The Towering Fallacy

Too many people believe untruths about the actual need for tall buildings in Portland — perhaps because it pays to believe them

Why would we want to be like boring old-fashioned Paris (L) when we could be modern and dynamic, like that paragon of good planning, Houston (R)?

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.

ABOVE, L-R: The US Bancorp Tower, and the Meier and Frank Building.

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.

ABOVE: In a very aggressive scenario, the Portland region might accommodate up to 7.5% of its needed residential units in taller buildings over the next decade. But what of the other 92.5%?

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!

25 Replies to “The Towering Fallacy”

  1. In addition to not being particularly efficient in delivering units within a given FAR, towers are more expensive to build that TYPE V wood frame over a TYPE I concrete podium or TYPE V wood frame walk-ups. Towers can only be built when likely rents will support the significantly higher per SF construction costs of a TYPE I tower.

        1. It’s not just one country and one sector that is causing a run-up in prices. Offshore capital is surging into rental development projects too, from a number of countries. The point made here is that the research shows that tall buildings are particularly problematic, on that and other criteria. On the other hand, the answer is not just to curb the current “irrational exuberance” for tall buildings — it’s also to implement a number of disincentives and dampers on the commodification of real estate. (Which, lest we forget, caused a global financial crisis less than a decade ago.) See e.g. http://livableportland.org/2017/11/03/how-to-kill-a-city-a-warning-to-portland/

          Once again, it’s not silver bullets that are the answer — or silver towers either.

          1. The article that you posted argues that prices in London are being inflated by a) people buying units as a place to store cash, and b) a buy-to-let property boom, in the absence of a professionally managed rental sector. Those two phenomena are entirely absent in Portland, where new buildings are almost always built as rentals (not for sale, as is standard in the UK).

            So unless you’re arguing that it somehow matters whether the owner of a rental building is American or Chinese, I’m not sure what argument you’re trying to make.

          2. So because you can find some differences — and can’t we always — you conclude that Portland is totally insulated from global capital markets and the increasing speculative commodification of real estate? It seems like you are trying awfully hard not to understand something pretty basic here. Again, calling Upton Sinclair! 😉

          3. I’m saying you linked to an article that describes something completely absent in Portland. The fact that almost all new construction in London is of for-sale units and almost all new construction in Portland is of rentals units seems like more than a trivial difference.

            Would you perhaps care to explain the process by which Chinese investors are inflating prices in Portland?

          4. “Completely absent in Portland?” I find that ludicrous. There are plenty of for-sale units on the market in Portland, in high rises and elsewhere; we are not and never have been a 100% rental market. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/realestate/wealthy-chinese-buyers-are-a-growing-force-in-us-real-estate-markets/2016/10/13/15ab3cba-7441-11e6-8149-b8d05321db62_story.html?utm_term=.d0c50403a952 Excerpts: “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.” And “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.”

          5. The arguments below that Portland’s tall buildings are rentals and not available for foreign investment in condos is off the mark. One notable new rental tower in Portland was recently purchased by a Thai investment group. We have entire hotels and other large buildings owned by Chinese investors (See the Marriott behind Union Station.) As a certified investor I regularly receive promotions for real estate deals in the Portland area involving large scale properties in Portland and other West Coast cities. This phenomenon is very much alive in Portland… but the buyer pool is expanding well beyond the newly affluent upper classes in China.

  2. While not particularly favoring one side or the other, there are advantages to the tall tower/podium (or even open space) approach:
    –More open space at ground level.
    –More sunlight for people on the ground
    –Opportunity for more dramatic architecture (sorry, but the Meier & Frank building is nothing but a concrete box).

    In short, there is no single answer to this problem in Portland or anywhere else. A lot has to do with context although I would certainly throw out money driving these decisions, which focus on profit, not livability.

  3. Hmm. An odd point of view, that this building (see link) is a “concrete box” that “blocks sunlight”: https://kbs.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Macys_Gallery_12.jpg Whereas I think it’s pretty clear that these buildings (see link) do block a good deal more sunlight: http://www.sustasis.net/Towers.jpg But that’s the strange place we’ve gotten to in our architectural culture, that we want to rationalize the irrational. For what? “More dramatic architecture.” Yikes.

    1. Sir, you can’t be serious. You know how the sun travels through the sky, right? Facing NE in the late afternoon from Pioneer Square, it would be literally impossible for that building to block sun.

      Take that picture from the same spot at 9:00 am and tell me which buildings are blocking the sun.

      It’s a strange place that we’ve gotten to in our understanding of science that we can’t figure out where a shadow is coming from and why. Yikes.

      1. Sam – you wrote: “it would be literally impossible for that building to block sun.” To block sun from where? I didn’t say only from Pioneer Square. A 27-story building like Fox Tower (with a rough dimension of 160 x 200) is certainly going to block more sun over a larger area than a 14-story (approx. 200 x 200) one (the latter has something like 65% of the mass of the former). And yes, Fox Tower does throw Pioneer Square (arguably our most important public space) into shadow in the afternoon – considerably more than Meier and Frank would if it were in the same place. Yes, I have a problem with that. Cheers, m

  4. “Currently there are about 30 residential buildings planned or under construction at 100 feet or taller.”

    The Meier and Frank building is a little over 200′ tall. Why is that okay, but a contemporary building over 100′ isn’t?

      1. Well what is your threshold for when a building is too tall? Clearly it’s above 200′ (the Meier & Frank building is good) but below 250′ (GHFL believed that the Press Blocks development was too tall). And what is important about that transition?

        1. In my view there is no single point above which a building height is “bad” and below which it is “good”. The point is that increasing height is increasingly problematic, as the research shows (see e.g. http://sustasis.net/Tall-Buildings.pdf). This is true architecturally as well as in other respects, as a bad 5-story building is a problem for its immediate neighbors, but a bad 50-story building is a problem for the whole city. By the way, the problem for the Press Blocks is not only the height but the monolithic massing. As with economics, these are systemic issues, not single “causes.”

          Iain, you have now posted six comments on this article. I think you have made your point of view very clear, but you are entering troll territory. I appreciate your sharing your perspective but it’s time to move on. Thank you for contributing.

          1. Thresholds of building heights and number of dissenting comments are unable to be clearly articulated by Mr. Mehaffy but he is clear to boisterously announce when that threshold has been surpassed.

          2. I don’t think the idea that “taller buildings are not an answer to our challenges of sustainability or affordability” is really that hard to understand. Again, calling Upton Sinclair!

  5. Thank you Michael West Mehaffy! I am sad to see the height increases at the foot of the Burnside Bridge! So unnecessary as you explain and truly hinders the ability to visually connect East and West. When we Portlanders look up and can no longer see across the Willamette River or North to Mount St. Helen’s or East to Mt. Hood…where will we be… anywhere USA?! The uniqueness of our American cities, what makes Portland, Portland is forever lost…ugh!

  6. The math in this article is all assumptions pulled out of thin air. It’s just fantasy, and as a result your conclusions aren’t based in reality either.

    Your argument, if I read it correctly is: “Adding 10 stories to all residential towers built over the next decade won’t make a meaningful dent in our housing shortage, so we shouldn’t do it.”

    Except the route you took to come to that conclusion (illogical as I think it is), is full of made up numbers and junk pulled from who knows where. 8 units per floor? Where does that come from? We’re talking about adding 10 floors to buildings 100′ high? That puts us a little about 220′ (or roughly the same height as the M+F building you love) . . . These aren’t towers at all.

    Say we add 20 stories (roughly 250′). And instead of 8 units, we get to 16 per floor (not hard to do on a half block). Now, instead of 7.5% we’re up to 30% of our housing demand being accommodated by a tall buildings downtown.

    Surely that seems like a worthy pursuit, no?

    Also, what is the point of bringing up Chinese investors? I don’t see the relevance there, but please answer my questions regarding building heights before we dig into that red herring.

    1. It’s a scenario, and like any scenario it depends on assumptions. The assumptions are my own, and I make that clear enough. You can make your own, and generate a different scenario – but I don’t think what you suggest is credible (EVERY SINGLE building adds 20 stories, is 1/2 block, 16 units per floor, etc). Bottom line, the “fantasy” is that taller buildings are going to do anything for regional sustainability or affordability. I know some of my friends in the “architectural-industrial complex” would like to think otherwise… But there’s that old Upton Sinclair problem again! Cheers, m

      1. You’re talking about credible? What makes my assumptions any less credible than yours? Or more importantly, what makes either of our assumptions credible at all?

        There in lies my problem with this blog post:

        Your argument is that only 7.5% of our housing could be addressed by making buildings in the downtown area taller, and it is your opinion that we can’t reasonably justify the negative impact tall buildings have on livability (shadows and views of Mt. Hood) for only 7.5% of our needed housing.

        7.5% is the crux of this entire thing. That made up number is the key. I made up a number as well and justified it same as you did (better imo, as 10 stories is hardly a “tower” by any stretch) and came up with 30%.

        Now if we can accommodate 30% of our housing need with taller buildings downtown, would that not be worth looking at? A third of new housing concentrated at the core of our city, walk-able, surrounded by business and jobs, without need for a car at all? Any Portlander who has dealt with the influx of new neighbors, rising housing prices, and increasing commute times would think that’s worth a look.

        Unless of course, said Portlander has a vested personal interest in maintaining the status quo. What was that Upton Sinclair said?

        “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his property values and views of the mountain depend on his not understanding it.”

        I think that was it.

        1. Sam – we’ll have to agree to disagree, and let’s move on – we’re also getting into troll territory. (I can see this post hit a button with certain folks!) One thing just for the record though: I live in a rented apartment on the fourth floor, with no views threatened by any of these projects. My income doesn’t depend (on one side or another) on these issues. I actually think these are important civic issue that can be debated civilly. Cheers, m

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