Let's preserve our low-density neighborhoods.
The current proposal for a 20-year plan to guide development in Eugene threatens to spoil what is one of the city's most desirable features - its low-density residential neighborhoods. By increasing the density and diminishing the quality of our existing, well-established and most livable neighborhoods, we threaten a primary element that makes Eugene one of the country's most livable cities.
Most Eugeneans who have chosen to live in an R-1 neighborhood - a zoning designation defined in the Eugene City Code as low density - have done so because they like the feel and privacy of a low-density neighborhood.
We like a back yard that is relatively free of the intrusion of neighboring windows and the squeeze from others in close proximity. We want to be able to escape the pressures of urban life and relax with our families in a place that we can call our own, a place where we can raise a garden or lie in a hammock. Places like these are increasingly rare - and increasingly important in the modern world for reducing stress and maintaining sanity.
Low-density R-1 neighborhoods are designed primarily for single-family housing. The R-2 and R-3 zones designated in the land use code are designed for higher density living.
The R-1 zone has a loophole in the single-family rule - the secondary dwelling unit allowance, which enables property owners to install another dwelling unit on their R-1 zoned property. Though a secondary dwelling unit can give a property owner some extra income, it comes at a substantial cost to the neighborhood.
Secondary dwelling units often rob neighbors of the privacy and tranquility they once had, and for which they bought their property. It essentially forces some neighbors to subsidize the income of others by ceding some of their property value to increase their neighbor's property value. This is fundamentally unjust. Extra dwelling units, whatever they're called, are essentially incompatible with the concept of low-density R-1 neighborhoods.
Under the current proposal, this injustice is about to become even worse. The proposal emerging from the Envision Eugene process would legalize alley access. Many standard residential lots would be able to be partitioned into two separate building lots. This would have the effect of greatly increasing traffic in alleys, increasing noise and congestion, and decreasing privacy and tranquility.
In short, it would utterly destroy the character of our established R-1 neighborhoods and bring great distress to many residents.
Reducing standards for existing zoning designations is tantamount to changing the zoning itself. Zoning amounts to a promise of protection given by a government jurisdiction for the use and the value of property.
Projections tell us that Eugene's population will increase by about 30,000 in the next 20 years. If we accept this increase as inevitable and unavoidable, we must come to terms with how we will absorb it. Though most agree that keeping our growth compact is desirable, I believe that creating an overly dense city has at least as many undesirable features as its opposite. Would we really want a mini-Manhattan at our end of the Willamette valley?
Studies show that higher density is associated with higher crime rates. Open space is good for all of us. A little piece of private open space is of greater value than a lot of public space. Certainly, having both is the best option.
Eugene's highly touted livability is largely a result of its neighborhoods. Let's not destroy what we have. If we want to increase the overall density of our town, we can do it by creating new neighborhoods with higher density standards.
Perhaps another R-1 zone would help. We could establish an R-1(a) zone, for example, in which lot size minimums were 3,000 square feet, and alley access and secondary dwelling units are allowed and planned for. This would allow future development to be at a greater density than past development without reducing the standards for the neighborhoods that were designed for what they are.
Imposing higher density standards on existing development is like trying to stuff a size 10 foot into a size nine shoe. It's not only painful, it's unhealthy as well.
If a higher-density R-1 zone were created, property buyers who would like to live in a higher density neighborhood, with the possibility of having a secondary dwelling unit on their property, could do so without devaluing the property of neighbors who don't want what they bought to be spoiled.
Let's do away with secondary dwelling units, and certainly let's not allow alley access lots in existing R-1 neighborhoods. Let's protect our heritage. Let's preserve our existing low-density neighborhoods.
If this is an issue that concerns you, please contact your city councilor.
Robert Graef has worked as a real estate agent, pub owner and in residential restoration and design. He's currently an employee of the city of Eugene; the views expressed here are his own.