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Saturday March 25th 2023

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A Ride Through the Missing Middle


If there’s anything Portlanders like better than beer-fueled naked revelry, it might be wonky discussion of transportation policy and urban design. Pedalpalooza, the city’s annual festival of bicycle-borne madness, features plenty of both.

In the latter vein, I took part in the Missing Middle Housing ride, inspired by the ideas on  The “Missing Middle” generally refers to housing that’s more land-efficient than single-family dwellings on standard lots, but that’s less than four stories and doesn’t require an elevator.  It includes Accessory Dwelling Units (“granny flats” or “carriage houses”), duplexes, row houses, courtyard apartments, and small apartment buildings usually in the 3- to 8-unit range. The Pedalpalooza ride focused particularly on historic missing-middle buildings that are beloved but, in many cases, no longer permitted by the zoning code.

Arguably, the middle is even more missing in Boulder than in Portland. Looking especially at recent development trends, the great bulk of the housing units constructed have been in the form either of single-family houses or very large-scale apartment complexes such as those appearing in East Boulder.  How many new duplexes have you seen built in the last five years? Probably zero. And yet the missing middle is where many of the best answers to our housing quandary lie: housing that’s relatively affordable, family-friendly, and neighborhood-compatible. It’s also more energy-efficient than the typical single-family house; the forms help to create social interaction and build community; and the construction can generally be funded with local capital rather than needing access to the big capital markets.

For inspiration, here are some of the missing-middle buildings we saw on the ride.

First, some lovely historic duplexes. In many cases, if you didn’t notice the two doors, you wouldn’t even know these were duplexes.

All photos courtesy Kurt Nordback

Also a couple of multi-story four-plexes:

And some single-story, row-style plexes.  Some of these are similar to examples in Boulder.

This one is part of a larger complex of such buildings, arranged around a courtyard:

Then an example of courtyard apartments, which are much beloved in Portland but still, in most cases, illegal to build in this form (as they are in Boulder).  These are usually built in the shape of a U, or sometimes a V, with a courtyard in the middle.  More recent examples replace the courtyard with a parking lot, destroying the charm.

Here’s just the courtyard of one.  It would be a delightful place for sitting or for gardening:

And a couple of views of a two-story courtyard apartment that’s beautifully built and beautifully preserved:

Then some larger apartment buildings that are still far smaller than many of the new east-Boulder developments.  I didn’t count electric meters in all cases, but these seem to be in the range of 6 to 12 units:

Finally, a couple of new buildings.  This is part of a new senior co-housing project called Ankeny Row:

And this is a single-family house on a small lot (about 3000 square feet, or less than half Boulder’s minimum lot size):

We can have a better, more sustainable, more livable city if we build less at the ends, and more in the middle.

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