Density must be done right


How could someone who loves Portland the way it is, and who loves Portland neighborhoods, be behind the increase in allowable building heights in the South Waterfront District Ñ and also be an advocate for high-rise housing on the downtown waterfront?

Isn't there a contradiction here?

What I find unbelievable is that advocates for the very neighborhoods I want to respect are seeking a citywide referendum to limit building heights. This is definitely a contradiction.

Portland will continue to grow. Tied to growth projections, the city of Portland has a commitment to the 1996 Regional Framework Plan to build 70,000 new housing units by 2040. We can do what they've done in just about every other U.S. city and create more sprawl Ñ paving over more and more farmland and forests with minimalls and tract housing Ñ or we can build more densely within our existing urban boundaries. This is a no-brainer.

When addressing density, I hope that we all can hang up our NIMBY hats and look at the problem as a challenge on a metropolitan scale. The citywide referendum being proposed by some of Portland's affluent neighborhoods seems to be less about preserving Portland's neighborhoods and more about preserving 'my back yard' at the expense of the greater good.

We are wonderfully unique here. How many large U.S. cities have vibrant single-family-house neighborhoods so close to the core? There are Eliot, St. Johns, Northwest, Corbett-Terwilliger-Lair Hill, Hillsdale, Homestead, Irvington, West Hills, Buckman, Richmond, to name just a few. These places help define Portland, and we should make every effort to keep them intact and flourishing. The less we have to 'up-zone' in these neighborhoods, the better.

So why not go for more density with high-rise housing in close-in areas that has less impact on current neighborhoods? South Waterfront and the Downtown Waterfront are perfect examples. The West End and northern River District are two other good ones.

Still, why must we go high? What's wrong with a Paris solution, where the buildings are all six and seven stories? Don't tall buildings leave streets in shadow and isolate people?

I love Paris and traveled there to study it for the South Waterfront plan, but there are a few things about it to keep in mind. The street edges work great, but the housing density wouldn't get us close to our goals unless we bulldozed large swaths of existing neighborhoods.

The Northwest neighborhood is already up in arms about demolishing a single historic house for a parking garage É imagine how many single-family houses would have to be leveled if we went with a Paris solution.

As for shadows: Compare a block that is fully built-out with a seven-story building (like the Pearl District), with a block that has a four-story townhouse base and a 25-story narrow tower (like a Vancouver, B.C., project). It's a wash; some parts of the adjacent streets will have far more sun, others less.

Socially, high-rises aren't for everyone, but they work great for many lifestyles. As far as the quality of housing in a high-rise versus midrise: Personally, I'd rather look at Mount Hood than watch a neighbor watch 'Survivor.'

Ultimately, it's all about design. We haven't seen the best high-rise solutions in this city yet. That doesn't mean we can't get there. If we do density right, not only can we solve the growth challenge, but at the same time we can build a more vibrant, sustainable urban center that depends less on cars and fosters job growth.

Best of all, with high-rise housing, we can help preserve our neighborhoods.