Should we re-zone Northwest Portland and King’s Hill to allow high rises?

An open letter to Portland’s Planning and Sustainability Commission

Dear Commissioners,

RE: Opposition to proposed re-zoning of King’s Hill to RM4; request rezone to RM3

I am writing to offer this testimony on the above-referenced topic (part of the Better Housing by Design proposal) as a resident of King’s Hill. For the record, I am also president of the Goose Hollow Foothills League, a business owner in sustainable development consulting with an international practice, and president of a non-profit think tank in sustainable urban development, called Sustasis Foundation (www.sustasis.net). However, I wish to make it clear that in this letter, I speak as a citizen on my own behalf.

My residence is at 742 SW Vista Avenue, Apartment 42. My six-story apartment building has a net density of 196 units per acre (45 units on a 10,000 SF parcel). My neighborhood of King’s Hill, as well as the surrounding areas of Goose Hollow and the Alphabet District, are among the densest in all of Oregon (approx. 22 units per acre gross). As my Ph.D. dissertation research has shown, this density and mix is optimal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing other valuable benefits of sustainable urban development. Indeed, I have published books and lectured extensively about this area and its remarkable urban characteristics. It is featured in the book Cities Alive and in the class I teach in the School of Sustainability and School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University, among others. (I have also taught at U of O and elsewhere.)

Large parts of our region, including areas within the City of Portland, are very low-density, sprawling and with high greenhouse gas emissions. They desperately need new and more livable forms of development that are more sustainable. This was a major effort in my own career when I became project manager for the master developer of Orenco Station in Hillsboro, taking an extremely low-density area (<1 unit per acre gross) with no walkable amenities, and building a “complete community” that offered a much more compact, walkable neighborhood (density >12 units per acre, plus extensive mixed use).

Through the best of intentions, we could all too easily destroy the priceless urban asset represented by King’s Hill, the Alphabet District and Goose Hollow. In my research and consultancy in other cities around the world, I have seen exactly this tragic result. In fact, the momentous changes in development practices in the 1950s and 1960s left us with sad remnants of once great cities, and horrific damage committed by very well-meaning people for the best of reasons – economic growth, opportunity, better living conditions, “modernization” and so on. The past is a warning to the present.

Today I believe there is also a well-meaning but terribly misguided approach that has come to dominate in Portland, which may be reflected in the current proposal to upzone King’s Hill and the Alphabet District. As in the 1950s and 1960s, it places great faith in “modernization,” and in the capacities of new development to better reflect the spirit of the age and its needs and ambitions. In particular, there is what some have called the “Vancouver Model” – to accommodate the needs of a growing city by upzoning, replacing older low-rise and mid-rise buildings with high-rise buildings, adding more units, and also encouraging mixed use and transit-served development. At least the addition of mixed use and transit are improvements over the older 1950s and 1960s models, it is felt.

But there is a warning today emerging from Vancouver, and other cities like it. Leaders like Patrick Condon – head of the urban design program at UBC, and now a potential candidate for Mayor – have cautioned places like Portland to learn from their mistakes, and the highly problematic results. Vancouver thought it could add many units to the core and thereby meet demand with supply, thus lowering prices.

But this approach didn’t work – to put it mildly. Vancouver is today one of the least affordable cities in the world, and significantly higher than Portland. (As Patrick Condon and others have pointed out, this outcome was not explainable as a one-time event related to Chinese investment; indeed, international investment is accelerating, in Portland as well as other cities.) Meanwhile, Vancouver has lost much of its priceless historic neighborhood fabric, including older and more affordable buildings that once occupied the site of expensive new condominiums.

One of the people praising the high cost of housing in Vancouver is Donald Trump Jr., in charge of building the luxury Le Corbusier-style Trump Tower there. “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.

Portland is rightly celebrated as having charted a different path – revived and built on many historic assets like the streetcar system, the Skidmore Fountain area and others. The Alphabet District, Goose Hollow and King’s Hill have also become models of livability, after a wave of destructive tear-downs and insensitive modern buildings in the 1960s. We should recognize and protect what we achieved.

This is a kind of “Jane Jacobs urbanism” – accommodating new projects, yes, but carefully, and retaining a mix of old (and cheaper) with new. This diversity of age matches other kinds of diversity, including income, ethnicity and other factors. It assures that new projects achieve a “gentle densification,” as Patrick Condon has termed it – building on under-utilized sites like parking lots, before allowing affordable historic buildings to be torn down. My own apartment, built in 1911, is a case in point – it rents for $1.60 per foot. If this site were upzoned, I might (from a pure business perspective) advise a developer, perhaps with foreign capital, to demolish this building and put up a much taller and more profitable building. (Its rent would likely be closer to $3.50 per foot, not counting the small amount of “inclusionary zoning” that would be required, quite possibly in a remote and much less livable location.) I would make money doing this — but the city would be much the poorer for it. This might well happen to the next affordable building, and the next – and soon, we would transform the city, into a pale imitation of Vancouver, with perhaps only the worst of its attributes.

Instead I think we must follow the old saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If we want a more sustainable, affordable region, we need to re-focus away from the neighborhoods that are already models of sustainability, and toward the lower-density, sprawling, monocultural places, as I did in my years with Hillsboro and Orenco Station. It is in these suburban areas that over 80 percent of the region lives, and arguably, over 95 percent of the region’s sustainability challenge remains.  These areas deserve beautiful, livable, walkable urbanism as much as others do.  THAT is the takeaway for equity and justice — NOT trying foolishly to cram everyone into the core, only to further damage the core, AND the suburbs.  Following Jane Jacobs, we need geographic diversity as well as other kinds of diversity.

Therefore, I strongly oppose the proposed re-zoning of the areas of the King’s Hill historic district currently zoned RH to RM4. I hereby request that this area be re-zoned to RM3.

In addition, I believe the same issues apply to the Alphabet District, and I support the request by other affected parties to re-zone this area to RM3 as well.

I do appreciate the efforts to provide historic protections within the current proposals. However, beyond preserving individual landmark and contributing historic structures, I strongly agree with the Bosco-Milligan Foundation/ Architectural Heritage Center and the local preservation community on the need to maintain the distinctive character of designated historic districts, which contribute so vitally to Portland’s irreplaceable heritage, livability, and yes, affordability.

Sincerely,

Michael W. Mehaffy, Ph.D.

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