PDX and the Sanctity of the Bungalow

Hypothesis: The common denominator between all Portland development and infrastructure projects is the need to preserve the Bungalow, the archetypical “craftsman” single-family detached residence. Official literature touts PDX as being a center of “smart growth,” but E. Kimbark MacColl was writing about a city of “backyards and barbeques” back in the 70’s, and wherever smart growth runs into established neighborhoods of single-family, 1.5-story dwellings, “preservation” wins out over “density” or “mixed use” every time.

The first Portland freeways escaped criticism because they bypassed bungalows. The Banfield clung to a freight rail corridor, the Baldock repurposed an existing interurban right-of-way, and Canyon was a piecemeal improvement of an existing highway. I-5 north took out houses, but those were largely black neighborhoods, and blacks in the 50’s didn’t have a lot of political sway over highway alignments. The first freeway to require bungalow demolition in white neighborhoods was the Mount Hood. It was a thick swath, with feeder roads and a wide median reserved fur future transit corridors, very similar to Houston’s SH 288. The Mount Hood, not conincidentally, is the one that got canceled, the “turning point” in the Portland myth where the city repented to pursue alternative transportation, smart growth, whathaveyou.

Since then, every big Portland project has avoided the bungalows. The headline urban districts – first the Pearl, now the South Waterfront – were both constructed on former industrial land. Portland built a new freeway through industrial sections as late as the 80’s (the US 30 – Yeon connector), and the Sunrise Corridor will likewise take out some warehousey stuff. So we know warehouses are fair game. What about other uses?

Portland has three major groupings of residential zoning (the headline districts use EXd, which is sort of a “hack”, since it’s nominally an “employment” district but allows unlimited residential units subject to design review). On the low-density end you have R7’s and R10’s which are sixth- and quarter-acre lots, respectively. You really only find it on the outskirts, near where Portland runs into unabashedly suburban places like Milwaukie or Gresham. On the high-density end you have various R1 and R2 zones and their friends, which are used for everything from inner-city apartment blocks to suburban garden units. And in the middle is R5, the sacred bungalow zone. So check out a zoning map:

The first thing you’ll notice here is strip zoning. Pretty much everything that fronts on an arterial is commercial or mixed-use. But if you get even 150′ from that arterial you’re into protected R5. Now, you might hear that this is to promote transit development and whatnot. But transit accessibility is determined by walking distance, which is the same on a sidestreet as it is along the arterial. Here, the sidestreets don’t allow transit development, which tells you the strip zoning is there not to encourage transit use but to push development to the fringes of bungalow neighborhoods. Arterial-frontage lots in southeast Portland are mostly single-story retail, which is fair game for redevelopment.

The second thing you’ll notice is how there are big chunks of higher-density zoning to the east, around 82nd. Now, one might ask, why? The inner neighborhoods are the more desirable ones, they’ve got more parks and retail within any given walking distance, rents are higher, commutes are shorter. But here all the allowed density is out along 82nd. Doesn’t make sense if you’re thinking in terms of urban services, etc. But it makes shitloads of sense when you realize that the inner ring is bungalows, the outer ring is ranchers. 40’s and 50’s ranch houses aren’t sacred the way bungalows are sacred. They don’t exude that “Craftsman charm.” So it’s OK to tear them down for redevelopment.

Some might argue that this zoning is there because of Green Line MAX, that this is actually transit-oriented development. But this isn’t the case. For one thing, these higher densities continue well east of any MAX station walk circle:

For another thing, closer-in MAX stations, like 60th Street, have R5-protected bungalows within 100 yards of the damn platform:

So the list of building typologies it’s okay to demo and redevelop are:

-Heavy Industrial

-Light Industrial


-Postwar residential

Stuff that’s off-limits?


Fanis Grammenos’ follow-up to his Portland-grid diss ends with a praise of protected bungalow zoning in Ladd’s Addition:

Having a strong sense of community identity and an appreciation of its valued attributes, residents fought and achieved a down-zoning of its future density. Though by no means urban at 7 dwelling units per acre (18 per ha), it seems to produce a satisfying milieu. The residents have embraced the result and the APA lauds their strong attachment.


The primary problem with bungalow preservation uber alles is that it’s a mismatch with all the rest of the Portland region’s policies regarding growth and transport. The specific issues that arise from this mismatch depend on which perspective you address it from.

From a “smart growth” standpoint, zoning based on bungalow preservation acts to stunt growth. It prevents east and north Portland from experiencing the kinds of density increases that have spread throughout Houston’s inner loop. There is, fundamentally, no reason why the entire swath of Portland north of Woodstock, west of 50th, and south of Fremont could not be zoned EXd tomorrow. Certainly the demand is there. And Portland’s older neighborhoods have more going for them than the brand-new from-scratch places like the Pearl or South Waterfront.

From a “bungalows uber alles” standpoint, Portland’s transport setup is poorly designed. Longstanding decisions to run MAX light rail at grade in Downtown render it useless for crosstown trips. When I lived in PDX I was known to hop off at Goose Hollow and ride a bike to Lloyd Center, jumping 2 or 3 trains ahead in the schedule by doing so.

If the bungalows are the heart of Portland than it’s important to make them accessible, and that means better connections to the region’s employment centers. In this respect I call out the Sellwood Bridge reconstruction plan as particularly bad. The Sellwood redo should have been part of a major east-west capacity addition – a 4- or 6-lane bridge, conversion of Tacoma Street to half of a one-way couplet, and widening of portions of Taylor’s Ferry, Terwilliger, and Multnomah Boulevards.

Then again, perhaps no one wants a six-lane Sellwood. Either method is a legitimate growth strategy. You can accept that auto traffic will get worse, and instead focus on upzoning and building out transit infrastructure and upzone. New York City follows this approach; they haven’t added any new auto capacity in well over fifty years, and the only transport improvements being seriously planned all run on rails. You can also build a city full of single-family zoning, and focus on building the highway infrastructure this requires. Phoenix comes to mind. The vast majority of Maricopa county is zoning-restricted to a sprawling, low-rise form. But the freeways are new and smooth, arterials are being expanded, and there’s even a light rail system that I hear is doing pretty well.

My personal preference hews towards allowing everything, like Houston does. Houston just passed an extension of the “urban” area (which allows higher densities), and they’re building craptons of light rail that will support a denser, more urban form. At the same point, highways have not been neglected, whether you’re talking about rebuilds of inner-loop radial freeways or outer beltways like the always-controversial Segment E. You can have your cake and eat it too.

But the common denominator between all these cities is that their land use plans and transport plans are in harmony with each other. Phoenix’s highways support its sprawl. New York’s rail lines support increased urban densities. And Houston, which has no zoning at all, is building a bunch of highways *and* trains so pretty much whatever happens, they’re down. But Portland is building bike lanes and slow-loris light rail while simultaneously prohibiting urban redevelopment in almost all of its myriad low-density neighborhoods. What’s up with that?

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