Is Portland Really Requiring Private Developers to Provide Campsites for the Homeless?

Is Portland really requiring private developers to provide campsites for the homeless? To find out, we checked in with our Ear to the Ground Person on the Street (“ETTGPOTS”).

Us: What the heck happened, that got so many people riled up?

ETTGPOTS: The Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission proposed edits to the City’s Design Guidelines to require that the street frontage of some new commercial developments be designed with spaces for people to “rest,” which some interpreted as spaces for camping on private property. Media around the nation, particularly right-wing outlets eager to showcase what they consider wacky leftist ideas, pounced.

Us: What are “Design Guidelines” and why do they matter?

ETTGPOTS: Many (but not all) commercial development projects in Portland must be approved through a land use process called design review. In design review, the City applies the Design Guidelines, which sound like recommendations but are in fact mandatory approval criteria. The stated purpose of the Guidelines is to “ensure that new development is designed for people.”

Us: What do the Design Guidelines have to do with public camping?

ETTGPOTS: In response to developer complaints that design review adds needless time and cost to projects, the City is wrapping up a three-year effort to streamline the Design Guidelines. One of the proposed Guidelines related to commercial exteriors was initially titled “Provide Opportunities to Pause, Sit and Interact.” At its meetings on November 12 and December 17, 2019, the Planning and Sustainability Commission debated and ultimately recommended that the title be changed to “Provide Opportunities to Rest and Be Welcome.”

Us: Why did they do that?

ETTGPOTS: Several Commissioners who voted in favor of the change said that it was a reaction against “defensive design” meant to purposely exclude people, such as blocking alcoves with fences or boulders, but did not specifically authorize setting up a tent on private property. It was not clear, however, why encouraging opportunities to “pause, sit and interact” would not accomplish the same goal. Also, the Commissioner who proposed the edit specifically stated that she made the proposal to encourage more than just sitting for a spell. Instead, she wanted to help alleviate the housing shortage by giving people a place to “pitch a tent” and “rest on a longer-term scale.”

Us: So what’s next?

ETTGPOTS: The Planning and Sustainability Commission was only the first stop in a tortuous process to approve changes to the Design Guidelines. The next stop was the Portland Design Commission, which rejected the change at its December 19, 2019 meeting.

Us: So is this all much ado about nothing?

ETTGPOTS: Probably, but the Design Commission’s position is also only a recommendation. The final word will come from the City Council when it considers adopting changes to the Design Guidelines sometime in 2020. It is possible the debate will reignite at that time.