Block 33: height requirements stall Chinatown development
If people stood on the street at the Northwest corner of the U.S. Bancorp Tower, crossed Burnside Street and walked north to the end of the block, they would find themselves at a parking lot — otherwise known as Block 33.
For two years, Block 33's designs have been in the works as a 125-foot high development. However, the current Chinatown district design guidelines only allow for a maximum height of 100 feet.
The Block 33 team has been patiently waiting to apply for permit until the new Chinatown-Japantown design critera in the Central City 2035 Plan passes, which would increase the height allowances. The new plan was initially estimated to be in place by mid-2016, but still hasn't seen City Council.
Despite Block 33's proximity to Big Pink, its development and permitting process hasn't begun due to the height of its designs.
The City is still willing to work with William Kaven, the architects on Block 33, offering options in place of speeding up the Chinatown-Japantown design criteria. But, the slow in permitting has the Block 33 development team crunched for time: according to the architects, ten years ago a planned development for the site lost footing in the Recession and was never built. The same could happen here if Portland's current building boom slows down before the project gets underway.
Designed to be 10 stories tall, Block 33 plans exceed the 100-foot maximum height currently allowed in the historical district zoning.
Under the proposed Central City 2035 Plan, the allowable height would rise to 125 feet. Currently, the 2035 plan is in the hands of the Planning and Sustainability Commission and will go to the City Council this spring, before coming into effect in 2018.
To be allowed the increased height, Block 33 has been waiting to apply for permit under the new code — but is waiting no longer.
At a Design Advice Request for Block 33 in late January, senior planner with the Bureau of Development Services Hillary Adam said the Central City Plan district standards, which are being revisited and updated as part of a comprehensive plan update, are expected to go before City Council this Spring and if adopted would go into effect in 2018.
"Until that happens, a 125 foot building cannot be proposed, the most they could go is 100 feet," Adam said at the meeting. "Currently, (Block 33) is proposed 125 feet tall. The current height limit is 100 feet maximum. That means currently, the proposal is prohibited from developing at this time."
The taller buildings nearby that are labeled contributing resources in the historic district are relatively new construction.
"Starting with the Grove Hotel there currently under construction, the other three buildings are a block or more north of the site itself and were constructed between 1998 and 2003," Adam said.
In late 2015, the Historic Landmarks Commission approved the renovation and expansion of the Grove Hotel, on the west side of the Chinatown Gate.
The redevelopment, projected to cost $30 million, is turning the three-story boutique hotel built in 1906 into a nine-story, 43,700 square foot building with the tower replacing the old theater addition and maintaining the three-story height along Burnside.
The addition approved for the Grove Hotel is one-eighth of a block, and the other three tall buildings aren't more than three-eighths of a block each — a much smaller footprint than the full Block 33.
Jacqueline Peterson, executive director of the Portland Chinatown History Foundation, spoke at the recent meeting.
"This block is half a block away from us is of great interest and concern," Peterson said. "Land Use and the neighborhood board agreed this would be approved only when design guidelines were written and approved, and the design was compatible with those design guidelines."
The new Chinatown-Japantown guidelines in the 2035 Plan, which are not adopted yet, direct new construction to take cues from the existing contributing buildings in the district with regard to form and materials and scale, according to Adam.
In early February, Block 33 went to the city's Historic Landmarks Commission.
"The historic lot divisions were generally no more than about a quarter block, although historically I know that there were a least a couple of half-block buildings," said Commissioner Kristen Minor. "But I am not convinced right now by the massing that tries to divide the building up into a plinth (the base tower) with then some pieces of overhang."
Kaven designed the block podium to relate to the human scale, and separated the upper portions to create the sense of smaller-scale massing blending in with smaller historical buildings in the district.
Other buildings in the area were allowed extra heights, but none are on full-block sites.
The Mason Ehrman Building, where the PDC is located, is nearby and clocks in at 90 feet high.
"If you're going to try to push the height limit envelope here — and I'm trying to regauge down to 100 feet — there is one contributing building which is at 90 feet," Minor said. "You have an opportunity there to make a fairly direct relationship and get yourselves perhaps that 100 feet and have it look like you've really studied that building."
Waiting and waiting
Daniel Kaven, co-founder and principal of William Kaven Architecture, said they don't have the choice to wait any longer.
"The reason that it is higher than the current zoning allows is because the future zoning that we've been waiting and waiting for to come into effect has not come into effect yet," Kaven told the Business Tribune. "The city has had a number of zoning changes in place that happened Feb. 1 and in order to keep all our options open for the zoning, we had to submit."
Kaven said the designers have been engaged with the neighborhood association since 2014, showing them multiple design iterations.
"We've been working with the 2035 Plan — the draft has already been approved — which has the higher height in it, but it keeps getting delayed going into effect," Kaven said. "There are a number of relationships between new guidelines and old ones. The idea in designing right now is to work within the confines of this."
He said the canopies at ten feet reinforce the proximity to human scale, keeping it relatable despite the height.
"It's 300 feet approximately from the Bancorp building. There's another building just two blocks down, an apartment building that was built in the early 2000s that's taller than 100 feet, also," Kaven said. "These huge buildings are all around, but we're respectful of the historic district and we want to work to make the building fit into the context of the neighborhood."
There will be 140,000 square feet of office space, which share a lobby with the apartments on the northeast corner, and there's space for a restaurant to have a patio place for the community to gather.
Kaven said Hung Far Low, an iconic building across the street, has similar cornice lines and openings, a focus to help Block 33 fit in with the neighborhood context.
"It's obviously very different to design a building in today's times that was in a district built with engineering that didn't allow you to build beyond a certain height 100 years ago," Kaven said. "One of the things we've done in particular was really try to build a massing in the way that the base of the building, the podium, is separated from the upper portion of the building and contextually responds to the contributing buildings around."
Kaven already presented Block 33 to the Land Use commision twice and to the neighborhood association, has represented at the 2035 design guidelines meetings, met with the planning department and also met with the mayor's office trying to get the design guidelines going.
"There wasn't an effort here to not work with the design guidelines," Kaven said. "I've been working the best we could with the City on the timeline and it has continued to drag out and get extended. We're sort of closing on a development window here we felt, so we're doing our best to move forward with the project."
To move forward with the 125-foot design, Kaven would have to get some kind of exception approved, or wait until 2018 to submit the final land use review.
"It's important that both the city and neighborhood continue to work with us through the process. We're trying, and there's been a project design here that was killed before because of the economy," Kaven said. "There was a project 10 years ago they were trying to do here, and the timing of the element is really important because it's really our only hope to get a project on a parking lot done."
Kaven said the next step is to continue through the design review process, submit a simplified version that meet the minimum requirements for the permit and leave out the height at first, working from there.
"Obviously there's some complexity with the zoning. I've been working on this project two years trying to get in and get the project moving along," Kaven said. "Now we're at a point where some very real decisions are going to be made. It's important to us to try to construct a 125-foot building because of realities behind the costs of development."
Block 33 is scheduled for a second design advice request hearing in front of the Historic Landmarks Commission on April 10.