress periodically to the state, and we are indeed seeing both increases in average density across the city and reductions in average VMT per capita. The carbon footprint measuring methods are still under development; the city is completing a Community Climate and Energy Action Plan that will include strategies, including land use strategies like infill development, for reducing emissions.”