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PDC suggests shorter buildings

Compromise would lower proposed Macadam tower

After two buildings proposed for a development near RiverPlace were deemed too tall by the Planning Commission, the Portland Development Commission has come up with a compromise to lower both of them.

PDC Development Manager Larry Brown said the agency will recommend to the City Council on Wednesday lowering the zoning height of a condominium tower by 25 feet to 200 feet, and a hotel located closer to the Willamette River from 150 feet to 75 feet.

Approval of developer Homer Williams' hotel-condo project 'is contingent on a tower structure,' Brown said.

Williams said the compromise height for the condominium tower Ñ he'd originally sought 225 feet or about 20 stories Ñ is 'something we can deal with.' But, he added, going any lower would make the tower 'look like a matchstick' against neighboring buildings.

Even the compromise height is too high for residents of the South Auditorium neighborhood, who say Williams' proposal will ruin their mountain views.

'Twenty-five feet doesn't make any difference,' said Lynn Connor, a member of the American Plaza Condominium board. 'It's still well above the height now. This affects how the whole waterfront is being developed, and it's setting a precedent for creating a canyon.'

PDC requested the change for Williams' Riverplace Partners LLC, which is buying a 2-acre brownfield site next to South Waterfront Park to build a 100-room hotel and 170 condominiums. Williams, developer John Carroll and Connecticut-based investor Clay Fowler are buying the former Lincoln Steam Plant site from PDC for $3.8 million.

'They hope to start construction in 12 months,' Brown said.

The City Council will hold a public hearing Wednesday on the North Macadam Plan, including the height increase, greenway setback and trail. PDC's compromise plan for RiverPlace Project Area would be considered an amendment to the plan, requiring passage by the City Council. It is expected to adopt the plan by mid-November.

On Aug. 22, the Planning Commission unanimously rejected PDC's proposed height allowance of 225 feet for Williams' RiverPlace project, saying it would block mountain views and alter central city planning policy for just one project.

Not a lone building

The hotel-condo project will be only one of a string of 25 to 30 tall, slender towers eventually filling up the North Macadam waterfront south of the Ross Island Bridge. In that district, buildings would be allowed to rise 250 feet Ñ under certain conditions Ñ as long as they are 150 feet from the riverbank, said senior planner Marie Johnson.

Expanding the height would be 'a way to get density and also protect views,' said Joe Zehnder, principal planner for the Portland Planning Bureau's area and neighborhood planning unit. 'The North Macadam Plan is embracing these tall, slender towers.'

Williams plans to transform the industrial North Macadam waterfront into apartment and condo complexes, office buildings, dorms and an Oregon Health & Science University administration building. It would be linked via an aerial tram to Marquam Hill and by streetcar to the downtown.

OHSU President Peter Kohler and Mayor Vera Katz envision a biotech center producing thousands of new jobs.

'This is the last underdeveloped area in the city of Portland,' said Tommy Brooks, the mayor's liaison to the Planning Bureau. 'Everyone looks at it as a huge opportunity.'

Residents of American Plaza Condominium, located behind the proposed Williams' project, said they are prepared to fight it and have a 200-signature petition opposing any height change.

'It's sort of like giving them a blank check,' condo board member Connor said. 'We find the waterfront is charming, but this changes the whole character of the waterfront.'

Like their Corbett-Terwilliger-Lair Hill neighbors, the South Auditorium area residents don't like the density of Williams' Macadam Avenue project and an expected increase in traffic.

'We have a clean slate on creating something unique that takes advantage of the riverfront,' said Jerry Ward, a local architect who has wrangled with city planners about the Macadam plans.

Ward accused PDC and city planners of bending their will Ñ and zoning law Ñ to a single developer.

'It seems like planning is for sale,' he said. 'They're taking taxpayer money for staff to help a developer get a zone change. It's not good policy practice. It's a conflict of interest. When is our public bureau working for something that is not for the benefit of the population? I simply want real analysis, real study, so we can make the right decisions.'

When asked about his influence, Williams said, 'We know that's not true.' He said he and the city have been working on neighborhood concerns. 'The important thing is getting the neighborhood connections to North Macadam.'

Steve Pfeiffer, a land-use attorney at Perkins Coie law firm, said it's not unusual to see zone changes done for single owners or single projects.

'The city is free to initiate zoning changes,' he said. 'I don't think it's a conflict of interest. What they're (neighbors) really saying is 'Is Homer being favored?' Homer is astute enough to be at the right place and the right time. They're looking for something under the rug instead of the best land-use policy for Macadam Avenue.'