Knowledgeable, passionate, and proactive; these are just a few adjectives that describe this month’s Volunteer Spotlight: Heather Flint- Chatto. Heather holds a Masters in Urban Planning and is a certified urban designer. In her previous work as a long-range comprehensive planner in Santa Barbara she helped community members clarify their vision and articulate it through voluntary design standards. Heather now serves on the Richmond Neighborhood Association board and recently established the Division Design Initiative to better facilitate communication between communities and developers. We sat down with her to discuss this and other development issues.
How long have you been involved with the Richmond Neighborhood Association? Additionally, what inspired you to start attending neighborhood association meetings and to eventually become a board member?
I joined the board in November of 2012 but I started coming to Neighborhood Association meetings when I noticed a lot of new developments coming online. When I realized how much there was happening all at once and that there wasn’t much opportunity for neighbors to have input on the design, it made me want to get involved and lend some of my urban design and planning skills to the conversation. I wanted to help identify what the big levers and the small levers are that a neighborhood could use to bring about change.
I think a lot of neighborhoods are in shock about what’s happening, and are wondering what they can do. It’s this major swelling of development that’s happening right now and so I think most people are a little too stunned to know how to handle it, and I feel the city is working at it but not necessarily fast enough for neighborhoods.
You recently initiated the Division Design Initiative. Can you tell me a little about what the project hopes to accomplish and why you decided to have the project go through the neighborhood association?
What we hope to accomplish with this grassroots coalition is to clearly articulate what design on Division is, and to create some clarity for future developments. It’s been a little rocky over the last 18 months because there aren’t resources that clarify what the community’s design preferences are. We need to capture what makes the neighborhood special and what aspects of it we want to keep. The outcomes I’d say are to support increasing input on future projects and developing tools that both our neighborhood and other neighborhoods can use to engage the community around design preferences and clarify what we’d like to see for new infill in the area.
Working through the channels that already exist has been our starting point. We are first working at the local level and then seeing what we can do at the government level, and what the steps are in between. Working with neighborhood association, business districts, and SE Uplift serves to build upon what’s already been done before and brings in more community involvement and historical background to the process; people that have been involved in creating change and know why some of these sites have developed the way they did.
It’s been a really fun process to work through the Neighborhood Associations and have a chance to build inter-neighborhood coalition. It’s been a nice opportunity to create different layers of engagement as well as to reach out to the development community.
How will the Division Design Initiative draw from and expand upon earlier work including the Division Vision Coalition, Division Street Plan, and the “infill design toolkit” created by the city of Portland in 2008? Additionally, how does the project tie in with the comprehensive plan?
I just posted on our Division Design Initiative website a list of planning documents. Putting together this list has been a chance to dig through what’s already been developed and built upon like the Infill Design Toolkit, which is a great resource for different types of housing – including multi-family housing – and I think we can create a compendium to fill in what’s missing from that document. We don’t have to create everything from scratch; there are just so many good resources.
Additionally, there is a lot in the Division Green/Main street plan that’s really wonderful but because the funding for this planning document was transportation related its scope is limited. There are design issues and concerns expressed throughout the document, but there wasn’t much opportunity at the time to take that any further than what was eventually put into the Division Main Street Overlay samples. So that was a missed opportunity that hopefully we can rectify.
We are (hopefully) trying to tie into the comprehensive plan as much as we possibly can. We’ve been meeting with the city and working in parallel with the zoning committee work. They are more focused on the zoning side and mixed use, whereas I think we’re more focused on design and how that plays into zoning and design standards, but also multi-family set ups as well. For example, how can we make new development match a little bit better, be a little bit more context sensitive and more sensitive to adjacencies of multi-family or single families or other lower-scale developments?
Some of these resources are fantastic for picking out and building on what’s already been done, but it takes a lot to dig through all those resources and I think there’s a lot put on neighbors right now. We’re in this moment of change and if we don’t act fast we’re going to miss it. We’re going to potentially not recognize our neighborhoods anymore because the new development doesn’t reflect the existing character and identity of the neighborhood, and that seems tragic to me.
How has your background in architecture, urban planning and environmental design influenced how you view both the issue of increased development in SE Portland and the role of neighborhoods in the planning process?
I love big cities and I’d really like to see good, compact development. But the devil is in the details. Some of the buildings are a little big for the width of our street. The width to height ratio isn’t that good, bringing in that technical knowledge has been useful. Building upon my background in government planning and engaging communities has been useful. I want to be able to help people get a long-term perspective. How we pay attention to the details is going to make a big difference in how well these buildings last, how durable they are and how well they mesh with the neighborhood. You can have the same density in a staggered way that doesn’t look so dense, and I think what’s happening right now is a lot of development is giving density a bad name. I think it’s turning neighborhoods off from density and that’s absolutely the wrong thing that should be happening. I’m asking the architecture and design communities, “How can you be more creative while paying attention to what the existing character is? How can we incorporate that into your projects and can we spend a little time talking to the community during the conceptual design phase? How can we be a little more collaborative in the process?” Having knowledge of the phases of design and architecture, the phases of planning and permitting, and where the policies levers are that we can work with, has helped me support the community in articulating what the real issues are.
The two primary concerns that people have raised about the new development occurring in SE Portland are the loss of affordable housing and the actual design of it (be it the scale, massing, aesthetics, etc.). Sometimes efforts to combat these two concerns can be in direct conflict, and sometimes they support each other to great advantage. What steps will the Division Design Initiative take to facilitate the later result?
One thing I’d love to do is find out how we can bring together the developers and property owners to a conversation about affordable housing. How can we bring people together before they even have a property in mind and talk to them about the barriers to creating affordable housing? One of the barriers in the past has been that you had to have applied for the tax abatement program, which is a fantastic opportunity, but if you wanted to take advantage of the program you couldn’t already be in the permitting process, it had to be fore. They just proposed to change that regulation, so now there are some opportunities. But I also understand from having asked a few developers that barriers come out of the process. Can we have a conversation with developers and property owners and figure out how we can overcome some of those barriers? How might we be able to work with some property owners that have some potentially developable sites to create a proposal for a future affordable housing project? How can we be advocating more proactively to design a project or notch up a developer of a property? Or could we develop an affordable project that also includes some daycare? That would be amazing! How could we do something like that that includes some underground parking that could be used for the business district? How can we be working more creatively before it happens to us? How can we be partners in the process?