Parking in Richmond; or, The pros and cons of being awesome

lifestyle columnist Cathy HastieLifestyle columnist Cathy Hastie and her family own a house in southeast Portland’s Richmond neighborhood, the core of resistance to the city’s recent boom in no-parking apartments. She’s been thinking about this issue a lot – and has some advice for her neighbors.

A surge of awesomeness is wrapping itself around me and my inner southeast Richmond neighbors, whether we like it or not.

Mood to Move: Low-car culture with PDX's Cathy HastieMy husband and I moved into our home right off Southeast Division Street 17 years ago. A solitary furniture refinishing business remains where once there was a plethora of quirky low-brow shops and industrial businesses. Gone is the flaking red paint of the Laughing Horse revolutionary bookstore, replaced by Victory, a wine bar that most nights packs a house full of spiffy, shiny kids in non-prescription nerd-glasses and a corral full of bicycles. Closed is the metal engraving and etching shop. Ditto the discount furniture store and Rose City Reptiles. Division was a bit down-at-the-heels, but friendly and unique – never snooty.

Now, we brag of the “best ramen in the country” at Yataimaru by Shigezo on 38th, the ever-popular Pok Pok Thai restaurant on 32nd, and, my current favorite, Sckavone’s Restaurant in the old Ever-Ready Drugs building on 41st.  There are more than 80 places to eat between 11th and 45th Avenues on our little “main street,” many of them expensive and/or delicious.  One will never go hungry in Richmond (unless one goes bankrupt first).

Division is also blossoming with new apartments and condos. Where once we saw tiny, moss-covered rental homes with hanging gutters and foot-high weeds, now we watch as steel frames grow into good-looking, multi-family living places. (One exception is a particularly repulsive monstrosity on 31st Avenue that looks more like a giant jail cell. I wonder if the renters feel incarcerated?). Portland is making room for hundreds of new residents in our lovable, and now fashionable, close-in neighborhood.

construction at 37th Avenue ApartmentsOne of those developments is currently underway on Southeast 37th Avenue. A few years ago, the only lesbian bar in the entire city, The Egyptian Club, fell on hard times, changed venues and eventually sold to a developer. The apartment complex that is now under construction there looks promising; crews recently completed four floors of steel framing, with nice, tall storefronts for its Division side and a cozy side-street entrance for residents. The high-quality, neighborhood-friendly bones of the building are encouraging. I have been eagerly looking forward to seeing “The 37th Street Apartments” with its skin on – hopefully a finish more attractive than the penitentiary down the street – and a lifeblood of customers flowing in and out its Division Street doors.

On March 21st, I was imagining myself someday walking the half-block to buy something warm and comforting from one of its future shops, when I read yet another Oregonian article about the shenanigans associated with this project.  It got my hackles up.

The building includes 81 units, a number of retail storefronts – and no off-street parking. Some of my neighbors don’t like this. They are, in fact, outraged. They formed a coalition – Richmond Neighbors for Responsible Growth (RNRG) – to combat the threat of losing their customary on-street parking spots to newcomers. With a potential for 160 new residents living among us who have no underground parking garage, their prediction is almost certain to become a reality.  But their methods and their ends-over-means campaign has resulted in a halt to construction.  Now, it is very possible that we will all be staring at an unfinished skeleton of a building for the next ten years, yellow sheets of ragged Tyvek flapping in the wind.

Those neighbors who cling to the status quo (they got theirs, so to hell with the rest of y’all) cannot see the benefit that accompanies these inevitable parking inconveniences: equity. Without required onsite parking, property owners can build apartments that can be rented at more affordable prices. Affordable prices allow people with less money to live in Richmond, close to all of those fab new eateries we enjoy. But more importantly, the new residents will be close to our world-class bus system; our-soon-to-be light rail station; a drugstore, six public schools and a grocery store. These community resources are important to upper-middle class residents who have been here for years. But they are especially important to the lower-middle class people who work at The Hedge House, Division Street Hardware and Tom’s Restaurant. Richmond should not be reserved for the rich.

a bicyclist at Move the House Apartments at 38th and DivisionBut the rich actually benefit directly too. Affordable prices mean more young people will be our neighbors; more families with children, more diversity. It also introduces a new look and feel to our mostly white community, many of us in our 40’s and 50’s. Integrating well-built affordable housing into the fabric of a successful community brings variety that goes beyond restaurant fare. Our kids, especially will benefit as they grow into adults who respect people’s differences.

Sadly, throughout its history, the city lacked incentives for different economic groups to live side by side, and this, in part, has led to Richmond’s blinding whiteness (it doesn’t help that Portland is 76% caucasian – most neighborhoods face this same problem). But modern planners, people smarter than I, think that the extra effort of walking a half-block from car to home is a small price to pay for the planned, inclusive density that projects like the 37th Street Apartments promote. Density is coming, Portland, like it or not. With the flurry of new establishments lately, Richmond will perhaps someday feel like a mini-NW 23rd Avenue, with all the same parking conflicts, traffic issues – and rising property values.

The development on 37th and Division will negatively impact me and my family in the short term.  But I am willing to share my little slice of this wonderful neighborhood with others – families that can’t afford a car, environmentalists who choose to eschew driving, young people who don’t mind walking a few blocks from front door to car door. In the spirit of the big picture, I try my hardest not to say, “Not in my back yard.” I trust that the city and the state have a well-defined set of planning regulations and procedures to ensure that Portland will grow in ways that are better for all of us. Efforts to maintain an entrenched, entitled lifestyle choice in the face of growing need are simply selfish.  A hipper, more diverse Division Street is a big change for us.  And change means compromise.  Let’s face Portland’s population-expanding popularity with poise and equity.

37th Avenue Apartments construction photo by Stephen Beaven/The Oregonian; used with permission.

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