BY BRIAN LIBBY
In a pair of recent newspaper editorials, and in public testimony to City Council, a contingent of Portlanders is sounding an alarm.
The phrase used in a Portland Tribune op-ed by Josiah Failing and in an Oregonian op-ed by Tracy Prince and Bill Failing is "iconic views," which they warn are soon to disappear forever if the Central City 2035 plan and its increased height limits are allowed to go forward.
In one case, they're referring to views of Mt. Hood from the Salmon Springs fountain downtown at Waterfront Park. But they also argue for other views: of the Vista Bridge from the Goose Hollow neighborhood, a view of Hood from the Vista Bridge, and for views of a weather beacon atop the Standard Insurance Center.
Let's start with the Mt. Hood view. There's no doubt the mountain peak itself is an icon of Oregon's and Portland's culture. Just as Mount Fuji has been a sacred site for practitioners of the Shinto religion since at least the 7th century, and a sacred part of mainstream Japanese culture nearly as long, so too do Oregonians think of Mt. Hood as a kind of unofficial natural deity: a reminder of the bountiful natural beauty that exists all around us.
Indeed, it is nice to see Mt. Hood from Waterfront Park and the Salmon Springs Fountain, just like it used to be nice to see Hood when coming out of the Vista Ridge tunnel heading east before the KOIN Center blocked that view in the 1980s. It's also nice seeing Hood from the Vista Bridge. But are those Hood views iconic? I'm not so sure.
It is true that our best architects seem to look to nature and landscape for inspiration and humility. Brad Cloepfil, his generation's most acclaimed local architect, once told me in an interviewthat inspiration in his work came from "looking to the landscape for that sense of evocative space rather than the cities, because the cities don't have it here. I don't mean landscape in just a romantic sense — trees and flowers — I mean looking at the physical, spatial qualities of the land." But would Cloepfil insist a view of Hood had to be maintained from Salmon Springs or the Vista Bridge?
Perhaps my skepticism is tied to the fact that the Prince-Failing op-eds don't stop at the idea of preserving views of Hood from Salmon Springs or the Vista Bridge but continue on to include views of the Vista itself as part of a view corridor, and even a view of a weather beacon. Has it really come to this? One of America's 25 largest cities, amidst an affordable housing crisis that has hundreds more living on the streets each year, and with over half a million people projected to move here in the next 20 years, is actually having a discussion about preserving views of a weather beacon?
There's something about the inclusion of Vista Bridge views and views of the weather beacon. As the Oregonian op-ed indicates, Tracy Prince is vice president of the Goose Hollow Foothills League and Bill Failing is a board member with the Southwest Hills Residential League. In other words, two of the three iconic-views arguments relate to the views from their own neighborhoods.
On a not-unrelated note, particularly noticeable in Prince and Failing's Oregonian op-ed is also the repeated use of the word "privatize," specifically as it relates to the question of who should have access to the views. "This important view shouldn't be privatized so that only those rich enough to live in a building blocking the view can see it," they write of the view from the Salmon Springs Fountain." Later, they write that views "shouldn't be privatized only for those rich enough to live in buildings blocking views of the bridge," in reference to Vista Bridge views from Goose Hollow. A few sentences later, in case anyone didn't get the point, they write, "The views shouldn't be privatized only for those rich enough to live in buildings blocking the view."
But whose view would be blocked by tall downtown Portland buildings? Mostly just residents of the West Hills and perhaps some of Goose Hollow. And when we look at the demographics of Goose Hollow and the West Hills, what do we find? Affluence.
For a sense of perspective, earlier today I spent some time reading up on where in Tokyo one might enjoy a view of Mt. Fuji. As one might expect given that Tokyo is a city of 9.2 million and a metro area of 13 million, they are not preserving view corridors from the Imperial Palace or Shinjuku or Shibuya. One travel article I read recommended the observation deck from the Tokyo Tower (the radio/TV tower that apes the Eiffel Tower in appearance) or the SkyTree, its replacement. It recommended catching views from the Roppongi Hills shopping center, which sits on elevated land, and Mt. Takao, which is within greater Tokyo's boundaries. Ultimately Mt. Fuji is hard to see from Tokyo. And you know what? Not only does life go on, but Mt. Fuji remains as sacred to Japanese culture as ever. If anything, the scarcity of Fuji views from Tokyo actually encourages people to get outside the city and experience the mountain, or when they do see it, from an observation deck or a higher elevation, that view becomes all the more powerful.
But then again, Portland doesn't want to be like Tokyo even if we share reverence for our snow-capped peaks in the distance. There are certain Swiss cities that win awards and acclaim for their urban livability but are still all about their views of the Alps.
I will say this: cities that can maintain such visible connections to natural wonders like mountain peaks are special, and I can tell that Prince and the Failings take admirable pride in the fact that Portland is a jewel not simply because of buildings and parks and bridges but because it’s nestled compactly in a wondrous natural setting. By comparison, certain cities in Switzerland get ranked among the most livable in the world, like Portland does, yet their identity is inextricably tied to the landscape—mountain peaks and lakes and meadows—just like ours.
Of course there is also the broader context: that Portland and Oregon have long since committed to the mission of curtailing sprawl through urban growth boundaries, and given the hundreds of thousands projected to move here in the coming decades, we can’t restrict ourselves from growing both outward and upward. I’m sometimes hesitant about making that argument because height does not equal density. So far we still have a substantial amount of vacant or under-utilized land available to develop, and when we do, the city’s density goals can largely be met without going beyond a hundred or so feet of height—unless we’re talking about downtown.
“What I’d remind people that in the entire state of Oregon there is only one place where you can build above 100 feet,” Troy Doss, a senior planner heading the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s central city team, told me in a recent interview. “You can’t do this in bend, Eugene, Beaverton: this is it. If we’re trying to hit our density goals, we need to allow for as much density as we can downtown.”
It would be unfair to say that other cities and cultures don't make the case for and preserve view corridors. They do both here in the US and abroad. I mentioned Japan: this country may not be preserving views of Mt. Fuji from Tokyo, but there is a long tradition of framing views and, in essence, creating view corridors. And if we do indeed go in that direction in Portland, it won't be the end of the world. It's not like anyone dislikes seeing Mt. Hood.
But we’ve already restricted our buildings’ height in the downtown core to a very low maximum of 400 feet. That’s why architecture from decades ago—the Wells Fargo Center and the US Bancorp Tower—remain frozen in time as our tallest: those buildings wouldn’t be allowed to go that tall today. That means we’re already acting out of concern for West Hills views. If we lose a view of Mt. Hood from Salmon Springs, it may feel like something is being taken away from us, but to restrict building heights for a view corridor such as Prince and the Failings suggest could be construed as a tipping of the scales too toward the restrictive side.
When we think of great cities we tend to think of enduring monuments and landmarks that remain for centuries or more, but the truth is that all cities are changing all the time: who lives or can afford to live in what neighborhood, what the building heights are, what the dominant architectural styles may be, whether it’s attractive to tourists or ridden by crime. I have a great affection for historic architecture, and so I tend to frequently side with preservationists standing up for that in our built environment which endures. I also am a native Oregonian who grew up hiking and camping in the Cascades, from Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams to the Three Sisters and the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness. Each setting—urban and natural—makes me appreciate the other, and it can be especially delightful when one finds one in the other: a bit of architecture in the mountain wilderness, like Timberline Lodge at Mt. Hood, or a big of wilderness in the city, like Forest Park within Portland. But at least for me, insisting on a view path from behind downtown (the West Hills) to Mt. Hood or from the lowest elevation by the riverbank (at Salmon Springs) just seems like a step too far into the unreasonable given the other challenges we as a collective city face.
But then again, maybe there could be some kind of trade or bargain: how about if we do enact these view-corridor restrictions, but in exchange for that we allow buildings in other parts of downtown to go past the current limits to equal or surpass the Wells Fargo and Big Pink, our two tallest downtown structures?