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"Snout houses' get snub

Portland, Ore., draws the ire of builders by outlawing what it considers to be unfriendly home designs.

They have seen the enemy creep into the settled, earth-toned neighborhoods of this city: the boxy transplants from the suburban netherland. Houses that turn their backs to the street. Houses that embrace a nesting pair of monster-size sport utility vehicles and little else. Houses that give no idea where the front door might be.

Snout houses, they call them, all garage and muscled front facades. And for the last eight months, Portland has made the snout house illegal, going to a frontier of design dictate where no other big American city has gone before.

"You can still build an ugly house in Portland," said Charlie Hales, the city commissioner who led the effort to ban houses that do not fit into this city's neighborhood fabric. "But now you just have to work at it a lot harder."

Over the years, Portland has been like Martha Stewart at the keg party of American cities. While other cities (Portlanders mention Houston with particular horror) have proudly resisted even elemental zoning, Portland has decreed a perpetual self-improvement binge.

Nearly 30 years ago, in what seemed a radical step against sprawl, the Portland metropolitan area drew a line over which the city could not spill. The city ripped up a freeway near downtown and replaced it with a grassy riverfront park: Pedestrians and bicycles only, please! Then tracks were laid for a light-rail system, Max, which lets Portland claim a certain moral high ground in transportation circles, even if it has not made traffic on the freeways move more quickly.

Literary quotations are embedded in the streets downtown, where the code protects views of Mount Hood and the Willamette River and entire blocks of historic neighborhoods, and it prohibits blank walls or "uninviting" entrances at the ground floor of buildings. All of this has allowed urban planners from this place, known as the Rose City, to dine out around the country, extolling "the Portland Story."

And now comes the next front in this city's war against the nation's urban icons, the big-chested detached house with two-car garage. Last September, against the protests of builders who said that the city government had no right to enforce home designs, the Portland City Council unanimously voted, in effect, to outlaw the "snout house."

In this ever-quirky city of just under half a million people, the term "snout house" has since been shunned as offensive to people who live in snout houses. But the offending structure has been clearly defined in the city code: the garage cannot dominate the front of the house or protrude; the main entrance has to be close to the street and clearly identifiable from the sidewalk; and the side of the house that faces the street must have a certain minimum of window and door space.

"Basically, we want a house to pass the "trick or treat test,' " Hales said. "So when kids come around to trick or treat, they actually get a sense that somebody lives in the house, and they can find the door. Imagine that."

Some home builders are infuriated by this kind of talk. Structural shear requirements and universal electrical standards are one thing. But talking about a house that has to make "more connection to the public realm," as the city planners have done, is another thing.

"This is really wild stuff," said Kelly Ross, the government affairs director of the Homebuilders Association of Metropolitan Portland. His group sponsors "Street of Dreams," a show where builders show off their most pneumatic homes. "Last year, virtually every house featured would have been illegal under the new design code," he said.

But that disparity could have more to do with the gulf between home builders and Portland's city planners. Nationwide, a backlash has been under way for some time against certain suburban house designs. Attempts to rein in "McMansions" and monster-box homes have resulted in height and size restrictions in parts of California and Colorado, among other states.

The darling of so-called New Urbanist house styles is a retro dwelling with porch and hidden garage, bay windows and gabled roofs, not unlike the average house that Walt Disney Co. brought forth from focus groups and produced in Celebration, its model town in Florida. Northwest Landing, a New Urbanist community 40 miles south of Seattle, is also a pedestrian-friendly cluster of houses that would be welcome in any vacant lot in Portland.

Private, gated communities, which were among the fastest-growing residential neighborhoods in the 1990s, have long regulated house color, entrance size and the placement of a driveway basketball hoop, among other things. But no big city has gone so far as Portland, which seems to delight in attacking the conventional wisdom of developers and home builders. The builders feel offended.

"It's not like we're building these tract houses that are ugly as sin," said Randy Voeller, a draftsman for Mascord Design of Portland. The company finds that nearly 35 percent of its home plans do not meet the new requirements. "Nobody wants to build an ugly house. But we don't like the city trying to shove these base designs down our throats."

The home builders say the city is trying to turn back the clock, to a time when Mom stayed home and Dad took the streetcar to work. "The city of Portland should recognize the reality of our culture," Ross said. "The norm in today's households is two vehicles, and the vehicles are getting larger. It makes no sense to impose a standard that runs counter to these facts."

Builders and others have criticized the design regulations as a serious erosion of property rights. They filed an appeal with the state. But that challenge was rejected. Nationwide, legal assaults have been turned back by the courts, which have continued to give municipalities the right to zone and regulate, even for esthetics, within their borders.

The builders are particularly angry at Hales, the city commissioner. For a decade, he was the lobbyist for the home builders. Now, as the person leading the charge that outlawed some of their most popular home plans, he has become a pariah among his former employers.

"He's a traitor," said Jeff Fish, a leading builder. "There's no other way to put it. And the city of Portland, they've become socialists."

Fish has built hundreds of snout houses. On his wall is a big picture of a new pink house, a flaring double-nostrilled garage out front for oversize sport utility vehicles. He displays one of his more popular home designs: a simple, 1,400-square-foot house, complete with puffed-up garage and obscured entrance, which is labeled atop the architectural drawing, "Snout house." It sells for about $140,000.

"I have a class of people who want that double-car garage," he said. "As an American citizen, I have the right to build whatever I want to sell to that class of people."

The design restrictions mean that the average new home will cost, Fish estimates, about $17,000 more to build. The city, citing a study done before last year's vote, says the cost on new homes is negligible.

But in a sign that builders may have lost the war, at least in Portland, even Fish will no longer defend the snout house. He shows a design with decidedly New Urbanist touches. You want a front porch, he can give you a front porch. You want a hidden garage, he will hide it. You want bay windows, bada bing.

The new design restriction rose from neighborhood complaints about suburban-style houses invading the city. A city survey found that nearly 70 percent of new homes built were snout houses. These houses were deemed unfriendly, in some cases unsafe, because they turned eyes away from the street, and a general affront to Portland's civic ethic.

Though nobody in the city government ever came right out and said so, the intent of the new regulations was also to keep a certain look (read: ugly and suburban) from coming to Portland. As one architect, Martha Peck Andrews, said in a public hearing last year, the city "has suffered through some pretty schlocky and insensitive residential design in the last 30 years."

But one person's schlocky and insensitive is another person's castle. And who is to say that the retro design the code encourages will not look schlocky and out of place in 30 years? "You wonder how different neighborhoods would look if design standards had been in place in the '50s and '60s, when ranch-style architecture was the prevailing style," Ross said.

The city considered regulating the pitch of roofs and the style of sidings. But after some council member warned about getting into uncharted waters, the city settled on regulations that specify a garage can be no wider than 50 percent of a house front and that a front door must be recessed no more than eight feet behind the front wall. The code gave incentives for porches, balconies and living space above a garage.

"There's nothing wrong with that house," said Dr. Mark Bello, a Portland city planner, as he pointed to a pre-World War II Craftsman-style house, without garage. "As a pedestrian, you feel comfortable with that. It's more welcoming."

He pointed to a neighboring house, remodeled in suburban snout mode. "That house cuts you off," he said. "It turns its back to the street. It's not necessarily ugly, but it has no connection to the public realm. It's all about the car."

Because most available residential lots inside the city are smaller than older lots, it will be hard to build a new house with a two-car garage. And city officials do not deny that this is one intent of the regulations.

"We are not anti-automobile so much as we are pro-pedestrian," Bello said. "We are trying to avoid the downward spiral of urban neighborhoods becoming unsuccessful suburban neighborhoods."

Hales denies that the city is trying to legislate taste. "We're trying to reinforce the great neighborhood character that already exists in Portland," he said. "I mean, who is really practicing social engineering here? The people who design communities where you can't do anything but drive? Or the people who give you a choice of getting away from your car?"

The city has managed to scare away a certain kind of home builder. Fish, a Portland native, who has built more than 500 houses in the city, now sports a bumper sticker on his car with the slogan: "Friends don't let friends build in Portland."

He said he is considering moving to Las Vegas, America's fastest growing city. "They have almost no restrictions down there," he said, with uncontained glee.