Development Code Weaponized Against Housing

As YIMBYs, our goal is to see more homes of all shapes and sizes in Bend; enough so that people who work here can afford to live here, at a minimum. This is a commonly expressed goal of local leaders of various political leanings. 

Beyond just “enough”, I think most of us who care about Bend have some notions of what form this “enough” takes – how our city should look. What’s ‘nice to have’ so that it’s a pleasant place to live and work.

Some of these ideas have been added to our city code, with the best of intentions, but they’re being weaponized by people who think housing different from theirs should not be built in their neighborhood.

Most recently, the Compass Corner project has been delayed because the Awbrey Butte neighbors found a bit of the project that does not comply. As a “mixed use” project, code stipulates that retail must take up the entire ground floor. That sounds good, but perhaps it doesn’t make sense in all cases, as a developer might struggle with the mix of housing, parking and uncertainty about retail in today’s challenging economic climate. 

The neighbors, from their other comments on the project, pretty clearly do not care one bit whether there is a full floor of retail. It’s just a convenient way to stop the project or try to extract concessions from the developers, meaning fewer, and likely more expensive homes.

Similarly, on another part of Awbrey Butte, neighbors were very upset about some duplexes being built in their ‘exclusive’ area of town. There’s no denying it’s a wealthy part of our city – they certainly had the means to hire experts to cast around for a way to throw a monkey wrench in the project. In that case, it was the bit of Bend’s code that requires streets to be connected. A connected street network is a laudable goal – a street grid is better in a lot of ways – but looking at how many cul-de-sacs there are already in that area, and the terrain… it’s abundantly clear the neighbors care nothing for well-connected neighborhoods, and mostly about having as few new neighbors as possible. They were partially successful in that the developer halved the number of homes to be built, roughly. 

We’ve heard a lot of nice words about ‘equity’ in Bend, but what it looks like to us, is that those with the time and financial resources can afford to scour a project for some technical ‘fault’ that no one actually cares about, and utilize that to throw sand in the gears, leading to less housing in their part of town.

There are fairly straightforward solutions to single code problems. Kathy Austin, a local architect and expert on affordable housing, suggests that ground floors be built to be compatible with future retail uses, rather than requiring retail on 100% of the floor, for instance.

However, looking at the problem at a higher level, perhaps we would be wise to be less detailed and prescriptive in some portions of our development code (outside of safety issues), allowing buildings, neighborhoods and our city to build quickly, and then adapt over time. What we’re seeing now are good ideas being used to undermine a stated goal of nearly everyone elected in Bend in recent years.

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