The Portland architecture firm’s proposal would dwarf US Bancorp Tower, currently the tallest at 536 feet
A recent article in the Oregonian provided evidence for the growing perception that much of the pressure for taller buildings in Portland comes from boosterish members of its architecture community. A local architecture firm is proposing twin towers almost 1,000 feet tall for the old US Post Office site adjoining Union Station.
Currently the site has zoning to allow a maximum height of 75 feet. The Central City 2035 plan would deregulate that restriction and allow 400 feet. However, architect Daniel Kaven was quoted in the article saying that there should be no height limit for the site. His firm has proposed two blocky buildings reminiscent of the original 1,368 foot World Trade Center buildings in New York.
From the article:
William Kaven Architecture wants to design the tallest building in the Pacific Northwest. And it wants to put it on Portland’s Pearl District Post Office blocks, the site the city offered to Amazon for its second headquarters.
The concept, released by the Portland firm on Monday, proposed two skyscrapers, one of which would rise 970 feet. Together, the highrises would provide about 5 million square feet for retail, office, hotel rooms, apartments or condos. Accord ing to the announcement, the two buildings would be linked by “a glass-enclosed botanical bridge spanning 236 feet across the North Park Blocks some 680 feet in the air, providing dramatic aerial views of the entire city.”
The proposal would also be able to accommodate a transportation hub for highspeed rail or a Hyperloop, the news release said.
But proposed height limits for the site would allow buildings as tall as 400 feet.
In an email, Daniel Kaven, a partner with the architecture firm, acknowledged the constraints of the height limits. But he said the city, which is considering zoning changes in its Central City 2035 plan, should think big.
“City Council is able to amend this if needed/ desired,” he wrote. “It is our belief that there should not be a limit on the height and that vertical development on this scale is necessary.”
In the firm’s announcement, it said its proposed towers would be large enough to serve as a headquarters for a Fortune 100 company like Amazon. In early September, the e-commerce giant announced it was in the market for a second company headquarters, one that could accommodate 50,000 employees, and that it was prepared to invest $5 billion in construction alone.
But Portland, so close to the company’s Seattle headquarters, is viewed a long shot. Last week, Prosper Portland, the city’s urban renewal agency, called on developers to submit applications to craft a master plan for the Post Office site and the surrounding blocks, dubbed the “Broadway Corridor.”
William Kaven intends to submit a formal proposal to Prosper Portland early next year.
Speaking at the University of Oregon, the ULI Senior Resident Fellow took Oregon leaders to task for characterizing historic preservation as the enemy of affordability: “Portland can grow without losing the things you love.”
The University of Oregon, Restore Oregon, Preservation Resource Center and the Northwest Examiner hosted a talk on October 3 by Ed McMahon, ULI Senior Resident Fellow for Sustainable Development, on “Density, Design and Preservation: Working Together to Promote Livability and Affordability”. The full talk is now available on YouTube:
New towers often come with higher prices and lower density, McMahon said.
A study by the Preservation Green Lab in Seattle, he added, found that such buildings fall short in comparison to many smaller, refurbished buildings for housing people per unit. That same comparison held true for office buildings as well.
“Smaller, older buildings had more jobs per square foot,” he said. “They also had more locally owned businesses, more non-chain stores and more women- and minority-owned businesses. These are places that are worth preserving because they do outperform, on a square-foot basis, some of these larger, newer buildings.”
Nevertheless, across the country more affordable units are being torn down than built new. A National Housing Trust study, McMahon said, found that for every affordable housing unit built, two are lost due to abandonment, deterioration or conversion to more expensive housing.
“Preserving rather than building new has proven to be the most financially sustainable method of reversing the trend of one step forward and two steps back,” he said.
“Good design makes you forget about the whole concept of density,” McMahon said. “You just like being in that place.”
“Increasing housing supplies does not ensure affordability if developers build oversized and overpriced luxury homes,” said Laurence Qamar, owner of Qamar Architecture + Town Planning and another speaker at the event.
“Our tiny blocks increasingly yield massive buildings that rise straight up from sidewalks with little of subtlety and form,” he said.
Marshall Runkel, chief of staff for Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, encouraged event attendees to stay involved as proposals such as the 2035 Comprehensive Plan and the Residential Infill Project come before the City Council.
“Over the course of the next year, there should be dramatic regulatory changes that will have influences on all of the subjects discussed tonight,” he said.
The Dutch sociologist paints a disturbing picture of what the current surge of international capital is doing to cities — and who benefits
From mid-2013 to mid-2014, writes Saskia Sassen, corporate purchases of existing properties exceeded $600 billion in the top 100 cities, and $1 trillion a year later – and this figure includes only major acquisitions. She describes a major surge of capital coming into real estate from corporate investors:
I want to examine the details of this large corporate investment surge, and why it matters. Cities are the spaces where those without power get to make a history and a culture, thereby making their powerlessness complex. If the current large-scale buying continues, we will lose this type of making that has given our cities their cosmopolitanism.
Indeed, at the current scale of acquisitions, we are seeing a systemic transformation in the pattern of land ownership in cities: one that alters the historic meaning of the city. Such a transformation has deep and significant implications for equity, democracy and rights.
A city is a complex but incomplete system: in this mix lies the capacity of cities across histories and geographies to outlive far more powerful, but fully formalised, systems – from large corporations to national governments. London, Beijing, Cairo, New York, Johannesburg and Bangkok – to name but a few – have all outlived multiple types of rulers and of businesses.
In this mix of complexity and incompleteness lies the possibility for those without power to assert “we are here” and “this is also our city”. Or, as the legendary statement by the fighting poor in Latin American cities puts it, “Estamos presentes”: we are present, we are not asking for money, we are just letting you know that this is also our city.
It is in cities to a large extent where the powerless have left their imprint – cultural, economic, social: mostly in their own neighbourhoods, but eventually these can spread to a vaster urban zone as “ethnic” food, music, therapies and more.
All of this cannot happen in a business park, regardless of its density – they are privately controlled spaces where low-wage workers can work, but not “make”. Nor can this happen in the world’s increasingly militarised plantations and mines. It is only in cities where that possibility of gaining complexity in one’s powerlessness can happen – because nothing can fully control such a diversity of people and engagements.
Those with power to some extent do not want to be bothered by the poor, so the model is often to abandon them to their own devices. In some cities there is extreme violence by police. Yet this can often become a public issue, which is perhaps a first step in the longer trajectories of gaining at least some rights. It is in cities where so many of the struggles for vindications have taken place, and have, in the long run, partly succeeded.
But it is this possibility – the capacity to make a history, a culture and so much more – that is today threatened by the surge in large-scale corporate re-development of cities.
Too many people believe untruths about the actual need for tall buildings in Portland — perhaps because it pays to believe them
Upton Sinclair famously said, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” It appears we could apply that maxim to some of Portland’s city leaders, planners, architects and developers of late. The issue in question is a certain cherished article of faith: that in order to rein in sprawl, promote sustainability, and increase affordability, we need more tall buildings.
What does the evidence actually say? It does seem, intuitively, that if you go up, you’ll get more units, right? And more units mean cheaper units, and less sprawl?
As Steve Pinger of the Northwest District neighborhood association has pointed out, what you need in order to get more units per acre is more “floor-area ratio” (FAR). Tall buildings, with their more slender point-tower form, often have relatively low FAR. That means they don’t pack in as much square footage per acre of land as you might think.
Take this interesting comparison of the US Bancorp Tower, currently the tallest in the city at 42 stories, and the Meier and Frank Building, only 14 stories. Which one do you think has more square footage per acre? Clearly the US Bancorp Tower must, right? Wrong.
The US Bancorp Tower has about 1.2 million square feet over 96,000 square feet, about two Portland blocks. That’s an FAR of about 12.5. But the Meier and Frank Building has about 500,000 square feet over just 40,000 feet, meaning that it too has an FAR of about 12.5. They are very close to the same FAR, with far different heights.
So instead of building the tower and the lower “podium,” the US Bancorp could have built two Meier and Frank buildings on the same site, and gotten exactly the same square footage.
And the result at the street might have been more like the area around Pioneer Square, and less like the dark and lifeless canyon on Burnside.
Well, you might say, we can still get more units if we push up building heights anyway, right? Maybe a lot more units?
Here’s a little “thought experiment” to show the problem with that thinking.
The Portland metro region is growing right now by about 40,000 people per year. That means that in the next decade, if the pattern continues, we will need to accommodate 400,000 more people, or about 160,000 more units (at 2.5 people per unit on average).
How much of that growth can be accommodated by increasing building heights in the core? Currently there are about 30 residential buildings planned or under construction at 100 feet or taller. Historically speaking that’s an exceptional building boom, but let’s assume the trend continues, and each building takes on average two years to complete. That would mean 150 more buildings in the next decade.
Now imagine that each and every one of those buildings is raised by ten stories. (That’s a very aggressive assumption, but let’s go with it.) Assume also that each additional story contains on average eight residential units. That makes 80 additional units per building, multiplied by 150 buildings. That would be an additional 12,000 units.
This sounds impressive – 12,000 more units is not nothing. But we need 160,000 units, so we’re talking about just 7.5% of the total. And this is a very aggressive set of assumptions; the actual likely yield is considerably lower. Even in the most aggressive scenario, though, we’ve failed to account for at least 92.5% of the units we’ll need.
Clearly we can’t pat ourselves on the back for our sustainability achievements in the relatively small core of Portland, if we haven’t worked hard to accommodate the growth of the region’s other 92.5 percent of units in a more sustainable way.
So over-focusing on tall buildings as a solution is a way of deluding ourselves. We’re not dealing with the vast majority of the demand, and we’re creating other negative impacts from tall buildings, as the research shows.
What about affordability? First of all, 7.5 percent of the overall demand isn’t going to do much to meet the challenge. And even more important, tall buildings are an inherently more expensive form of construction, meaning the units will sell for more on average, not less.
Even worse, there is evidence that tall buildings draw international investors and wealthy part-time residents, making the entire city even more desirable to these buyers, and tending to put even more upward pressure on prices across the region.
An article in the Washington Post has described “torrents of cash” coming from wealthy Chinese investors, who favor this kind of development — and increasingly this is NOT just happening in the big markets:
The spending spree is also upending real estate fundamentals in smaller and mid-size markets from Portland, Ore., to Cambridge, Mass., with local would-be buyers increasingly being disconnected from the economies of their own cities.
The article comes with a photo of several tall buildings in Portland, and the caption: “As the wealth of Chinese citizens grows, some opt to shelter money in U.S. real estate, and West Coast cities such as Portland have proved desirable.”
None of this is new. Here is the conclusion of a report from the UK House of Commons, after reviewing extensive research available at the time:
“The proposition that tall buildings are necessary to prevent suburban sprawl is impossible to sustain. They do not necessarily achieve higher densities than mid or low-rise development and in some cases are a less-efficient use of space than alternatives.”
Why are there not more people within the City of Portland, its leadership, staff, and consultant community, that recognize the fallacies in the claims for taller buildings? A former senior City insider, speaking to me off the record about the “crazy height expansion proposals by the City,” noted that there is ample capacity for housing in the core already:
“[A previous City study] showed that existing entitlements contained a 30-60 year supply within the Central City Area (and was updated in 2011). Sure, the distribution of this capacity might be skewed, but there isn’t a shortage of inherent capacity anytime soon…The justification to go taller is best made when there is a genuine shortage of land (which there isn’t).”
The former insider concluded:
“I can only surmise this whole attempt is a giant pander to vested interests.”
Journalist Peter Moskowitz describes the process of gentrification: it is “not a fluke or an accident. Gentrification is a system that puts the needs of capital (both in terms of city budget and in terms of real estate profits) above the needs of people.”
At a recent conference on international urban issues in Amsterdam, we were struck by the parallels between other cities around the world and our own home town of Portland. Around the world, capital is surging into real estate, the hottest commodity of the day, and greatly inflating housing prices in their cores. The result is runaway loss of affordability, displacement, inequality — and ultimately, negative economic impacts for everyone.
At a session that we co-organized at the Placemaking Week conference, we heard from Professor of Geography Loretta Lees of the University of Leicester, Professor of Social Anthropology Dimitris Dalakoglou of Vrije University of Amsterdam, activist Catherine Greene, president of Arts East New York, a local arts non-profit in Brooklyn, and Juliet Kahne, Education Manager for the Project for Public Spaces.
It was journalist Peter Moskowitz whose book, How To Kill a City, set the stage. As he wrote in the book:
In every gentrifying city there are always events, usually hidden from public view, that precede street-level changes. The policies that cause cities to gentrify are crafted in the offices of real estate moguls and in the halls of city government. The coffee shop is the tip of the iceberg…
In [the four case studies of the book], specific policies were put in place that allowed the cities to become more favorable to the accumulation of capital and less favorable to the poor. New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco and New York gentrified not because of the wishes of a million gentrifiers but because of the wishes of just a few hundred public intellectuals, politicians, planners, and heads of corporations…
When we think of gentrification as some mysterious process, we accept its consequences: the displacement of countless thousands of families, the destruction of cultures, the decreased affordability of life for everyone… I hope to make clear that gentrification is not inevitable, that it is perhaps even stoppable, or at the very least manageable….
Late 19th Century theorist and activist Rosa Luxemburg hypothesized that under capitalist economies, cities would inevitably be used as a way to absorb capital – that in systems in which there is surplus money floating around, cities become a mechanism, like luxury goods, to open the pockets of the rich…
Those features of cities were the first version of Richard Florida’s urban amenities. We’re still doing the same thing with coffee shops and art galleries. They’re all just ways to boost the value of the land and convince people with disposable incomes to come spend their money.
Moskowitz concluded the book with six recommendations for cities:
“Expand, protect and make accessible public lands.” The cities that best manage problems from gentrification are often those that retain public ownership of large areas of land, including land for affordable housing.
“Heavily regulate housing. “ Treat it not as a freely traded commodity, but what it is — a common asset that everyone needs. Those who speculate in this commodity should be expected to compensate those who are harmed by their actions — like people who are evicted from their homes to make way for more profitable development.
“Implement a new New Deal.” This may be more politically difficult in our era — but the ultimate economic advantages of doing so are becoming more evident. So is the ultimate penalty for growing inequality.
“End protectionism, and add infrastructure.” Broadly speaking, create more housing in more places. This doesn’t mean that we should jam it in wherever we can — in tall buildings downtown, for example, which create their own unintended effects, as we have written before. As the UN’s Undersecretary-General has pointed out, there is more to affordability than a simple-minded “supply and demand.” On the other hand, this does suggest that we should create more “complete communities” in more parts of the region — including the suburbs, where most of the region lives, and where increasing numbers of people have been forced to relocate.
“Raise taxes, raise wages, spend on the poor.” We spoke previously about the potential of a “land value tax” to damp down commodity speculation in real estate – and the “Vienna model” that our friend Patrick Condon described for Vancouver, B.C. Essentially, a land value tax soaks up the excess capital that would otherwise fuel land speculation, and the familiar spiral of higher prices. In addition to serving as a damper on land speculation, the money raised from this tax is then used to fund affordable housing on public land.
This last point is part of a broader transition that needs to happen with so-called “Georgist” economic policies. Essentially, we should treat resources as part of our commons that must be be conserved, shared and protected. We should require that significant taxes be paid on consumption, while at the same time, taxes are reduced on creative development that uses fewer resources.
This is an essential path to a “repletion economy” – one that conserves resources, and rewards more creative growth that consumes fewer resources– or better yet, that actually regenerates (“repletes”) resources, in the same way that, say, good farmland practice can produce good crop growth while also regenerating the soil.
But right now, we’re doing the exact opposite. We’re operating a “depletion economy” – one that is fundamentally unsustainable. We’re rewarding those who are stripping our resources out from under us, drilling and burning and uglifying the landscape, with results that are increasingly toxic to people and other living things. It’s happening in the wilderness, in the countryside, in the suburbs — and yes, in the city cores.
It’s tempting to apply the formulas of speculative real estate to the core of our own city. It’s tempting to be lured by the short-term profits of “voodoo urbanism” as we have called it. But as Moskowitz points out, “gentrification is a system,” he says, “that puts the needs of capital (both in terms of city budget and in terms of real estate profits) above the needs of people.” This is how to kill a city.