Hawthorne Blvd: Three Stories for a Happy Ending

Bagdad TheaterGuest Contribution by Jeff Cole of the Sunnyside Neighborhood, Portland, Oregon

Hawthorne Blvd: Three Stories for a Happy Ending

Close in Southeast Portland neighborhoods have this thing that urban planners love to talk about: sense of place. I can’t help but feel a provincial pride in my own still somewhat scruffy Sunnyside. It’s been over a century in the making after all: not exactly urban, nor suburban – in no way prim, proper, or polished. A bit bohemian without being overt about it. You know where you are; here.

Yet, if our city’s planners and developers have their way – it may well be undone in a few short years. These are no idle fears – the behemoth across from Safeway (SE 27th/Hawthorne) and the four story tragedy next to ¿Por Que No? (soon to be ¿Por Que?) is proof Sunnyside’s sense of place – and indeed the entire Hawthorne District – is on the auction block.

It’s not that so many monumental wonders line much of Hawthorne – glorious Baghdad theatre palace aside. What charms me is the collective mercantilism of Hawthorne’s modest commercial storefronts – an authentic, living vestige that attests to the historical nature of this corridor and others like Belmont and Division.

Hawthorne hosts the small businesses I love and use day in and day out – and others I just enjoy having there. From cat food to dog baths. Beads, yarns, and greeting cards. Fashions new, handmade, and recycled. Herbs and perfumeries. Pipes, vapor cigs, and growlers. Vintage furniture across from retro tattoos. Powell’s and specialty bookstores. Restaurants and close-by grocery stores.

And it is the ease by which Hawthorne Blvd. could lose so much of this – replaced by a parade of Vanilla Deluxe four-six story mixed used boxes a la North Williams – that it causing so much unease. Higher density corridors with greater populations drive up commercial rents that limit the types of businesses that can operate profitably. It’s worth noting that new mixed-used corridors like N. Williams St. have a comparatively limited expression of commercial typologies.

As our city plans for future growth in Southeast Portland, it’s worth noting we’re not talking an old railroad yard morphing into the Pearl nor long gone shipyards now sprouting high rises. We have few large vacant lots like N. Williams St. People already live here; many have for quite some time.

So Memo to Powers That Be: in case you don’t realize it when you look west from Mt. Tabor there’s a wealth of moderately dense and immensely livable neighborhoods amongst the sea of trees. Our success is not the product of Urban Renewal Areas or generous public investments – our story is the cumulative uplift achieved by numerous small businesses and homeowners.

Historical Axis

Drawing lines: that’s the foundation of local SE PDX history. There’s a stone set yonder in Portland’s West Hills just off Skyline Blvd. – the survey marker originally staked in 1851 defines an east-west “Baseline” that shoots arrow straight all the way to Oregon’s eastern border. In Southeast Portland this “baseline” is Stark St. – along which lies the Lone Fir Cemetery where James Hawthorne himself rests in peace.

A little over a hundred years later planners drew another line – to bulldoze a freeway eastward through 1800 buildings. The Mt. Hood Freeway would have pummeled Division St (named so being one mile of due south Stark St.) until about 40th St before jutting south to destroy Powell Blvd. Southeast Portland neighborhoods fought back in the early 1970’s – and won. The resulting solution – today’s MAX line running from Gateway into Downtown along the already existing transit corridor of I84 & the Union Pacific railroad is proof paths can be changed.

These days one senses an unanswered question: is it time for close-in SE PDX neighborhoods to rise up again? For the bulldozers are back flattening hundred year old homes framed in old growth wood. The Mt. Hood Freeway has returned – deconstructed into a wider blight – as over 1800 structures are demolished every four years in Portland. And like the freeway that thankfully never was – we are told this must be in the name of progress.

The Sky is Not the Limit

For decades zoning along Hawthorne Blvd. and many historical corridors has stated a forty five foot build able height limit. In terms of property ownership – this is called a “right” – a kind of sacred promise that directly impacts land values.

Until the turn of the century – only buildings with specialized uses neared the 45 foot height limit: the soaring Bagdad roof, or church steeples, or schools. Even during the late 1990s new commercial storefronts on Hawthorne were one or two stories.

One might argue – in terms of the historical relationship between these corridors and the abutting residential housing – that code never intended the construction of solid (often block long) 4-6 story volumetric buildings. That is to say – the implied conditional use at the time involved new construction typically less than half the height limit in shorter segments of frontage.

Permitted uses along Hawthorne have become more restrictive over time. Unless grand-parented in, new oil changing operations, car repair shops, or drive thru lanes cannot be built as freely as yesterday. That’s how the once proposed McDonalds drive-thru at 34th & Hawthorne (where Dosha stands today) was stopped in its tracks.

One might argue, if permitted usage of properties can be redefined, then usage as expressed through maximum height limits can be revisited, too. Lower height limits could be zoned along SE Hawthorne Blvd. and streets like Belmont and Division.

An Equitable Solution

Given what’s now being built on our historical corridors has been whittled down to the sole typology of McPortland Mixed Use, there are numerous advantages to instituting a 38 foot – or three story – height limit on Hawthorne and other historical corridors:

Because a 4-story mixed used project houses about 50% more residential units than a 3-story version the impacts on neighborhood fabric and infrastructure are dramatically higher with the former. The 3-story limit still allows increased density, and creates ground floor commercial space, while treading more respectfully.
The 3-story height imposes far less visual impact on surrounding single family and garden apartment neighborhoods.
Solar access: even on Hawthorne Blvd. a 4-story building throws a wintertime shadow that reaches across the street up to the first story. Since SE PDX corridors run primary east-west – the cumulative impact of taller buildings means a total loss of direct sunlight for many months. (Other popular streets like NW 23rd and N.Mississippi run north-south and avoid this problem to some degrees).
Even with a 3-story limit higher buildings could be allowed through a carefully controlled bonus height system requiring the builder to provide firm deliverables with community benefit based on neighborhood approval.

More Growth Where It’s Needed

Instead of encouraging excessive growth with the risk of damaging historical and vibrant neighborhoods, there are areas where more rapid development might be appropriate. Portland has already invested heavily in preparing the Gateway district for growth – which can draw on Urban Renewal Area funds. By contrast, close-in Southeast neighborhoods have limited access to resources needed to mitigate the impacts of higher density. Ironically, one of the strongest arguments for developing Gateway is its transit rich location, especially in terms of light rail – a direct result of shutting down the once planned Mt. Hood Freeway.

Whether some of Portland’s neighborhoods are vibrant in the long-haul may well hinge on providing more than a parade of formulaic four-six story mixed used buildings punctuated only by supermarkets. The engaging architectural vocabulary that once expressed itself through iconic neighborhood auditoriums and ballrooms, churches and synagogues, bungalows and garden apartments, and other single use structures appears to have no current equivalent. Yet apparently it is a quality much sought after in many close-in Portland districts now experiencing bidding wars on a limited quantity of for-sale single family houses. Perhaps it’s that sense of place that buyers are seeking so very much – somewhere that doesn’t seem like anywhere.

Speak Your Mind

*

Join My Newsletter
Receive my marketing checklist. Click here to learn about other news I send... 
Sign Me Up!
Not right now...
close-link