BY BRIAN LIBBY
The Architect's Newspaper. Dezeen. ArchDaily. The Oregonian. Portland Monthly. Fox 12. From national design press to local newspapers, magazines and TV stations, over the past several days William Kaven Architecture's proposal for twin towers soaring nearly 1,000 feet—equivalent to about 95 stories each—at the soon-to-be-vacated US Postal Service site in the Pearl District has seemed to be everywhere.
Kind of like how last month a lot of attention went to a proposal from developer NBP Capital to build as many as 500 affordable housing units at the downtown waterfront at RiverPlace without any public subsidy in exchange for the right to blow past that area's intended 200-foot height limit (as part of the Central City 2035 plan) to as high as 400 feet, all with the added enticement of having them designed by renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, designer of the new Cultural Crossing at the Portland Japanese Garden as well as Tokyo's new stadium to host the 2020 Olympics.
If David Letterman were writing this, perhaps he might take a moment and introduce the two, as if they're Uma [Thurman] and Oprah [Winfrey] at the Oscars: "Kaven? Kuma. Kuma? Kaven."
Let's first take a look at Kaven's proposal.
One thing I've always enjoyed about the architectural profession is that it's an opportunity not just to design buildings and spaces but to be part of a public conversation about the future of our cities. And few topics seem to get people talking more than the prospect of uncommonly tall buildings coming to Portland.
Of course the idea of two 95-story towers at the USPS site is absurd, and I think nearly everyone who read about Kaven's proposal understands that it's certainly not going to happen. But it's such a ridiculous proposal that it makes for a fun conversation about the much less ridiculous idea that the current height limits aren't enough.
The height limit at the USPS site is set to be 400 feet, less than half of the 970 feet to which the taller of the two buildings would stretch. Is that enough? After all, the city's tallest buildings, the 546-foot Wells Fargo Center and the 536-foot US Bancorp Tower, were completed in 1972 and 1983, respectively. It seems surprising and maybe even silly that in the ensuing 34 years since that latter building's completion nothing has even come close to that height, even with some of the economic booms of recent years or decades that have eclipsed anything in the '70s or '80s.
Even if Kaven isn't serious about getting these things built, his arguments as they relate to politics and city-building are interesting to listen to. "There are three elected officials that could potentially move the needle on something like this," Kaven told me in a Friday phone interview. "If the majority of city council just decided, ‘Hey, this site should have much fewer restrictions, if the economics of something really bold work, we should look at that.’ We still have design review and processes like that, but to limit the potential of the site, I think, is a mistake."
"Only one building over 500 feet has been built in Portland since 1984. We’re talking about a generation that has not had any tall buildings built. And there’s no better place to do it. Being in a downtown location next to a transportation hub: that’s it right there. It’s almost like a whole city that could be built there. It’s a go-big-or-go-home opportunity. You look to cities like Minneapolis or other small cities with big architecture: we’re so lacking in an architectural draw. And that’s what that site needs: a sense of place that people want to experience."
Kaven also argues that the USPS site is height-friendly because the location is a natural transit nexus. "The buildings are dramatic, but the transportation hub is a big thing here: we’ve got Union Station, the Greyhound station, MAX, streetcar," he said in our interview. "How can we get high-speed rail there? Let’s not wait 20 years. Let’s figure it out right now."
The architect makes a compelling case that even if it doesn't happen for another generation, taller buildings are inevitable in Portland. We just have to pass a certain threshold, one perhaps not yet reached, where the extra cost of a really tall building becomes justified. Today Portland is still the cheapest city on the West Coast, but it's becoming less cheap by the second. "When you have to build the second lateral bracing system, there’s an extra cost to that," Kaven said. "There’s a height limit in building cost. But land values are important too, and they have skyrocketed in Portland. That’s why if you go to Hong Kong or New York, they build huge buildings because the cost of land is unbelievable. But we’re going to get there. It will happen in Portland. The population is growing, and climate change will even compound that."
In the past, along with citizens' oft-spoken opposition to greater height in the downtown core — "Don't block the view of Mt. Hood!" — part of the reason tall buildings seem to happen here less often is because our blocks are particularly small: 200 by 200 feet. But Kaven believes residential towers can still work within that context. "Residential towers in particular, you don’t want to have wide footprints," he said. "So point towers work really well for residential work. It makes sense to stack things on top of each other. Heating and cooling is much easier, for example."
For what it's worth, I do quite like the look of Kaven's design. It reminds me of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's classic Chicago skyscrapers such as the John Hancock Center (1968) and Sears Tower (1973). Those are super-tall towers topping out at 1128 and 1450 feet, respectively. But their X-bracing structural system, invented by SOM for the Hancock Center (which was originally intended to be twin towers, like the World Trade Center), are faintly echoed in the Kaven rendering. These towers then add a gentle sense of curvature at their corners that gives them an attractive fluidity.
And then there's the glass bridge connecting Kaven's pair of towers, 680 feet above the ground, which Daniel Kaven has described as a botanical space that could be considered an extension of the North Park Blocks in the sky. I mean, if you're already proposing twin towers nearly twice as big as anything ever built here, why not add a botanical bridge?
As for accusations of self-promotion, Kaven told me if this was only about getting a big commission they would have gone about it differently. "We could have put out a rendering of a 400-foot building," he explained. "But we’re serious about the density and the discussion about why we wouldn’t have a bigger building on that site. It would be more sensible for us to say, ‘Here’s our plan that falls under the standards and the Comp Plan.’ We spent a bunch of extra time doing this because we profoundly believe there needs to be more focus on what this can be."
This is not the first time Kaven has approached me or other media about one of his proposals. Two years ago I wrote a blog post about the hotel his firm was designing for the site at NW Fifth and Couch, long a surface parking lot, but has yet to break ground. A cynic would argue, and some have, that he's adept at self-promotion. But I see more than that. The hotel project was arguably held up in part by a lag time a between City Council-approved height increase there and the actual change being reflected in the zoning. He doesn't have a horse in the race when it comes to the USPS site, but it's understandable for the limitations of height in the central city to be something he gets passionate about. And he's far from the only one who thinks the central city should go taller.
Besides, we need architects proposing bold ideas. It's something one of my favorite local architects, Rick Potestio, does fairly frequently. Why not Kaven too? If it's self-promotion, it's not only that at all. I like Kaven's chutzpah.
"The number one thing I’m advocating for is an iconic, bold move on the site," Kaven told me. "I would like Portland to have a building in its skyline that is recognizable and that people from Europe want to come here and check out. And I’d like to live downtown without a car and be able to get in a train and go somewhere."
If Kaven is indeed offering his twin towers as part of an argument for more height and architectural boldness, I think NBP Capital, the company promoting Kengo Kuma-designed buildings at 400 and 325 feet, is possibly more serious about actually making it happen.
NBP Capital first presented city planners with a proposal in August 2016. But as Rachel Monahan reported last month in Willamette Week, the investment group "dramatically expanded its ambitions after the City Council passed its inclusionary housing policy, which includes density incentives for affordable units." NBP seems to be using the need for affordable housing as a way to get past the 200-foot limit.
Instead of saying, "We stand to make a big profit on residences by a budding starchitect in an ideal downtown waterfront location," they can say, "We need affordable housing, and this is a way to really move the needle without the city spending a dime. And there are already buildings this tall within five blocks."
One member of City Council, Commissioner Dan Saltzman, is even quoted in Monahan's story saying he's "heartened" to see a building proposal with lots of inclusionary housing because so many developers are telling him it "is killing our city."
I'll be the first to admit that having Kengo Kuma's name attached to the NBP Capital proposal makes it easier to like. The renderings show glass-ensconced towers with overhangs at each floor, which would be a legitimate sustainable design choice to limit unwanted heat gain but would also bring shadows to the facade in a way that's typically Kuma and evocative of Japanese architecture, particularly Buddhist temples and pagodas like Sensoji with its five-story pagoda in Tokyo.
With that in mind, let's ask ourselves for a moment: how would one respond to the NBP proposal if it were not designed by Kuma? The design is actually a partnership between Kengo Kuma & Associates and Portland firm GBD Architects, which presumably would serve as architect of record, like Hacker did on Kuma's Japanese Garden project. What if NBP Capital were proposing a 400-foot GBD building at RiverPlace and permission to double the height determined by Central City 2035? Some might still argue for the project because they support the principle of greater heights downtown, be it at the riverfront or otherwise. And that's not unreasonable.
Yet if this were just a proposal for a pair of taller-than-allowed GBD buildings, perhaps we might be framing this as an effort to get around zoning as much as we'd talk about it as an inclusionary housing-related project. That's not intended to disrespect GBD. It could be most any Portland firm and the point would still be the same. Kuma is, in other words, a kind of bait, much as Brad Cloepfil has often claimed his firm (Allied Works) was used in initial proposals for the OHSU buildings that might anchor a new South Waterfront campus at the base of a then-proposed Portland Aerial Tram before it was built.
Whether it's the Kaven-designed proposal for the USPS site or the Kuma-designed proposal at RiverPlace, I don't blame those media outlets for running with those stories. In each case, it's a combined conversation about height—always a rather volatile topic in Portland—as well as about affordable housing, and about design. It's encouraging that compelling architecture, even just in renderings (or maybe especially then), has the power to seduce us. A compelling rendering gives potentially powerful visual impact to the rhetorical question: "What if?" It allows us to imagine at no cost, and to think differently about how we've approached the process.
In that way, it's almost as if the Kuma and Kaven renderings are an unofficial last appeal of Central City 2035 and the height limits arrived at within the document, as if to say, "Wait, are we sure we want a 200-foot limit at RiverPlace and a 400-foot limit in the Pearl? What if we went taller? Some people don't like that idea, but look at these buildings and see how attractive a well designed tall building can be."
If I'm talking about issues like height and density and floor area ratio, it's important that I make my best effort not to conflate them. As one impassioned reader wrote to me after I was interviewed by KATU about the Kuma-designed tower proposal, you do not need more height to increase density; you need more FAR to increase density, and Portland already has adequate FAR to meet its density goals into the foreseeable future. Even so, increasing height in the downtown core arguably allows us to better maximize that density. Yet height only comes as real estate prices escalate. It's arguably economics that drives height more than density.
Still, I often think back to my childhood and that anticipated moment when, driving to Portland from McMinnville, our family's car would come around the Terwilliger curves and I'd catch my first glimpse of the Wells Fargo building, or as it was then known, the First Interstate Tower. I was captivated by what I thought of as a skyscraper. It turned out that it wasn't scraping the sky compared to buildings in larger cities, which could go more than twice as tall. Yet that tallness, such as it was, represented visually a kind of ambition and achievement. It's not to say that I think Portland should allow 80 or 100-story buildings or that I think economics will dictate that anytime soon. Yet I do walk away from the Kuma and Kaven proposals feeling a bit further convinced that maybe some of these height limits are not great enough.
Of course the two cases are different. Kaven is right that the USPS site is better connected to the rest of the downtown grid and, more importantly, to major transit nodes. The RiverPlace site is, like South Waterfront, more of an island. On the other hand, the height that NBP is asking for at RiverPlace is less than half of what Kaven is proposing at the USPS site. In either case, though, it's an interesting conversation to have, because it touches on our imaginations with the height and renderings, but it also makes a case that height could help address affordable housing, and it engenders a broader conversation about Central City 2035 and, well, the central city in 2017 as we prepare for 2035.