Over the last decade, Portland's skyline has been substantially transformed by the addition of several condo towers that were taller and thinner than just about all of the local high-rise buildings that had come before them.
In neighborhoods like South Waterfront and Pearl District--but also in places like Northwest 23rd, downtown and along West Burnside--we saw a succession of these new buildings. Usually they incorporated a two- or three-story base, or podium, where the building extends all the way to the street, and then a thinner portion rises 20 or more stories from there. In most cases, these projects take up entire blocks by themselves.
In the past, Portland's central city was zoned to encourage shorter, squattier buidings built to the street and going straight up from there. But there was a rallying cry in the late 1990s and early 2000s for zoning to be changed to allow buildings to go taller in exchange for being thinner, their upper floors set back from the street to diminish shadows and allow more light on the street. Portland’s model for this type of building—and the type of neighborhood it fosters--was primarily Vancouver, British Columbia, which has become known for a succession of these towers since beginning to incorporate them into their skyline some twenty years ago.
Yet as Vancouver prepared for the Winter Olympics over the last few years, the city made a conscious decision to move away from point towers when it transformed a former industrial area, just across False Creek from downtown, into the Olympic Village. Although currently housing hundreds of athletes, the Olympic Village will spend the rest of its life as the Millennium Water development composed of mixed-use condos, greenspace and a community center. And the Millennium Water condos are decidedly mid-rise buildings, not tall thin towers.
A few weeks ago, while reporting on the architecture of the Vancouver Olympics for The Architect’s Newspaper, I interviewed Scot Hein of the City of Vancouver about (among other things) the decision to go mid-rise. Here’s some of what he had to say:
"Right now our idea of urbanism or ‘Vancouverism’ has expanded well beyond the tower podium typology. It’s not one size fits all. Every precinct of the city is telling you something different and giving you cues about scale and pattern. Before the Olympics were awarded, we were pursuing a direction based on tower podium. Towers are easy to build and they have a lot of value. But the design professions here rallied around the fact that for this part of the city, the opposite side of False Creek adjacent to industrial buildings, there should not be tower form but a lower scale that was supportive and reinforcing of the kind of fabric that was (originally) in this part of the city. Very prominent architects wrote letters and caused our city council to rethink tower podiums. We ended up redistributing that density to upwards of 13 to 14-story buildings in a courtyard form where things are pushed to the edges."
“In the Olympic Village we have these full block developments broken down in to 4-5 pieces. They might have contiguous floor plates but they don’t read as singular super-blocks. There’s variety within the block. When you add eight of these, it’s got a lot of modulation to it.
“While mid-rise might not be as promising as a singular sculptural statement, there’s much more variety, complexity, and articulation. We love towers too, but they’re usually going to be glass curtain walls. Mid-rises open themselves to whole new markets of materials and facades. We get a lot more color, use of wood, fenestration, architectural shading and screening—layering of things you can put on mid-rise to make them interesting.”
So if Vancouver has eschewed point towers in favor of mid-rise buildings (at least in False Creek), what does that signal for Portland? Obviously during this continuing recession, it’s a relatively moot point because the market is over-built. But someday, there will once again be a shortage of high-density urban condos and apartments, and the housing market will be on an upswing. It may be as soon as 2011 or it might not happen till 2015. But eventually Portland will be building high-density multifamily housing again. And when we do, should point towers be the continued model, or should smaller mid-rise buildings like Vancouver has turned to in False Creek return to the table?
Simply walking north through the Pearl District you can see both highrise and mid-rise residential buildings.
In the southern portion closer to Burnside, the units built in the 1990s are largely mid-rise, particularly the units built by the major developer in the neighborhood, Hoyt Street Properties. Many of these projects are modest, buildings from an architectural standpoint. They don’t call attention to themselves, but they make a pleasant urban environment with their small scale and proximity to the sidewalk.
Then as you head further north in the Pearl, there are taller, thinner condos on podiums, from The Pinnacle (Ankrom Moisan) to The Metropolitan (BOORA and Jeff Lamb) to The Encore (BOORA). There are also such buildings in the Brewery Blocks, such as the Louisa Apartments (GBD Architects).
And of course virtually all the buildings in the South Waterfront are versions of point towers, from The John Ross (TVA Architects) to The Meriwether (Peter Busby & GBD Architects) to Atwater Place (THA Architecture & GBD). Some of these projects I’m quite fond of, at least as sculptural objects. They flesh out the modest Portland skyline and are often beautifully detailed – I’m particularly fond of Atwater Place in that regard. And coupled together, point-tower areas allow more sunlight to reach the street.
But I’m not sure about creating whole neighborhoods out of the point-tower form. South Waterfront feels a little too large of a scale to make an inviting neighborhood at the pedestrian level, even though plenty of attention has gone to pedestrians. Mid-rise buildings are an essential part of the urban mix. Quite honestly, I’d rather live in a mid-rise building and a neighborhood than a forest of point towers. It feels more cozy and, well, like a neighborhood.
But I also spent numerous years in the 2000s arguing for the city to allow point towers, because it seemed like Portland had too many short, squatty buildings. What’s more important, how a building feels to a resident or to the city? Don’t feel like you need to answer that question – I don’t think there is a perfect answer.
What’s more, notice that Scot Hein mentioned their mid-rise buildings are 14-15 stories, while ours are typically smaller. The 937 condo (Holst Architecture) in the Pearl, for example, is 16 stories and considered a high-rise.
Scot Hein also stressed that Vancouver only chose mid-rise for the Olympic Village buildings in False Creek. Even so, it’s still a major course change for the city that made point towers a quintessential building type of the 1990s and 2000s. Does Portland follow Vancouver back to our previous future? Personally, I hope it never becomes an either-or scenario. As always, the best urban environments are ones that have many differently sized and different looking pieces.