E-Mail Forum
Design Guidelines Can Make Infill Housing A Good Fit For Traditional Richmond Neighborhoods
April 7, 2001

Depending on whose figures are quoted, Richmond has 700 or 1,700 vacant residential lots, mostly in older traditional neighborhoods. Following the principles of "smart growth," there is substantial support for building new homes on these lots. This provides housing where existing infrastructure exists and mitigates against suburban sprawl. It revitalizes our neighborhoods, adds to our tax base and increases our ability to provide public services to all residents, new and old. 

Just building homes, however, is not enough. It is important that these structures are designed to be "good neighbors" to the existing housing stock and that their design be sensitive to and compatible with what already exists. 

There have been some complaints in the Iron Triangle and other neighborhoods of proposed infill home projects that are not sensitive to the fabric of the existing neighborhood. One that I hear most often is that the new homes are "all garage" with large paved driveways and without the defined entry or front porch that distinguishes many older and traditional homes. 

For that reason, I have asked the City Council, later in April, to consider a Design and Development Policy Resolution (RMC 15.04.930.C) that encourages appropriate design for infill homes in Richmond. I have taken these guidelines form the "The Base Zone Design Standards Project" of Portland, Oregon. The Portland action generated substantial controversy when it first came before the City Council but has since received nation-wide recognition from the "smart growth" and "new urbanism" movements as well as local acceptance. Some of the most common concerns that motivated the Portland policy include: 

* Houses with front facades that are dominated by a garage;

* Houses with living area set behind the garage;

* Houses with a main entrance that is secondary to the entrance for the cars; and

* Front yards that are used primarily for automobile parking and maneuvering. 

These characteristics tend to create a barrier between the living area of the house and the public realm. This limits the visual and physical connection between the house and the street, which can negatively impact the livability and safety of the surrounding neighborhood. 

The Portland City Council adopted the guidelines in July 1999. The "Oregonian" reported: " The Portland City Council has given the boot to construction of houses dominated by large front-facing garages, voting 5-0 on Wednesday to prohibit construction of what critics call "snout houses." 

A description, with graphics, of the Portland design guidelines, can be found at: http://www.planning.ci.portland.or.us/NewsFacts/BZDS/BZDS.html  

Shortly after the Base Zone Design Standards were adopted, the president of the Portland Planning Commission wrote, in the "Oregonian:"

"Over and over again in Portland, both the Planning Commission and City Council have heard residents ask for neighborhood compatibility in new residential development to ensure that growth contributes to livable neighborhoods. The commission and council have heard clearly that it is easier to accept increased residential density in exchange for compatible infill and redevelopment. These points, along with the council's past commitments for design regulations relating to new development, were lost in arguments opposing these standards.

In general, the council did what we repeatedly say we want government to do -- balance the needs of many -- without solely responding to vocal special interests. The final vote followed two years of passionate discussion with representatives from neighborhoods, the design profession, the Portland Design Commission, the American Institute of Architects, and the Metropolitan Homebuilders. The standards adopted by the council were whittled down from more restrictive standards, such as regulating roof pitch and window trim, originally proposed by concerned citizens. What remained for consideration was a fraction of the hopes of the concerned communities.

The standards do leave ample room for flexibility in appropriate circumstances. For example, steeply sloping lots where the front is the most appropriate place to accommodate the automobile are exempted from the standards. Some participants involved in public dialogue hoped that the base zone design standards would just go away. I am pleased the council did not accept this position. The adopted standards balance the interests and disparate views of the participants and maintain the intent of the project -- to respond to growth issues and preserve our quality of life."