Guardian: London has a growing problem with “ghost towers”

The expensive skyscrapers represent “the wrong properties Londoners don’t need.”  Is Portland headed down the same path?

This… is London – including The Shard (center), the tallest building in the UK. The Guardian reports that “All 10 of the apartments at the top of the Shard – priced at up to £50m each – remain unsold” five years after completion.

More cautionary news is on offer for Portland’s “irrationally exuberant” fans of new tall buildings in the core.  Simply adding units is not an effective strategy for affordability: it matters where the units are,  how much they cost to build, and what are the dynamics of global real estate markets.  Word to the wise?

The Guardian newspaper reports this week that “half of new-build luxury London flats fail to sell” and “developers have 420 towers in pipeline despite up to 15,000 high-end flats still on the market.”

The article continues,

The swanky flats, complete with private gyms, swimming pools and cinema rooms, are lying empty as hundreds of thousands of would-be first-time buyers struggle to find an affordable home.

The total number of unsold luxury new-build homes, which are rarely advertised at less than £1m, has now hit a record high of 3,000 units…

Builders started work last year on 1,900 apartments priced at more than £1,500 per sq ft, but only 900 have sold, according to property data experts Molior London. A typical high-end three-bedroom apartment consists of around 2,000 sq ft, which works out at a sale price of £3m.

There are an extra 14,000 unsold apartments on the market for between £1,000-£1,500 per sq ft. The average price per sq ft across the UK is £211.

Molior says it would take at least three years to sell the glut of ultra-luxury flats if sales continue at their current rate and if no further new-builds are started.

However, ambitious property developers have a further 420 residential towers (each at least 20 storeys high) in the pipeline, says New London Architecture and GL Hearn.

Henry Pryor, a property buying agent, says the London luxury new-build market is “already overstuffed but we’re just building more of them”…

Some developers have delayed construction of projects, while others have taken properties off the market. All 10 of the apartments at the top of the Shard – priced at up to £50m each – remain unsold more than five years after the Duke of York and the former prime minister of Qatar officially opened “Europe’s first vertical city”.

“We’re going to have loads of empty and part-built posh ghost towers,” he says. “They were built as gambling chips for rich overseas investors, but they are no longer interested in the London casino and have moved on.”

Steven Herd, founder and chief executive of MyLondonHome, an agency that specialises in new-build homes for investment, says his firm is struggling under the weight of overseas investors who bought in the last couple of years and are desperate to sell.

He says hundreds of Asian investors who had bought London developments off-plan in 2015-16 in the hope of making a quick profit by selling apartments on closer to completion have instead lost hundreds of thousands of pounds. “They intended to flip [buy and sell on] the apartments and make big profits, but it hasn’t worked out like that, and now they are trying to get out at the smallest possible loss.”

He adds that in one case a Russian investor bought an off-plan property in 2014 for £3.1m, but couldn’t afford to complete and sold it for £2.55m.

Herd says the [developments are] “the wrong properties that Londoners don’t need”.

“We’d be much better off with decent quality but lower-spec homes built for actual Londoners. What’s the point in having private cinema rooms that sit empty and resident’s swimming pools with no one swimming in them; it just seems wrong.”

Read the full article:


How to survive an earthquake (of hysteria)

“The big one” will certainly be very bad.  Our actions beforehand could be worse.

A modern building whose upper floors “pancaked” in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. Historic “unreinforced masonry” buildings are hardly the only ones at risk from a major seismic event.

Something terrible is going to happen in the Northwest, including Portland.  FEMA estimates that some thirteen thousand people could die – many more than the two thousand in Hurricane Katrina.  The aftermath could leave our region similarly stranded and transformed beyond recognition.

This event — a major earthquake — could happen tomorrow, or it could happen in 400 years, or at any point beforehand.  Prudence suggests that we take reasonable steps to be prepared.

For some, that means demolishing — or performing huge expensive seismic upgrades — to thousands of buildings, many of them low-rise historic structures.  If they are demolished, they will have to be replaced with new buildings.

It’s enough to make some architects salivate.

But for just about everyone else, it’s hysteria of the worst sort.   Of course deliberate steps need to be taken — especially around preparedness.  What should people do before, during and after the event?  What is the safest place to be during the event, and the safest way out of a building after the event?  How can the worst effects of such an event be mitigated?  What are the most dangerous structures – typically unreinforced mid-rise buildings, or buildings with poorly reinforced  concrete roofs and floors that are likely to “pancake” — and how can we take steps to retrofit them?

We need to understand the risks, just as we understand any risk in life.  We buy life insurance, and companies are willing to sell it to us, because it’s possible to accurately quantify the risk of a person dying in any one year.  Many people pay perhaps hundreds of dollars a year each into a pool, from which a few people are paid millions of dollars much less frequently — and the companies are able to accurately quantify the risks and stay in business.

What’s the probability of “the big one” in the next 50 years?  A recent study put the maximum at as much as 20% — meaning there is an 80% probability that it will NOT happen in the next 50 years.

By contrast, at current levels we already kill about one person per day on Oregon roads.  At that rate, in the same 50 years we WILL kill over 18,000 — in other words, more than “the big one,” whose probability of occurrence in the same time interval is much lower.

Yet we don’t stop people from driving.  We take all reasonable measures — traffic safety, air bags, and so on — and we accept the risk.   We see it as a price we pay for the benefits of mobility.

Right now we have many thousands of beautiful, historic, affordable homes, apartments and other buildings, many of which are low-rise.  (They include the classic “courtyard apartments” where many Portland residents live, including this author’s own residence.)  These buildings often have wood-frame cores and exterior masonry walls.  The exteriors could indeed slough off, but the entire structures are unlikely to collapse.  Those who take shelter in their central hallways, and then exit as soon as practical and safe, will likely survive.

Should we require all of the owners of these buildings to perform very expensive seismic upgrades in a short period of time?  Will we trigger a wave of demolitions of some of our most affordable, beautiful, enduring — sustainable —  structures, replaced by many more and (let’s face it) uglier buildings?  (Sorry, architects – but our professional win-loss score nowadays is there for all to see.)

Is that smart?  Well, it’s profitable for some — and that’s a dangerous distortional force on good judgment, and the best interests of our city.

For more on this, the Northwest Examiner has an extensive article this month:

Crash course


Is it past time for West Burnside to go on a “road diet”?

Paradoxically, sometimes reducing lanes means better traffic flow — AND better livability and more transportation choices

A successful “road diet” on La Jolla Boulevard in San Diego.

Portland planners like to show off the city’s many progressive achievements.  But one place they don’t show off is West Burnside, especially the segment west of I405.  We’ve heard some folks refer to this stretch of dirty, dangerous, ugly road as an “open car sewer.”  That seems about right.

Ironically, this stretch is not even particularly efficient at handling traffic through movement.  That’s because periodic left turns at unsignalized intersections obstruct through movement in the left-hand lanes, and frequent bus stops obstruct through movement in the right-hand lanes, causing significant congestion.   Pedestrians also have the right of way at the many unsignalized intersections, stopping traffic in all lanes — and putting the pedestrians in considerable danger from careless motorists.

West Burnside today. It’s dirty, dangerous and ugly — but at least the traffic doesn’t flow well anyway.

West Burnside handles a fair amount of traffic, but not as much as one might think.   The City’s own traffic counts show about 7,000 cars during the morning and afternoon peak periods.  (The City doesn’t have an average daily total volume for West Burnside on its website, for some reason. See

The issue has been considered before.  Over a decade ago, the City studied alternatives and developed a plan for a “couplet” system.  West Burnside would become a one-way eastbound street, and West Couch would take the remaining westbound traffic (similar to what happens now just east of the river).  Because of the tendency of traffic to move fast on these one-ways, the plan also included a new streetcar line on both streets.

But that plan is now on indefinite hold.  And in any case, the couplet was never intended to extend west of 16th Avenue, so the stretch in the photos above would remain more or less the same.  (You can read the 2006 report here.)

So what else can be done, then?  We can certainly take a lesson from other cities that have adopted progressive reforms.  One street that seems to have around the same traffic as Burnside (22,000 cars per day) is La Jolla Boulevard in San Diego.  A project there known as a “road diet” kept the same capacity of vehicles, but cut down crashes by 90 percent, and did other very good things.

Before and after at La Jolla Boulevard in San Diego.

It sounded a lot like the problems we have on West Burnside today:

The project was designed to transform a wide, automobile-oriented thoroughfare to a pedestrian-friendly, neighborhood center…. [There was a] lack of comfortable public spaces, and financial stagnation of area businesses, notes “The wide, heavily trafficked road functioned as a barrier that divided the neighborhood physically and psychologically’…

So the plan was actually to remove lanes, and make the remaining lanes work just as well or better — as well as providing more attractive sidewalks and public spaces, and better ability to handle walking, biking, buses, and other ways of getting around:

The traffic count remained approximately the same (23,000 vehicles per day before, 22,000 after), but walking, bicycling, transit use, on-street parking and retail sales all climbed to much higher levels, the city reports. Retail sales rose 30 percent and noise levels dropped 77 percent…

That all sounds good — but how is it possible that removing lanes won’t result is massive traffic delays?  Our friend Dan Burden, consultant on the project, explains:

“Motorists,” Burden reported in The San Diego Union- Tribune in February 2017, “understandably dreaded this change before it was made. But they found that instead of waiting 24 seconds for a pedestrian to cross 70 feet of road, they now only wait 3–4 seconds, or don’t have to wait at all. Businesses that feared the loss of customers arriving in cars actually improved their trade. … Today motorists are getting to their destinations in less time, because they aren’t stopping.”

Read the full story:


ONI is changing its name… (ONO!)

Some fear that Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement may be preparing to take the final symbolic step in eviscerating its pioneering system of geographic representation by neighborhoods

The announcement  that came from the Office of Neighborhood Involvement  earlier this week seemed innocent – a harmless bit of re-branding, perhaps.  But given the troubled history of that city agency — a scathing audit that found a “trifecta” of problems, and the Mayor’s declaration last year that ONI was “most in need of reform”  — the new message seemed oddly cosmetic.

“ONI’s name is changing to better reflect our work and the people and place we serve now and for subsequent generations. We’d like you to participate in the renaming! ONI, like Portland, has changed and grown over the years…”

Portland has indeed grown — and so have its challenges, of course.

But a half-century ago, the city also saw many of the same kinds of challenges.  Today, as then, the city is seeing pressures of rapid in-migration and  population growth, demolition of historic fabric, lack of equitable opportunity for many residents,  disruptive new development,  and treatment of some neighborhoods as “expendable” — creating shocking patterns of displacement in favor of “urban renewal” to make way for an influx of often wealthier new residents.

In those days it was the grass-roots neighborhood activists who championed a better path for the city — preserving and building on our urban heritage, limiting destructive new development, protecting and revitalizing existing neighborhoods, modulating (but not stopping) growth, and preserving and revitalizing the existing affordable homes and small businesses.  Those efforts helped usher in a remarkable urban renaissance, making Portland the envy of many other cities.  We all enjoy the legacy of that era today.

That spirit of purpose and unity needs to be rekindled.

For today, an ugly new tone of divisiveness has entered the city — and neighborhoods and their associations are increasingly attacked, not as allies and defenders of Portland’s best urban qualities, but as old, rich, NIMBY, and worse.  That’s far from fair — or wise.

Of course everyone in the city must do more to right the injustices of the past, and every neighborhood association should do more to be more inclusive, representative and transparent.  But it appears to this observer that the City wants to go far beyond that. It wants to throw neighborhoods under the bus.

In fact, this re-branding campaign may be revealing something even deeper and more disturbing — that the City has outgrown its support of the neighborhood involvement system itself.  It has allowed well-meaning but muddled thinking to cripple its “nationally recognized neighborhood involvement system,” as the City’s website proudly refers to it.

Perhaps the pride is not so great any more.  As we wrote on this blog last May, the City seems to have decided that it’s time to marginalize neighborhood associations, rather than to improve and strengthen them.

Allan Classen, publisher of the Northwest Examiner newspaper, has been closely following the developments at ONI, and he isn’t reassured by the new proposals:
“ONI is creating its own ‘shadow structure’ that replaces or diminishes the role of neighborhood associations. Because ONI controls funding, they can give their designated ‘inclusionary’ entities as much power as they choose. Any neighborhood association that squawks can be labeled racist or selfish.  The best defense is to identify this subterfuge for what it is, and get that message out so broadly that neighborhood associations across the city will grasp what’s happening to them.”

The principal tool of marginalization is called a “non-geographic community.”  As we wrote, under ONI’s new approach,

…“non-geographic communities” [will] be placed into competition with the neighborhood associations, in a heavy-handed attempt to create a more inclusive system. The trouble is, who gets representation, and how much? Who selects these “non-geographic communities”? The City, of course. But it is far too easy to put one’s fingers on the scale, perhaps without realizing it, and allow a subtle form of corruption to influence the results – biased towards a favored group, or maybe even a favored industry….

At the same time, the City needs to ask itself a basic question: does it believe in local grass-roots democracy at all?  In the fundamental concept of geographic representation at all?

We suggest that citizens ask the new director, Suk Rhee, to carefully consider  the following four points before going ahead with any plans for changes — to names, or to missions:

  1. Portland’s geographic-based neighborhood association system is pioneering and important within our city culture, and needs to be strengthened and streamlined, not weakened and marginalized. But this is what has happened, and still seems to be happening.  What can be done to reverse this trend?
  2. We appreciate Suk Rhee’s efforts effort to put ONI’s affairs in order. However, given an audit that revealed systemic problems, we always have to ask ourselves if we’re “re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic.”  Is ONI a dysfunctional bureau that is still failing to serve and empower neighborhoods?  What deeper reforms are still needed?
  3. We certainly agree with the goal of more inclusion and diversity — but not parallel to (and competing with) geographic representation by neighborhoods. This would be tokenism, and that would be bad for those communities — and bad for neighborhoods. Instead, inclusion and empowerment must happen at the neighborhood level.
  4. How can we strengthen the principle of “subsidiarity”?  Under that principle, the city is supposed to be subsidiary to its constituents, including the neighborhoods — not the other way around. But today the City acts too much like a supervisor of the neighborhoods, using the coalition system as a kind of leash.  How can this inversion of the subsidiarity principle be fixed?

In the interest of offering constructive alternatives, I’d like to suggest a new model.  Perhaps it’s time now to consider a binary system of two entirely separate City entities.

One entity might be an office of citizen involvement, commissioned to perform outreach and participation from the widest possible constituency of citizens.  It would be charged with empowerment — not just tokenistic representation — for formerly excluded people, and challenging policies that perpetrate the injustices of the City’s shameful past. (And sometimes, present.)

The other entity might be a “council of neighborhoods” that has a more formal voice in city affairs. Its members, the neighborhood associations, could be directly funded through participatory budgeting, with support services chosen by the neighborhoods from a pool of city-vetted contractors.  There are good international models for this kind of “subsidiarity” in action, and Portland could draw from them — and once again assert its own leadership in this area.

One thing is for sure — more than a name change is needed.  Yet the name change may be revealing of the true nature of the problem.  Not many people remember now that ONI’s first name was the “Office of Neighborhood Associations,” or ONA.  Then it became the “Office of Neighborhood Involvement,” reflecting a more diluted relationship with the associations.  We will soon see whether the word “neighborhood” is dropped altogether.

Without deeper reforms, it might be more accurate to simply re-name the agency “ONO” — short for the “Office of Neighborhood Oblivion.”

Five Key Messages for Portland in the New Year

Our takeaways after a challenging year – with more challenges ahead

It’s been a very intense year for the City of Portland, and for the Livable Portland blog.  In the last year, we’ve discussed many difficult issues:   sustainability,  equity,  affordability,  gentrification,  homelessness,   growth management,  development quality, and of course, the broader issue of livability – the focus of the blog as a whole.  Seeking to be constructively challenging, we’ve critiqued a number of aspects of current approaches, including the Central City 2035 plan (in both outcome and process), the atrophy of the neighborhood involvement system, the lack of protection (or even valuation, it would appear) of our built heritage, the growing uglification of architecture, and other (interrelated) issues.

We’ve also pointed to resources that are available, including new tools and approaches that are emerging in other cities, and we’ve encouraged the city to work harder to identify, develop and share these lessons, using a more progressive, evidence-based, peer-to-peer approach.  But these recommendations can be lost amid the criticisms, and the sometimes defensive and heated reactions they invoke.  So to begin the New Year on a constructive note, we summarize recommendations  to the City in five “key messages:”

  1. Think more polycentrically.  Stop over-concentrating on the city core, which is already over-heated and in danger of being “killed with kindness”. Recognize that most of the people in the Portland region – and therefore, most of the human and ecological needs – are in the vast majority of the area outside the central city core.  Most of these people do not live in the core and never will.  Instead of imagining that social justice demands that we jam anyone who wants to come into the core, re-focus on making the other parts of the region equally high-quality, sustainable, livable, and just — along with the core.  Revitalize the multi-modal “centers and corridors” approach throughout the region – not just in the central city. (I immodestly point to our project of Orenco Station as a partially successful transformation of that kind offering very useful lessons – but much more is needed.)
  2. Develop and apply more aggressive economic and regulatory tools. At the same time, recognize that better tools are needed to keep people in their existing neighborhoods if they choose to remain, to make better-quality development more economically feasible, and to promote diversity and equity across all parts of the city. There is certainly a place for subsidized affordable housing (as we have at Orenco Station, by two different developers).   There is also a place for supply to meet demand in more affordable locations.  But to avoid sprawl, we need to identify and implement a new generation of better economic and regulatory tools.  We need to improve the incentives for more livable, compact growth, and remove the significant barriers that remain – what we might think of as the “operating system for growth” that currently rewards sprawl.  In the past year this blog has discussed land value tax, regulatory streamlining and fast-tracking, other changes to tax policies, and other approaches.
  3. Build on past successes. Portland does offer remarkably positive examples for livable neighborhoods and cities – including the beautiful livable streetcar neighborhoods of the early 20th Century, and the urban renaissance of the late 20th   The city needs to build on these successes (as it did in the late 20th Century renaissance).  It needs to show a healthier skepticism to the siren songs of current fashionable (and profitable, for some) thinking, including “build baby build,” “voodoo urbanism,” and other follies.  Recognize too, that as important as green technologies are, the most important “green” aspect of cities is the inherent sustainability of a walkable, livable, beautiful, enduring neighborhood.
  4. Resist “silver bullets.” This is a dangerous time for urban development, and Portland is far from immune to the dangers.  Enormous economic pressures, including increasingly global real estate capital, are causing over-heating of our city cores, resulting in terrible problems of gentrification, loss of affordability, displacement, growing inequality, and loss of diversity.  This trend is especially shameful for Portland, with its overtly racist history.  At the same time, we need to resist “silver bullet” solutions that produce only tokenistic benefits, while exacerbating the underlying dynamics.  One of the worst is the self-serving mythology that has arisen around tall buildings – the ultimate silver bullets, or “silver skyscrapers.”  This is in spite of what the evidence actually shows, and what thoughtful observers like the ULI’s Ed McMahon have told us.  There is no replacement for a well-connected, accessible, polycentric city.
  5. Be more transparent, accountable, peer-to-peer, and evidence-based. Over the last year we’ve covered many disturbing stories about less than transparent and accountable government activities, including apparent conflicts of interest, insider dealings, and what can only be described as a complacent, defensive culture of self-congratulation.  This is far from a sound position from which to successfully meet our growing urban challenges.  At the same time, a “divide-and-conquer” mentality has overtaken the city, with growing divisions between different constituencies with different “identity politics”.  In this environment, it’s crucial that the City work in a cooperative, peer-to-peer mode, sharing evidence and working together to identify “win-win” strategies to address problems.  There is much to learn from other cities around the US and the world, and much to share with them too about our successes and failures.  (And the “New Urban Agenda” offers an enormous opportunity for improvement of urban quality, with significant opportunities for Portland to lead and to learn.) We need to embrace a healthier culture of self-challenge, learning and growth.

Over the last year we’ve seen disturbing signs that Portland may be “losing the plot,” as the expression goes.  We’re losing our commitment to grass-roots energy and activism, to building on our urban heritage, to protecting the fundamental framework of a livable, open, accessible city – the things that have made us successful in the past.  We may be losing the entire neighborhood involvement system, or any effective version of it — re-branded and re-named into oblivion.

We’re becoming much too credulous about simplistic, tokenistic and self-serving approaches that demonize and divide residents, while empowering those whose interests are not those of the city as a whole.  We’re letting ourselves be lulled into believing professionally dubious ideas that have more to do with the early 20th Century than the early 21st.  But they are profitable, and therein lies the danger – as always, money is a potentially corrupting motivation.

The best thing we can do in the New Year, I suggest, is to re-connect with our strengths, with our urban heritage and our legacy of grassroots activism.  Resist fads, “flavors of the month,” siren songs that take us in the wrong direction.  Recognize the enormous asset that we do have, in our urban pattern, our mixed use fabric, our increasingly diverse transportation choices, and our splendid built legacy.  With these assets and the new generation of tools and resources that are now emerging, we have what we need to build a better city.