The knock came early. It was one of the guys from a crew that had already cleared 17 trees from the lot next door to make way for a lofty new apartment building. He wanted to know whether he was supposed to trim the branches on our side of the only one left standing, a towering western red cedar on the edge of our driveway.
No, I said, puzzled. We thought the developer understood our affection for the 77-foot tree, which likely was planted when our house, a gray Foursquare with a bright-pink door and big front porch, was built 122 years ago. The project architect had even adjusted the southeast Portland, Oregon, apartment building’s footprint to accommodate the tree’s root system, based on concerns raised by the neighborhood association when the development team presented their project. We knew they were allowed to trim some limbs that extended over their property line, but not so much that it threatened the tree’s health. “Please be kind with your cuts,” I told the trimmer.
Not long after our brief conversation, I heard the trimmer arguing with the drilling foreman, who wanted limbs cut 40 feet up the red cedar’s trunk to accommodate a drilling rig. It would kill the tree, the trimmer warned. He called his boss for guidance. I called the city’s urban forestry office. My husband, Chris, emailed the project manager. We both argued in the street with the construction manager, who shouted at us from the cab of his black pickup truck about how they were entitled to do whatever they want on their property.
Here it was, the confrontation Chris and I had been dreading since we learned in the early days of the pandemic that the international hostel next door was closing for good. The 1909 bungalow on Portland’s Hawthorne Boulevard would be torn down to make room for a 61-unit apartment building with roughly nine units set aside for people with lower incomes.
Our experience is a testament to the compromise required among many parties in our quest for more housing, and our country’s reliance on adversarial techniques to solve big problems.
To be clear, we didn’t—and don’t—object to the apartments replacing the hostel, although the construction has been loud and dusty. In fact, you could probably call me and Chris YIMBYs, a term that emerged in recent years to describe people who embrace denser development in urban settings to address housing affordability and climate change (short for “Yes in my backyard”). As a freelance reporter focused on state policy and climate issues, I frequently write about the West Coast’s housing shortage and the importance of building more multifamily housing like the apartments under construction next door. Over the summer, I even wrote about how Oregon passed sweeping land use regulations requiring cities to encourage more dense, climate-friendly neighborhoods close to mass transit, where nearly all errands can be run on foot (like the one we live in). I’m well aware there’s a shortage of about 3.8 million housing units nationwide—a deficiency that stems from a construction slowdown that began during the Great Recession and never caught up with current needs—and that scarce housing has sweeping consequences for affordability and homelessness, problems on display daily in Portland and other West Coast cities. When Chris and I bought our single-family home in 2018, we, too, added to the density of the neighborhood by building an accessory dwelling unit in our basement; my father now lives there. But there’s nothing like a chainsaw revving at 7:30 a.m. to rattle your faith in the rewards of dense, walkable urban neighborhoods.
The apartment under construction next door is owned by an LLC that falls under the corporate umbrella of developer Dennis Sackhoff, a builder whose rental portfolio is described on a company website as “one of the most substantial privately held apartment ownerships in the Portland area.” His apartments are visible all over the city. (One example built a decade ago sits next to the current construction site, visible from our backyard.) The housing structures are architecturally unadventurous but solid, without pools, fancy gyms, or other luxurious amenities. They seldom include parking lots or garages, in part because Portland is one of a handful of cities in the country to embrace minimum parking requirements. The policy is designed to discourage car ownership as part of the city’s overall plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions. It also makes the apartment buildings more affordable to construct, and, in theory, more affordable to rent.
To squeeze in as many units as possible, the projects tend to use nearly every square foot of available lot. And because of that, the plans next door leave little room to replant the big trees that came down this summer, including one of our backyard maples. In a follow-up call with the city’s urban forestry office a few days after our confrontation with the construction manager, officials told me the developer must replace five street trees they cut down on our block. They’re also required to pay a fine or replace 17 other trees taken down on the lot, but they don’t have to be replanted in our neighborhood.
I loved the way the trees around the former hostel shaded our home, blocked street noise, and provided habitats for birds and squirrels. But the construction manager was right: We have little say in the development of the next-door property, which is zoned for such buildings. Outside of historic districts, Portland also has few requirements for community approval of construction projects. Still, the red cedar belongs in part to our lot—and, in a sense, to the whole neighborhood. I wouldn’t have raised a ruckus in the street if I didn’t know from my reporting how vital trees are for keeping cities cool, and how critical urban tree canopy will be in the face of climate change. (As the Pacific Northwest baked during the 2021 heat dome, for example, scientists measured that Portland’s more affluent neighborhoods with expansive tree canopy stayed cooler than those with fewer trees and lots of concrete.)
Our impasse over the tree limbs ended quickly. The project manager sent an arborist, who wrote a report saying they could safely cut six limbs from the tree with minimal impact to its health. The drilling crew agreed to bring in a shorter rig to dig holes for the I-beams that support the construction of the foundation—never mind that the holes they drilled are perilously close to the base of the red cedar. The urban forestry office told me to get an independent assessment of our tree’s health and document any damage so we could file a complaint or sue the developer if the tree died. In essence, the advice was little different than what the construction manager told us when we argued in the street: Get a lawyer.
We can put up with the temporary noise and dust of an active construction site, especially since the building will benefit people by providing more housing in a city that doesn’t have enough of it. But our experience is a testament to the compromise required among many parties in our quest for more housing, and our country’s reliance on adversarial techniques to solve big problems. We shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer to protect a living, healthy tree, and a developer who got rich building communities shouldn’t need the threat of a lawsuit to act neighborly. I’m certain that, if we’re creative, we’re capable of building the best of both worlds, one with plenty of trees and ample housing. One goal shouldn’t come at the expense of another.
A few days after our fight in the street, I was sweeping out front. A silver-haired man was walking to his car parked in front of our house. He asked me what was under construction. “About 60 apartments,” I said, not elaborating on the temporary annoyance of the active construction site or our conflict with the developer over the red cedar.
“Just what we need,” he said, shaking his head in disapproval. “More apartments.”
“Well actually,” I said, “we do need more apartments.” But then I shut up, deciding again not to expound. No developer needs me to defend their project. But what they do need to do is to plant more trees.
Top photo courtesy of Erika Bolstad.
In Portland, Oregon, the Paths to Homeownership Are Multiplying
“You’re Finally Seeing Cracks in the NIMBY Armor”
How to Build an Affordable America