Is it time for Portland to rediscover the “step-back”?

A typical “step-back” detail, of the kind increasingly seen in new “form-based zoning codes”. (Image: Sterling Codifiers)

In the polarized debate over new development, it’s unfortunately common to overlook the “win-win strategies” – the ones that achieve the City’s goals of accommodating new growth with sustainable patterns, that make reasonable profits for developers, and that mitigate negative impacts on existing residents, and preserve and even enhance the existing livability of the city.

Too often these negative impacts are severe — and they are unnecessary, and therefore unjustifiable.  Shading, wind effects, view blockages, negative skyline changes — these and other impacts are too often traded away, as benefits to the public space commons are “privatized” for developers and buyers.  This is anything but a sustainable development strategy (as we have shown, using research evidence).

Yet good tools do exist to mitigate these impacts, and to produce good quality, win-win development.   Here we focus on just one, the venerable “step-back.”  This is a change in the building edge where it “steps back,” usually from the street (or sometimes the rear or side of the lot) as it gets higher.  (Typically a “setback” is where the entire building footprint is “set back” from any of the property lines.)

The step-back came to prominence as part of the 1916 New York Zoning Resolution, which came in the wake of an explosive growth of skyscrapers in that city.   The code required a series of step-backs as a building got taller, thereby mitigating impacts from shadowing and other negative effects.  But the code had the unintended benefit of leading to a new generation of “sculpted” buildings, like the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and many other icons of the era. New York architect Hugh Ferriss produced a series of influential drawings that showed how this worked (see below).

Above: Architect Hugh Ferris’ drawings of how step-back codes generate a very attractive urban form. Upper left, what the code specifies. Upper right, the code applied to a site plan. Lower left, the massing re-interpreted as a series of rectilinear forms. Lower right, the final form, reflecting adjustments to make a functional plan on each level.
The skyline of New York, transformed by the code into a series of sculpted forms, stepping back from the streets for light, air and sky view.

Why have we mostly forgotten about step-backs? Profit-minded developers usually make more money when they go straight up from the street.  That creates more unit floorspace, and reduces the cost from tricky corners, roofing, decking and flashing that are often required for step-backs.   But for a city like Portland, this is a problem: taller buildings on our small blocks tend to loom over the street, exacerbating problems with view, wind, massing, visual disruption and the like.

And of course, profit for developers is not the only criterion that must be considered.  A developer has a legal obligation to mitigate the impact of any development on the quality and value of its neighbors.  Property rights are one thing, but as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once wryly observed — in a legal admonition that developers and libertarians alike must bear  in mind — “My freedom to swing my fist ends at your nose!”

But going straight up is precisely what a generation of failed “modernist” projects did in the 1960s, with very unhappy results.  The era of modernist fiascoes led to a series of reforms, in Portland and other cities.  In their place we saw a generation of more human-scaled, more contextual buildings and civic spaces.    We also saw plenty of profitable new development, taking seriously its civic responsibility to add to the public realm and the livable city — and to mitigate its negative impacts.

But now a form of amnesia has taken hold.  The outscale modernist buildings are back, with colorful artistic packaging and all manner of ‘bolt-on green” features. These new structures are certainly profitable for the developers, and for their investors and buyers, who increasingly represent offshore capital (e.g. from China, Russia et al) – as many recent news accounts have documented.

Portland leadership has seemed curiously unwilling to engage this new wave of development and hold it accountable. Many in the City have even gone along with so-called “greenwashing” and “bean-counting” arguments, which say that anything that delivers more jobs, housing units and density is automatically a positive form of growth for the City.  A kind of “Architectural-Industrial Complex” has taken the fore, aggressively promoting (without evidence) its claims for a progressive agenda.

Portland’s 12 West building, running the full length of the block, with NO step-backs. Not a good model! (Image: Downtown Development Group)

But the lessons of history sadly demonstrate the follies of this kind of approach.  And history also demonstrates that we have choices available to us — choices for better alternatives.

While we have coddled ill-conceived, out-scale developments with “greenwashing” and “kool-aid drinking” — selling the (profitable) fantasy of a utopian “Little Vancouver” — we have simultaneously created a byzantine approval process that adds major risk and cost to projects — and paradoxically incentivizes lowest-common-denominator development.  A better strategy would be to reward good quality development with greater certainty and streamlining of the process.  These model forms of development could be agreed to by the neighborhoods in concept, making entitlement processes smoother, less likely to face opposition, and therefore offering lower risk and higher profit to good quality developers.

There are good tools and strategies available for a more successful, win-win approach to development.  Portland architect Laurence Qamar, for example, recently created a series of step-back proposals for the development of the Woodstock Corridor.   Instead of the boxy, ungainly “space invaders” that have bedeviled other parts of the city, Qamar’s step-back code would assure that buildings step down to the street, and to existing residential and low-rise areas.  Developers using this code would trade the cost of the step-backs for a much greater certainty, stronger community support, higher quality and appeal, and lower risk for the project overall.   Thats a win-win by any definition.

Qamar’s code would require a building over a certain height to step down to the street, and to adjacent residential lots.
An example of what a building might look like after following Qamar’s code. (Images: Qamar and Associates)

4 Replies to “Is it time for Portland to rediscover the “step-back”?”

  1. Slabtown Square in the Con-way development really needs a solution like this! The step-backs would make the space brighter and allow the sunlight to reach the square. And in addition, they would provide great opportunity for balconies to overlook the square, increasing interaction and enhancing the square’s dramatic character.

  2. It should be noted that Portland Planning has been promoting what I believe is a rather flawed solution to some of these scale incompatibility issues of new and old buildings. I have heard planners state several times that FAR (Floor Area Ratio) mechanisms can help save and preserve nicely scaled historic buildings by allowing those property owners to sell their FAR rights (the increment between existing and allowable building bulk and height) to nearby developers who can then in turn build higher. Their rational is that this is some sort of gift to the city for preserving some buildings In reality, that is merely preservation at the expense of the public realm of streets and plazas as adjacent buildings are allowed to rise even higher than the permitted allowance. But in reality, this FAR tool fully ignores the value of compatibility between the scale of neighboring buildings, and the notion of streets as outdoor rooms that are contained by like-sized building frontages.

    And then the additional elements of cornices and facades, and how they enhance that sense of the outdoor room of street spaces and civic place making.

    People feel comfortable in streets and plazas as civic spaces when the ratio of building heights to width of streets are not overly narrow and canyon-like. These step-back Form Based Code concepts help reinforce that sense of these
    “outdoor rooms”.

  3. If we had a more sensible discussion in this city we could find a way to make this happen without reducing the ability to build enough housing in areas of economic opportunity which also have lower transportation costs and carbon effects.

    One way to make that happen would be to allow missing middle housing (and not the paltry offerings of the residential infill project) in the neighborhoods themselves. Why not allow smaller apartment complexes and courtyards in between our corridors. That could be combined with height bonuses for buildings which are subject to these step-back rules so we aren’t cutting too much usable space out of the equation.

    Unfortunately, there is a faction which, in my experience, is unwilling to give much ground (and it’s not the planners and “smart growth advocates”) and the solutions end up delivering a lose-lose of not actually providing enough ability to build a variety of housing and not being able to adequately address any of the concerns of nearby residents.

    We find ourselves in a position where we can’t really endorse a plan which removes potential housing because there is too great a likelihood of further watering down at the council level and/or pressure from neighborhood associations to leave entitlements on the cutting room floor, so to speak.

  4. Tony – I agree, but would add a few qualifications. As we have discussed, we need a different culture in this town, that is able (and willing) to work to convert “NIMBY” to “YIMBY” – or better yet, “BIMBY” (“Beauty In My Back Yard” as the Prince’s Foundation calls it). That means finding the win-wins that preserve our livability and add amenities and quality of life. Northwest Portland is a good precedent for this — as you say, there are courtyard apartments that are not just on the transit corridors but sometimes a few blocks away. But then we have to look at houses that would be lost, and strategies to keep the quality up — e.g. moving existing houses into clusters, or adding to them to convert to apartment format (as has been done in a number of notable precedents. As discussed, one of the things I think we have to respect about NIMBYs is that they fear every new project will degrade the quality — and history is sadly on their side of that argument! It is up to us in the development world, and at the City, to reform ourselves and deliver better quality, more worthy of their support. (We need to stop functioning as an “Architectural-Industrial Complex,” for which there is little possible response but NIMBYism.) And then it is up to all the citizens and NAs to enter into a civic conversation to explore how this can happen, and under what agreeable terms. Cheers, m

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