Nov 4, 2005

Ramblings on Rowhouses

At Tuesday night’s Troutdale City Council work session, the main discussion point was minimum lot widths for attached rowhouses in the Town Center District.

Property owners and developers in Troutdale's Central Business District had objected to city staff's recommendation of 20 foot minimum lot widths for attached rowhouses in the Central Business District. The work session was held so an open discussion between city staff, the City Council, property owners and developers, and the public could take place.

We compared the minimum lot widths for similar rowhouse standards in other cities. For instance, Sandy’s R3 zone, Fairview’s Village Townhouse Residential Zone and Sherwood’s Medium/High Density Zones all have 20 foot minimum lot widths. However, Beaverton’s Town Center Mixed Use District has no minimum lot width for attached rowhouses. Gresham’s Central Urban Core District has no minimum lot width for attached rowhouses. However, any land division in Gresham must still meet applicable standards of the development code, and rowhouses must still meet applicable site and design review standards.

Troutdale’s Citizen Advisory Committee had lengthy discussions about minimum lot widths earlier in the year but came to no clear consensus. It is my understanding that the Troutdale Planning Commission didn’t really discuss lot widths in any detail.

After a couple hours of very good discussion, the choices were narrowed to either: a) 16 foot width minimums with a 20 foot average per rowhouse cluster, or b) no minimum lot width but with applicable site and design review standards. The City Council will decide on one of these two options at a future meeting.

Troutdale will have no minimum unit width for apartments or condominiums in the Central Business District, which means those types of dwellings could conceivably have 14 or even 12 foot minimum widths. I didn’t buy the argument made by some that a lot width of less than 20 feet for attached rowhouses, on their own lots, would create a loss of livability in Troutdale’s Town Center District. The density created by 16 foot wide condominiums would be exactly the same as 16 foot attached rowhouses.

I’m not a big fan of rowhouses. But unfortunately, high density is being forced on Troutdale and other cities by Metro. Because of the artificial low supply of affordable housing caused by Metro's Urban Growth Boundary, rowhouses are an affordable and popular option in the real estate marketplace today.

Although I personally don't favor high density, I don’t think it would be fair to force the personal housing tastes of a few folks onto the many homebuyers who are desperately looking for affordable home ownership opportunities in east Multnomah County. Troutdale’s Central Business District is the obvious place for this type of development. It fits right in with our Town Center Plan, which encourages mixed commercial, retail, and high density residential areas.

Regarding the minimum lot widths for attached rowhouses, I felt that developers and property owners should have a range of choice in their designs. The proposed Development Code changes will also enable these types of units to be built without variances, which will save developers money and city staff valuable time. 16 foot wide townhouses have already been built in Troutdale via code variances.

The real estate market changes on a dime, and I felt that we should do our best to keep Troutdale’s Development Code as flexible as possible, and not get locked into over-specific standards that could become obsolete with future real estate trends.

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