Does Portland really want “Trump Urbanism”?

Another cautionary tale about tall buildings, vertical gated communities, foreign capital, and oligarchs, from Portland’s over-envied big-sister city of Vancouver, B.C. 

Trump Tower Vancouver – a harbinger of things to come for Portland?

A recent post on this site noted a new proposal for two towers in Portland, one of which would be almost 1,000 feet tall.  What would that look like? One comparison is to the current second-tallest building in Vancouver, at “only” 616 feet — the  Trump International Hotel and Tower, containing 217 apartments and 147 hotel rooms.

Some civic-minded architects, planners and land use activists in Portland believe that tall buildings might be an effective strategy to add units, increase supply, improve affordable housing, and conserve farmland.

Following this logic, the City has agreed that taller is better, and the Central City 2035 Plan does raise heights significantly in a number of places in the core.  (The site of the proposed 1,000 foot tower is currently zoned for 75 feet, but that will change to 400 feet under CC 2035 — or perhaps 1,000 feet, if the latest proposal is approved.)

All of this will surely help with accommodating housing demand, conserving farmland, and  improving affordability, right?

On the evidence from Vancouver — and other places too — we’d better think again.

As we pointed out in an earlier blog post, even the irrationally exuberant expectations of the biggest tall-building proponents fall far short of what the region’s actual demand for housing is likely to be.  That leaves the majority of the problem where it has always been — in the suburban jurisdictions, where over 73% of the region’s residents live.   It’s a more urgent priority, from a regional policy perspective, to focus on more sustainable (and affordable) urbanization there.  Secondarily we can concentrate on the suburban areas within the city, where another large portion of the region increasingly lives (often displaced there by higher costs in the core).

From a sustainability perspective, the core is already relatively urbanized — although it can certainly benefit from what our friend Patrick Condon has called “gentle densification.”  (We could point to a number of new well-designed low-rise and mid-rise apartment buildings as examples, as we discussed in a previous blog post. On the other hand, we could also unfortunately point to very incompatible, disruptive projects too… and ham-handed, foolishly divisive efforts to cram inappropriate new buildings down the throats of historic neighborhoods, as we have also written about.)

What about affordability?  There are two problems: cost of construction, and market dynamics.  Tall buildings are inherently much more expensive to construct, which means that they will likely sell (or rent) for considerably more than older existing buildings.  (Evidence shows this is almost always the case.)  We can set aside affordable units and use other kinds of “inclusionary zoning” — but that means the “market-rate” housing is going to be even more expensive, fueling even more extreme inequality.

What about market dynamics?  There are a number of tools and strategies we can use, as we have written about before — and adding taller buildings is not one of them. To see why, we’ll let Donald Trump Jr. have the last word, speaking in a recent Canadian publication:

“We’ve done it time and time again — when you combine a great location with incredible architecture and incredible amenities … it’s sort of a formula for success.”

He was speaking of the eye-popping sales prices for the 214 luxury units in Trump Tower Vancouver, which sold at an average $1,610 per sq. ft. — the highest rate in Vancouver, or for that matter, all of Canada.  One single unit sold for over $6 million.

Word to the wise, Portland?