Design Commission offers advice to advance innovative affordable housing project on small lot

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This is an image of a proposed affordable housing building at 3606 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
The Design Commission weighed in and offered early guidance on Nov. 16 on a proposed design for a 32-unit affordable housing development at 3606 NE MLK Jr. Blvd.

John Holmes and A.J. Littleton with Guna Collaborative, along with Parker McNulty from Carbon Group, presented a concept for a five-story timber-framed building with housing above a ground floor with active use and retail space. If built, the building would offer all units as affordable to households making 60 percent of area median family income.

The proposal calls for a 64-foot-high building on a 4,500 sq. ft. lot that is currently vacant.  The individual units are proposed to be 340 sq. ft. studio apartments and will maximize the number of housing units that can be built on this site by using the affordable housing bonus incentive built into the Zoning Code.

Proposed amenities include a community room, an outdoor covered and uncovered courtyard, rooftop terrace and ground-floor retail space. A recessed entry and canopy are intended to provide opportunities for residents and the public to “pause, sit and interact,” and complement pedestrian activity on the sidewalk. The proposed building will not offer off-street parking but would be located on a frequent service transit line.

“We’re trying to create what I would call naturally occurring affordable housing,” said McNulty. “This is our take on how to resolve a housing crisis that we have for many people who are looking for low-cost housing in locations where they can integrate their lifestyle into the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Ed Shearer, who owns the adjacent building to the south of this site, provided the only public testimony, noting, “I like this project,” but raised concerns about whether the parking lot north of the proposed site, which is owned by Prosper Portland, would remain.

Members of the Design Commission shared their enthusiastic support for the proposal which maximizes the allowable floor area ratio and height for affordable housing development in this zone (Commercial Mixed Use 2). Suggested improvements to the building mostly focused on the quality of materials used for the sidewalk canopy and allowing greater light into the ground-floor space which will have 15-foot ceilings.

Commissioner Joe Swank expressed support for the massing of the building on such a small lot along a very active street corridor. “I think this is one start to a very active streetscape,” he said, adding, “I want to commend you for an ambitious affordable housing site” that could be replicable throughout Portland.

Commissioner Zari Santner shared similar praise: “When I saw got this packet and looked at it, I was so excited because I finally saw a deeply affordable housing building on a very small and challenging site, being so simply and elegantly done in a very, very dignified way.” She went on to add, “We have always talked about affordable housing as being as good as any other type of housing. This building is a great example of how it can be done on such a challenging site.”

Santner noted one area for improvement: “The only thing I want to emphasize is that the way that the front looks along MLK, it looks cavernous and dark. You have a great ground-floor program. The glazing and windows need to be more on that level.”

While noting “I like the simplicity of the façade and the massing as it is,” Commissioner Sam Rodriguez raised concerns about the use of wood for the front canopy and facade “from a quality and permanence perspective.”

Commissioner Tina Bue shared his concerns about the longevity and resilience of wood as part of the ground-floor façade but noted, “I commend you for making the most of what you can do with such a small lot. I do think that small lots deserve just as much attention as larger projects.”

Commission Chair Brian McCarter was direct in his assessment of how a project like this can serve the City’s affordable housing needs: “I love this project so much I’m wondering if you can get it built in the next 60 days before City Council makes up its mind on Housing Regulatory Relief,” he said. “It [the proposal] has so many good things going for it. It is like a bullseye of the issues we are wrestling with right now.

“I’m so totally enamored with the fact that you have a high-ceiling space on the ground floor, he added. “This is exactly the tradition of Portland of having flexible ground-floor spaces.”

The presentation at the Nov. 16 hearing was for a design advice request from the Design Commission. The next step for this project is for its sponsors to bring an updated plan to Development Services staff for a formal Type II design review and approval before construction permits are issued. The application for such a design review is anticipated in early 2024.