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).
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.
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.