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?
But the evidence actually shows that’s false.
There are other problems too, as our research has previously presented.
Here’s a run-through of the issues:
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.”
The report (available here) was written in 2001.
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.”
Calling Upton Sinclair!