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.

A recent news story on the PBS NewsHour covered Donald Trump Jr.s development of high rise projects in India.

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?



Essentials of a neighborhood square: Learning from our own mistakes, and others’ successes

The disappointing results of “Slabtown Square” should prompt a reconsideration of what truly makes a square.  Livable Portland’s Suzanne Lennard reminds us of of the basics. 

“Slabtown Square” is better described as “a courtyard for a private apartment complex”

Dr. Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

Original post courtesy of Western Planner,

Unlike a city’s main square that, from time to time, brings together representatives from all over the city for major festivals, concerts, and special events, a neighborhood square has certain unique social functions: it is frequented every day of the year by those who live in the neighborhood; it helps to strengthen social networks; and it builds community. Designing a neighborhood square to fulfill these social functions is not so simple. One of the biggest challenges is to get the proportions of the square right.

Unique social functions of a neighborhood square

For those of us concerned with how the built environment influences community, well-being, and public health, public places – streets and plazas – are of immense importance [1]. A hospitable European-style neighborhood square is the holy grail. [2]


While many Western U.S. cities founded by the Spanish still have a viable plaza at their heart, many of these are used only sporadically by the local population for special events, or they serve primarily the tourist population.

In Portland, our main Pioneer Courthouse square comes alive weekly with programmed concerts, festivals, and markets but does not support residents’ everyday social life. I live within a few blocks but I would not expect to see anyone I know there. Portland’s neighborhoods are rich in parks, but lack squares. Even the beloved Jamison Square in the Pearl District, fondly called by many locals a “squark” (square/park) functions primarily as a bosky water playground for kids from all over the city, rather than as a neighborhood square.


With a mix of local stores and cafes surmounted by apartments that provide “eyes on the square”, shade trees and places to sit, some locally significant artwork and water features for kids to play, a traffic-free European-style neighborhood square can be the heart of a community, the place people come to shop, meet, pass through, where elders and parents keep an eye on children playing. It is the place where everyone belongs, where you meet friends, and develop a sense of community.

Daily face-to-face interaction with a variety of other people – friends, neighbors, and familiars – is crucial to individual well-being [3]. Physical health is dependent on mental health. If you have a strong social network, researchers find that you also have a strong “social immune system:” you are less likely to become sick, if you are sick it is less serious, and you live to a riper old age. [4]

Community, well-being, and public health are strong arguments for creating neighborhood squares.

Designing a neighborhood square is not so simple

Portland, attracts many new residents because of its reputation as a livable, walkable, compact, human scale city, with a strong community spirit. These characteristics are epitomized in Portland’s North West District, where residents are deeply involved in planning and livability issues. This neighborhood also has the city’s highest density in a mix of historic family homes and four to five story apartments. Twelve years ago, the transportation company Conway, which owned a 25-acre site on the northern edge of the NW District, decided to sell most of the acreage for a new urban neighborhood.

NW residents immediately became involved, donating thousands of hours to work in meetings with the owners and the City to create a Master Plan [5] that would ensure walkability, human scale, mixed use, and that would connect well to the existing historic district. Conway was delighted by the challenge of creating a truly urban complete “10-minute neighborhood” where you could live within a 10-minute walk to shops, schools, services, parks, work, and public transit. Conway believed these characteristics would attract the brightest minds to live within close walking distance of their employment at Caltrans.

All parties emphasized that the public realm must be given the highest priority. For neighborhood residents, the most important element in the Master Plan was a European-style neighborhood square.

Through innumerable meetings over several years, the neighborhood partnered with Conway (the land owner) and the City to develop the Conway Master Plan to guide future development. Largely thanks to this intense community involvement, the Plan’s fundamental standards were clearly articulated. The square must be “for everyday use, a variety of neighborhood activities, a farmer’s market and programmed events in all seasons… such as fairs, art shows, and small musical performances, etc.“ [6]

The space was envisioned in the Master Plan as approximately 135 x 135 feet (i.e. 18,225 square feet). The Master Plan standards require “a square that has no dimension less than 100 feet and shall be at least 16,000 square feet in size.” Adjacent maximum building heights are set at 45 feet on the west, 75 feet on the north and east. The site’s parcel is the regular Portland 200 feet by 200 feet city block. The overall floor area ratio (FAR) for the 25 acres was set at 3:1, with the assumption that FAR would be transferred away from the square to blocks further north. There is no minimum FAR around the square in order to encourage a human scale.

Many elements must come together to achieve a successful square – mix of uses, human scale, a suitable architectural frame, entrances on all sides, seating, shade, etc. [7] It was decided early on that traffic poses a danger for playing children; traffic noise and air quality detract from a square’s hospitality for all; and in order to enliven the square, it needs to be bounded by diverse stores, cafes, restaurants, and civic facilities.


In the early phases of the square’s development it was clearly understood that a neighborhood square must be accessible from every direction, ideally in a variation of Sitte’s “turbine arms,” [8] so that as you enter from one side, you are not immediately pulled out the other side. Social networks are strengthened when residents from all surrounding blocks are able to cut across the square because this enhances the possibility of serendipitously bumping into a friend or familiar. A square does not function well in bringing the community together if it is a “dead end” that you can only enter from one or two sides.

In an early design phase, YBA Architects developed an interesting ground floor plan, with entries on all four corners, but this was an unsatisfactory solution for a number of reasons: the square was too small, buildings on the east projected 30 feet into the pedestrian way, and the buildings on all four sides cantilevered over the square so that the dimensions of the square above the ground floor was only 119 x 92 feet (11,000 square feet).

Portland experiences many months of grey skies, making sunlight a highly valued amenity, especially in spring and fall. The east-west dimension of the square and height of buildings on the east and west are therefore of particular importance in optimizing solar exposure, especially for children’s play and for an evening drink or supper on the square.

As time went on, it became clear that architects experienced in designing buildings-as-objects do not have expertise in designing squares, the places between buildings. As Edmund Bacon observed in his seminal book, Design of Cities, many designers are “space blind.” [9]

Even the meaning of the word “square” is poorly understood, despite five centuries of literature on squares, from Leon Battista Alberti, to Camillo Sitte, to Jan Gehl, in which squares are defined as “gathering places under the open sky” [10].  A courtyard is not a square, neither is an area beneath a building. An arcade or colonnade is an arcade or colonnade, not a square.

Getting the proportions right

Judging from Portland’s experience, the most difficult challenge may be in achieving appropriate proportions – the relationship between the width of a square, and the height of surrounding buildings. A square that is too narrow, with buildings that are too high will feel claustrophobic, and will not attract the everyday social life needed to make the square “self-programming”.

According to Alberti’s treatise On the Art of Building, “A proper height for buildings about a square is one third of the breadth of the open area, or one sixth at the least.” [11] This results in a calm square with gracious proportions. The buildings do not press in on you, but step back as if to give you space. The sky is a vaulted ceiling above the square, ensuring light and sun access. Indeed, Kidder Smith, [12] Edmund Bacon, Michael Webb[13] and many others have observed that beloved piazzas and squares feel like a well-proportioned room, theater, or a grand hall open to the sky.

Jan Gehl emphasizes that building heights framing public places should be human scale, relating to how we experience our environment. His angle of vision theory[14] explained in Cities for People is rooted in human physiology. Our angle of vision is 50-55 degrees above the horizontal.


This angle creates a golden rule for estimating optimal building heights around a square to avoid feeling oppressed and overwhelmed[15] . Humans feel more comfortable when they can glimpse sky above the buildings within their angle of vision. A hospitable square must have a substantial area near the center of the square where a group of people may gather, face and talk with one another, and where each person sees a little sky above the building they are facing. In a 100 x 100 feet square a “sky-view island” should be approximately 30 x 30 feet; in a 100 x 200 feet square, the “sky-view island” would be 30 x 60 feet.


If buildings along the side of a square are of different heights, some buildings may be higher than this. We have a wide horizontal field of vision (210 degrees). We are not so discomfited by one tall building providing we can still see sky on either side of it without turning our head.


There are numerous examples of well-functioning neighborhood squares that illustrate these principles. Venice has six major neighborhood squares (campi) and innumerable smaller squares (campielli) that, until the tourist industry ballooned in the 1990s, provided the ideal setting for community social life, for children and elders, for shopping, vegetable and fish markets, and for community festivals. Some still do.

The Gracia neighborhood in Barcelona boasts ten neighborhood squares (plaças). Each has its own character, and is slightly different in size, though all dimensions are from a minimum width of 80 feet to a maximum length of 220 feet. Some are lively, favorite spots where people congregate throughout the year. Others are very quiet, playing a modest role in supporting community social life. While many factors have influenced each square’s success, one important factor is their proportions.

Plaça del Raspali feels hemmed in by its surrounding buildings, even though five streets lead into it. The square is only 80 x 90 feet, but the buildings on two sides are four to six stories high (50 – 60 feet). The buildings contain some essential resources – a bakery, barbershop, pharmacy, and a bar/restaurant, and the square has hosted occasional neighborhood festivals and pop concerts, but on a daily basis, it is very quiet. The population around the square is largely Romani, which suggests this may be a more affordable neighborhood than those around the larger, more hospitable neighborhood squares.


Plaça del Diamant is a little larger at 19,200 square feet (120 x 160 feet) than the square proposed for Portland, and it has six streets leading into it. Each side consists of four buildings, from two to six stories. Only two small buildings are six stories so from the large area in the center of the square (approx. 50 x 120 feet) there is always a view of the sky within one’s field of vision.


Plaça de John Lennon measures almost exactly the minimum required size of Portland’s neighborhood square – 16,100 square feet (115 x 140 feet). Four streets lead into it at the corners. Despite its small size it does not feel claustrophobic. On one side, the buildings are two and three stories high. On the other three sides the buildings are four stories. One side has two additional floors tucked into a pitched roof, with stepped-back terraces that achieve a six-story building without impeding the angle of vision. The square has a substantial area (40 x 80 feet) within which you can see the sky in all directions.

There are continuous stores and businesses around the square that seem to be flourishing (café, computer stores, print shop, computer repair store, ice cream, and patisserie, etc.). With a secondary school at one corner, the square becomes jam-packed when school lets out as kids zoom around on scooters and roller blades, play football and tag around adults’ legs, chatter in building niches, and adults sit at the café.


To create a hospitable neighborhood square is a real challenge for any American city. But Portlanders have led the way in city livability before. In the 1970s, citizens demanded that a proposed 12-story parking garage at the heart of the city should instead be a public square. After a design competition, the beautiful arena-like Pioneer Courthouse Square was built, now proudly called “Portland’s Living Room.” [16]

I would have thought that if any American city can create a neighborhood square, Portland would be the first to do it. But perhaps the process needs the input of form-based urban designers. Unless they are uniquely visionary, and dedicated to public well-being, building developers whose primary concern is to maximize returns may not be the best people for the job. Holly Whyte ran across this problem back in the 1970s in New York when he argued for creating pocket parks in exchange for increased heights. He was sorely disappointed by the poor quality of public plazas that resulted.

Portland is proud of its heritage of robust civic engagement in planning decisions. At the opening session of the 2013 International Making Cities Livable Conference in Portland, then-Mayor Charlie Hales said: “People who live [here] have a right and expectation to be involved with the future of their own community; it’s not just what planners or developers want.” [17]

And Elaine Cogan, who was instrumental in setting up Portland’s public involvement system, always emphasized, “Genuine engagement with the public requires commitment, perseverance, time and money.” [18]

In creating the public realm – the part of the city that belongs to the people – it is the responsibility of elected representatives, their staff and commissioners to represent the public interest, and prevent a developer from cramming through a public space that violates the Master Plan and fails to support its intended social functions.

In the final analysis, if the city does not represent the people’s well-being, and protect the intent, Standards and Guidelines specified in a Master Plan, then no amount of community engagement will succeed in ensuring a neighborhood square that supports social life and community.

In Portland, the community, planning staff, city representatives, architect and developer of the square block are still struggling to achieve what is required in the Master Plan,  “a hospitable neighborhood square… a significant, iconic urban place.” [19]



  1. [1] Crowhurst Lennard, Suzanne. (in press) Public Places, Community, and the Physical and Mental Health of Children and Elders, in Stafford, Philip (Editor) The Global Age-friendly Community Movement. Berghahn
  2. [2] Crowhurst Lennard, Suzanne, and Lennard, Henry L. (2008) Genius of the European Square. Gondolier Press.
  3. [3] Mouratidis, Konstantinos, (In press) Built environment and social well-being: How does urban form affect social life and personal relationships?
  4. [4]
  5. [5]
  6. [6]
  7. [7]
  8. [8] Sitte, Camillo. (Translated by Charles T. Stewart) 1945. The Art of Building Cities. New York, Reinhold Pub. Corp.  P. 21
  9. [9] Bacon, Edmund. (1967) Design of Cities. Viking Penguin. P. 15
  10. [10] Sitte, Camillo. Op cit. P.2
  11. [11] Alberti, quoted in Kostof, Spiro. (1992) The City Assembled. Boston, Little, Brown & Company. P. 137
  12. [12] Kidder Smith, G.E. (1955) Italy Builds. London, Architectural Press
  13. [13] Webb, Michael.(1990) The City Square. London, Thames and Hudson
  14. [14] Gehl, op. cit. p. 39
  15. [15]
  16. [16]
  17. [17]
  18. [18]
  19. [19]  10.A

International Making Cities Livable

The International Making Cities Livable Council is an interdisciplinary, international network of individuals and cities dedicated to making our cities and communities more livable. IMCL Council members are active in organizing and participating in the International Making Cities Livable Conferences held twice a year, once in North America and once in Europe; in publishing books, consulting, teaching, and improving the livability of their own cities. The principles of the IMCL Conferences, initiated in 1985, have become part of a national US agenda, and are being applied by many cities in Europe and other parts of the world. The IMCL Conferences bring together city officials, practitioners and scholars in architecture, urban design, planning and urban affairs, health and social sciences and the arts, from around the world to share experience and ideas. Together with other urban conferences, the IMCL Conferences share a concern with issues ranging from balanced transportation planning to community participation, from historic preservation to new ecological housing and development plans. However, the IMCL Conferences are unique in their holistic vision of the city, their emphasis on the interrelationship between the built urban environment and citizens’ well-being, and their explicit concern with values in urban decision making that enrich the quality of everyday life of the city’s inhabitants, especially children. At the IMCL Conferences special attention is paid to the indispensable role of public spaces for connecting the city’s inhabitants and developing community. Guiding these Conferences is the conviction that we must make our cities not only ecologically sound, but also socially sustainable. Visit

Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, Ph.D.(Arch.), is Founder (1985) and Director of the International Making Cities Livable Conferences, and Consultant to cities in the U.S. and Europe. Dr. Crowhurst Lennard has held academic posts at the University of California, Berkeley, and Brookes University, Oxford, England. She has been Visiting Professor at Harvard University, and City University New York, and Guest Lecturer in Architecture and Planning Departments in the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, Austria and Italy. She has received awards from the NEA, NYSCA, RIBA, and the Graham Foundation.

Portland architects: We want to build two towers almost 1,000 feet tall

The Portland architecture firm’s proposal would dwarf US Bancorp Tower, currently the tallest at 536 feet

This simulated montage (from the Broadway Bridge) shows the approximate scale of the proposal in relation to the 42-story US Bancorp Tower, which at 536 feet is some 144 feet lower than the skybridge between the two proposed towers.  The taller of the two buildings could accommodate approx. 74 stories. Photo: Cord Rodefeld, Wikimedia Commons. Rendering by William Kaven Architecture via The Oregonian.  Simulation montage by Michael Mehaffy.

A recent article in the Oregonian provided evidence for the growing perception that much of the pressure for taller buildings in Portland comes from boosterish members of its architecture community.  A local architecture firm  is proposing twin towers almost 1,000 feet tall for the old US Post Office site adjoining Union Station.

Currently the site has zoning to allow a maximum height of 75 feet.  The Central City 2035 plan would deregulate that restriction and allow 400 feet.   However, architect Daniel Kaven was quoted in the article saying that there should be no height limit for the site. His firm has proposed two blocky buildings reminiscent of the original 1,368 foot World Trade Center buildings in New York.

From the article:

William Kaven Architecture wants to design the tallest building in the Pacific Northwest. And it wants to put it on Portland’s Pearl District Post Office blocks, the site the city offered to Amazon for its second headquarters.

The concept, released by the Portland firm on Monday, proposed two skyscrapers, one of which would rise 970 feet. Together, the highrises would provide about 5 million square feet for retail, office, hotel rooms, apartments or condos. Accord ing to the announcement, the two buildings would be linked by “a glass-enclosed botanical bridge spanning 236 feet across the North Park Blocks some 680 feet in the air, providing dramatic aerial views of the entire city.”

The proposal would also be able to accommodate a transportation hub for highspeed rail or a Hyperloop, the news release said.

But proposed height limits for the site would allow buildings as tall as 400 feet.

In an email, Daniel Kaven, a partner with the architecture firm, acknowledged the constraints of the height limits. But he said the city, which is considering zoning changes in its Central City 2035 plan, should think big.

“City Council is able to amend this if needed/ desired,” he wrote. “It is our belief that there should not be a limit on the height and that vertical development on this scale is necessary.”

In the firm’s announcement, it said its proposed towers would be large enough to serve as a headquarters for a Fortune 100 company like Amazon. In early September, the e-commerce giant announced it was in the market for a second company headquarters, one that could accommodate 50,000 employees, and that it was prepared to invest $5 billion in construction alone.

But Portland, so close to the company’s Seattle headquarters, is viewed a long shot. Last week, Prosper Portland, the city’s urban renewal agency, called on developers to submit applications to craft a master plan for the Post Office site and the surrounding blocks, dubbed the “Broadway Corridor.”

William Kaven intends to submit a formal proposal to Prosper Portland early next year.

Read the full article at

Ed McMahon of Urban Land Institute: “Density does not demand high rises”

Speaking at the University of Oregon, the ULI Senior Resident Fellow took Oregon leaders to task for characterizing historic preservation as the enemy of affordability: “Portland can grow without losing the things you love.”

Ed McMahon of the ULI speaking at the University of Oregon

The University of Oregon, Restore Oregon, Preservation Resource Center and the Northwest Examiner hosted a talk on October 3 by Ed McMahon, ULI Senior Resident Fellow for Sustainable Development, on “Density, Design and Preservation: Working Together to Promote Livability and Affordability”.  The full talk is now available on YouTube:

The event was also later covered by the Daily Journal of Commerce.  Excerpts:

New towers often come with higher prices and lower density, McMahon said.

A study by the Preservation Green Lab in Seattle, he added, found that such buildings fall short in comparison to many smaller, refurbished buildings for housing people per unit. That same comparison held true for office buildings as well.

“Smaller, older buildings had more jobs per square foot,” he said. “They also had more locally owned businesses, more non-chain stores and more women- and minority-owned businesses. These are places that are worth preserving because they do outperform, on a square-foot basis, some of these larger, newer buildings.”

Nevertheless, across the country more affordable units are being torn down than built new. A National Housing Trust study, McMahon said, found that for every affordable housing unit built, two are lost due to abandonment, deterioration or conversion to more expensive housing.

“Preserving rather than building new has proven to be the most financially sustainable method of reversing the trend of one step forward and two steps back,” he said.

“Good design makes you forget about the whole concept of density,” McMahon said. “You just like being in that place.”

“Increasing housing supplies does not ensure affordability if developers build oversized and overpriced luxury homes,” said Laurence Qamar, owner of Qamar Architecture + Town Planning and another speaker at the event.

“Our tiny blocks increasingly yield massive buildings that rise straight up from sidewalks with little of subtlety and form,” he said.

Marshall Runkel, chief of staff for Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, encouraged event attendees to stay involved as proposals such as the 2035 Comprehensive Plan and the Residential Infill Project come before the City Council.

“Over the course of the next year, there should be dramatic regulatory changes that will have influences on all of the subjects discussed tonight,” he said.

Full article:

Urban planning experts advocate for smaller, smarter development


Saskia Sassen on “Who owns our cities – and why this urban takeover should concern us all”

The Dutch sociologist paints a disturbing picture of what the current surge of international capital is doing to cities — and who benefits

From mid-2013 to mid-2014, writes Saskia Sassen, corporate purchases of existing properties exceeded $600 billion in the top 100 cities, and $1 trillion a year later – and this figure includes only major acquisitions. She describes a major surge of capital coming into real estate from corporate investors:

I want to examine the details of this large corporate investment surge, and why it matters. Cities are the spaces where those without power get to make a history and a culture, thereby making their powerlessness complex. If the current large-scale buying continues, we will lose this type of making that has given our cities their cosmopolitanism.

Indeed, at the current scale of acquisitions, we are seeing a systemic transformation in the pattern of land ownership in cities: one that alters the historic meaning of the city. Such a transformation has deep and significant implications for equity, democracy and rights.

A city is a complex but incomplete system: in this mix lies the capacity of cities across histories and geographies to outlive far more powerful, but fully formalised, systems – from large corporations to national governments. London, Beijing, Cairo, New York, Johannesburg and Bangkok – to name but a few – have all outlived multiple types of rulers and of businesses.

In this mix of complexity and incompleteness lies the possibility for those without power to assert “we are here” and “this is also our city”. Or, as the legendary statement by the fighting poor in Latin American cities puts it, “Estamos presentes”: we are present, we are not asking for money, we are just letting you know that this is also our city.

It is in cities to a large extent where the powerless have left their imprint – cultural, economic, social: mostly in their own neighbourhoods, but eventually these can spread to a vaster urban zone as “ethnic” food, music, therapies and more.

All of this cannot happen in a business park, regardless of its density – they are privately controlled spaces where low-wage workers can work, but not “make”. Nor can this happen in the world’s increasingly militarised plantations and mines. It is only in cities where that possibility of gaining complexity in one’s powerlessness can happen – because nothing can fully control such a diversity of people and engagements.

Those with power to some extent do not want to be bothered by the poor, so the model is often to abandon them to their own devices. In some cities there is extreme violence by police. Yet this can often become a public issue, which is perhaps a first step in the longer trajectories of gaining at least some rights. It is in cities where so many of the struggles for vindications have taken place, and have, in the long run, partly succeeded.

But it is this possibility – the capacity to make a history, a culture and so much more – that is today threatened by the surge in large-scale corporate re-development of cities.

Read the full article:

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!

How to kill a city: A warning to Portland?

Journalist Peter Moskowitz describes the process of gentrification:  it is “not a fluke or an accident. Gentrification is a system that puts the needs of capital (both in terms of city budget and in terms of real estate profits) above the needs of people.”

A sign of gentrification in Brooklyn, New York.

At a recent conference on international urban issues in Amsterdam, we were struck by the parallels between other cities around the world and our own home town of Portland.  Around the world, capital is surging into real estate, the hottest commodity of the day, and greatly inflating housing prices in their cores.  The result is runaway loss of affordability, displacement, inequality — and ultimately, negative economic impacts for everyone.

At a session that we co-organized at the Placemaking Week conference, we heard from Professor of Geography Loretta Lees of the University of Leicester, Professor of Social Anthropology Dimitris Dalakoglou of Vrije University of Amsterdam, activist Catherine Greene, president of Arts East New York, a local arts non-profit in Brooklyn, and Juliet Kahne,  Education Manager for the Project for Public Spaces.

It was journalist Peter Moskowitz whose book, How To Kill a City, set the stage.    As he wrote in the book:

In every gentrifying city there are always events, usually hidden from public view, that precede street-level changes. The policies that cause cities to gentrify are crafted in the offices of real estate moguls and in the halls of city government. The coffee shop is the tip of the iceberg…

In [the four case studies of the book], specific policies were put in place that allowed the cities to become more favorable to the accumulation of capital and less favorable to the poor. New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco and New York gentrified not because of the wishes of a million gentrifiers but because of the wishes of just a few hundred public intellectuals, politicians, planners, and heads of corporations…

When we think of gentrification as some mysterious process, we accept its consequences: the displacement of countless thousands of families, the destruction of cultures, the decreased affordability of life for everyone… I hope to make clear that gentrification is not inevitable, that it is perhaps even stoppable, or at the very least manageable….

Late 19th Century theorist and activist Rosa Luxemburg hypothesized that under capitalist economies, cities would inevitably be used as a way to absorb capital – that in systems in which there is surplus money floating around, cities become a mechanism, like luxury goods, to open the pockets of the rich…

Those features of cities were the first version of Richard Florida’s urban amenities.  We’re still doing the same thing with coffee shops and art galleries.  They’re all just ways to boost the value of the land and convince people with disposable incomes to come spend their money.

Moskowitz concluded the book with six recommendations for cities:

  1. “Expand, protect and make accessible public lands.”  The cities that best manage problems from gentrification are often those that retain public ownership of large areas of land, including land for affordable housing.
  2. “Give people an actual say in what happens in their city.”  That means empower and respect them – an approach that seems to be on the decline in Portland.  It also means, don’t stack their stakeholder panels with overwhelming numbers of real estate professionals and architects.
  3. “Heavily regulate housing. “ Treat it not as a freely traded commodity, but what it is — a common asset that everyone needs.  Those who speculate in this commodity should be expected to compensate those who are harmed by their actions — like people who are evicted from their homes to make way for more profitable development.
  4. “Implement a new New Deal.” This may be more politically difficult in our era — but the ultimate economic advantages of doing so are becoming more evident.  So is the ultimate penalty for growing inequality.
  5. “End protectionism, and add infrastructure.”  Broadly speaking, create more housing in more places. This doesn’t mean that we should jam it in wherever we can — in tall buildings downtown, for example, which create their own unintended effects, as we have written before.  As the UN’s Undersecretary-General has pointed out, there is more to affordability than a simple-minded “supply and demand.”  On the other hand, this does suggest that we should create more “complete communities” in more parts of the region —  including the suburbs, where most of the region lives, and where increasing numbers of people have been forced to relocate.
  6. “Raise taxes, raise wages, spend on the poor.”  We spoke previously about the potential of a “land value tax” to damp down commodity speculation in real estate – and the “Vienna model” that our friend Patrick Condon described for Vancouver, B.C.  Essentially, a land value tax soaks up the excess capital that would otherwise fuel land speculation, and the familiar spiral of higher prices.  In addition to serving as a damper on land speculation, the money raised from this tax is then used to fund affordable housing on public land.

This last point is part of a broader transition that needs to happen with so-called “Georgist” economic policies.  Essentially, we should treat resources as part of our commons that must be be conserved, shared and protected.  We should require that significant taxes be paid on consumption, while at the same time, taxes are reduced on creative development that uses fewer resources.

This is an essential path to a “repletion economy” – one that conserves resources, and rewards more creative growth that consumes fewer resources– or better yet, that actually regenerates (“repletes”) resources, in the same way that, say, good farmland practice can produce good crop growth while also regenerating the soil.

But right now, we’re doing the exact opposite.  We’re operating a “depletion economy” – one that is fundamentally unsustainable.  We’re rewarding  those who are stripping our resources out from under us, drilling and burning and uglifying the landscape, with results that are increasingly toxic to people and other living things.   It’s happening in the wilderness, in the countryside, in the suburbs — and yes, in the city cores.

It’s tempting to apply the formulas of speculative real estate to the core of our own city.  It’s tempting to be lured by the short-term profits of “voodoo urbanism” as we have called it.  But as Moskowitz points out,  “gentrification is a system,” he says, “that puts the needs of capital (both in terms of city budget and in terms of real estate profits) above the needs of people.”  This is how to kill a city.