Since flying back from Hawaii several months ago, my “other” job besides toddler wrangling has been researching housing pretty much twenty-four-seven…walking neighborhoods and trawling the web for all possible information related to setting up shop, long term, in Portland.
This week I can finally announce that the search phase of that project is complete.
The interesting thing is, after all that work we actually didn’t find a house. I know, I know, it sounds like a counterintuitive result to be happy about (kind of like when programmers smile at a weird phrase like EXIT_SUCCESS). I promise, though, that this story has a very happy ending…or perhaps, more accurately put, a very happy beginning.
Curiously enough, this whole adventure even kind of started with a “failure” of sorts. Upon returning from the islands and taking a look at Portland’s neighborhoods and the housing market with fresh eyes (fresh from the mind-numbing prospects of real estate on Oahu, that is) we almost immediately started having serious doubts about the area which we’d always dreamed would be our permanent home in Portland, the northwest Alphabet District. It turns out, we love to shop there, we love to eat there, we love to do all kinds of stuff there, we even love our nursery school there…but the simple fact is that the Alphabets have become, over time, kind of too fancy for their own good.
It’s a great place to be a single, twenty-something, partying hipster who rents and has no intention of sticking around forever…but the minimum buy-in for whole houses there (not to mention the property taxes that come along with them) has now far exceeded the grasp of an “average” family by any definition, especially along the streetcar line where we thought of living. There isn’t so much a sense of one community as of divergent groups awkwardly inhabiting the same space…transient younger folks renting for a few years between life phases, and wealthy older homeowners with a huge cultural gap between the two. This “donut hole” is a phenomenon well known to much of New York, or San Francisco, but feels extremely weird in Portland (and that’s saying something). It just doesn’t seem to fit the vibe of the city, and definitely doesn’t fit with our own expectations for how we’d like our kids to grow up. After all, one of our biggest concerns in Hawaii was the class disparity as it related to education options. Would sending our kids to public schools, exclusively accessible by the privileged, in one place really be any different than similarly exclusive private schools in another?
Having access to Portland’s excellent rail transit remains very important to us, both for the immediate future and over the long term. TriMet’s bus lines are great too, and we use them all the time, but rail lines change much more slowly than bus routes. While its infrastructure expenses are always a politically charged matter, I remain firmly convinced of rail’s long term boons to economic development and the health of neighborhoods. On a more personal level, easy access to rail means a massively extended “walkable” area for daily living, and that has a huge impact on lifestyle options whether you’re herding munchkins, a teenager eager to explore the universe without having to maintain a car, or a senior living with reduced mobility. Fortunately in addition to the downtown streetcar here we have an awesome light rail network which connects to it, so we started inspecting other interesting areas looking for anywhere rail lines meet with more diversely “family friendly” circumstances and thriving neighborhood schools.
This led us to wonder, what about the new Orange Line light rail alignment?
The Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Project, underway for many years now (which actually constructed a station right under the balcony of our old apartment by PSU) is nearing completion and will be up and running before the end of the year. Besides opening up the SE to downtown via a new mode of transit, the project includes the new and unique Tilikum Crossing bridge that will only carry public transit, cyclists, and pedestrians. Not only will it be far faster a commute than the aging Steel Bridge which presents a choke point for the Red, Green, and Blue MAX lines, but it will also be immune to traffic jams. Since the Orange line’s alignment is almost entirely off street until it crosses into downtown, this means it will functionally become Portland’s first true “downtown express line” (my own transplant phrase, not something anyone here would say, nor would they probably point out its South Waterfront flyover as being the city’s first “el”).
Railroad dork excitement aside, it turns out there’s good reason for us to be intrigued by the new MAX. Not far over the river, south of Brooklyn but north of the city’s border with Milwaukie, lie Sellwood/Moreland and Eastmoreland, adjacent neighborhoods served by a pair of new transit stations (one with excellent pedestrian access, the other a convenient park-and-ride). We’d never really spent much time down there, apart from milady’s favorite sock store, so we started looking more closely at the region…and everything we discovered just got us more and more enthused.
On the Eastmoreland side of the tracks, there are beautiful old storybook homes, long blocks of twisty quiet roads fun to explore on foot or by bicycle, and the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden next to the the Reed College campus (both of which are covered in lovely hiking trails). Over in Sellwood/Moreland, there are smaller dense blocks, primarily Craftsman housing, and a massive public park that stretches a mile in length and ranges in terrain from wetlands to playgrounds to baseball and soccer fields, all bisected by a creek frequented by waterfowl and migrating salmon. In close proximity are three thriving business districts (Sellwood, Westmoreland, and Woodstock) each of which boasts a useful mix of chain grocery stores, local markets, eateries, and entertainment. The whole area is characterized by excellent public schools with active PTAs, a heavy proportion of families with kids, and an additional connection to downtown via the Springwater Corridor. Oh and did I mention the public pool, or the community center, or the amusement park, or the historic steam railroad? Yeah, as it turns out, I can wax on about how awesome Sellwood is for quite a while. The thing is though, while homes there are far more affordable…they still sell like hotcakes. Many are under contract within a day or two of entering the market. Some are pending the afternoon of their open house.
Thus began the hunt, and many an exciting prospect did we find…only to either discover a dealbreaker with regard to our requirements and renovation plans, or to find it already sold to a faster bidder. Meanwhile, at the upper bound of our project budget, we watched as new construction popped up block after block all well outside our parameters (urban skinny houses targeted at DINKs, artless monster homes rising three or four boxy stories and ruining the character of their blocks, etc). There were a few diamonds in the rough in the sweet spot in between, but they were mostly “make me move” unlisted homes whose owners were frustratingly unresponsive. We steeled ourselves for a long hunt, and started to ponder how best to reconfigure our townhouse should we happen to successfully expand our family before successfully securing new digs. Overall, despite having an awesome realtor helping us, the whole process was becoming a bit of a chore. Then, just as the season started to heat up, we made an unexpected discovery.
Pounding the pavement near two properties that had proven disappointments (nice homes, but with some critically inaccurate listing details) we came upon a lot which had just been demolished in an amazing location. Lovely street, low traffic, right on the park, walkable to both train stations and two of the three business districts, large trees, near the creek…this was the very definition of too good to be true. Curiously, there was no big sign planted in front to advertise the future home’s design or the builder’s contact information, so we immediately presumed this was one of those situations that cuts out MLS altogether (wealthy out of town buyer makes huge cash offer, owner moves out, buyer tears down the house they just bought and puts up whatever they like, etc). With so many folks coming to Portland from hugely inflated places like NYC or LA these stories are not uncommon. The only clue as to the lot’s circumstances was a small, handwritten sign stapled to one of the survey stakes containing its permit numbers. Figuring it was at best a hail mary, we texted our realtor to reach out to City Hall.
It turned out the lot had actually just been demo’d by a small Portland area builder (not one of the cheap/ugly McMansion factories) new to the neighborhood, interested in building more appropriately-sized and well-designed homes and establishing a reputation in opposition to the fairly strong resentment many locals feel towards big boxes…and most importantly it had not yet even been advertised. My mind raced with references to Glengarry Glen Ross at imagining how perfect a “lead” this was, and we eagerly awaited more responses to feverish communications with the builder through our realtor. Before we knew it we were out in Happy Valley sitting around the guy’s kitchen table hashing out our mutual interests in broad strokes (and by the way, if you’ve never been to a builder’s own house, it’s a lot like eating at the reception for a wedding of two professional chefs). Point after point, as we each ratcheted down our long lists of expectations, we kept finding ourselves cheerily nodding heads. This was really happening, we had discovered an opportunity to affordably build a “dream house” exactly where we’d want it to be. We talked the specifics over with our bank and insurance folks, did a flurry of research into various permit details, and in only a few days were successfully under contract with an amicably agreed upon list of amenities. This afternoon, we walked into an office tower downtown and cut our escrow check…and if all goes according to plan in roughly 120-150 days (probably late July or early August) we’ll have some new keys on our keychains.
We are so beside ourselves, and the last few days have been such a whirlwind of time-critical tasks and meticulously researched decisions, that we’ve barely had time to tell any friends and family so apologies if this is just now reaching you for the first time…but guess what you’re about to have some pretty choice crash space to come visit in the hipster rainforest after this summer!
Happily at this point we’ve reached a relative lull in the process as things calm down and construction is poised to begin. There are many smaller details to hash out within the amenities list like finishes and appliances and exact measurements, but overall we’re extremely pleased and excited. For the nerds, you’ll be excited to know that the neighborhood is being rapidly lit with fiber as established ISPs feel the pressure of Google’s impending moves west. The upper floor will have a ventilated hardware closet just outside what the plans call a “Games Room” which I’m redesigning as a home theater and editing studio (sorry wet bar, you’re being replaced with third row seating). For everyone else, there will be three full baths including one in a ground floor dedicated guest suite, and a playroom upstairs for visiting munchkins to frolic in whenever the living room is busy with grown up stuff. We’re eschewing the somewhat vestigial idea of a formal dining room for a big eat-in kitchen and a den, which will function as a home office. A city-sized single car garage will occupy one back corner of the lot with a long driveway which can easily accommodate guests, and the rear half of the property will be fenced for little ones to play in (when they’re not running around the park just a few steps from the front door). Speaking of the front door, in true Craftsman style, there will be a long porch running the full width of the building with views down the road, over the creek, and into the park.
If you’re the sort of home improvement geek who’s just chomping at the bit at this point to see plans, let me know and I’ll be happy to e-mail you some PDFs…there will be some small alterations not-yet-documented but they’ll give you a general sense of what things will look like in black and white (as far as colors and exterior finishes, we haven’t even gotten to that yet). Later down the line, we’ll probably have some more realistic/complete renderings to enjoy and I’ll be happy to share those too.
It feels appropriate, with all the warm sunny days we’ve been having lately (sorry east coast) that this should be a good time for planting the seeds of something new. We’re very excited, and can’t wait to welcome our friends from near and far to our new home…but be patient and stuff because for now it’s still basically a pile of straw and mud with a lot of potential. More as it develops!