BY NATHAN DAY
Last week, the City of Portland’s Design Commission gave its annual State of the City Design Report to City Council, a relatively overlooked event that is usually seen as more of a formality than one of great public interest. This go around it seemed different, more important than in years past, as the city is undergoing a massive construction boom which has brought a record number of cases in front of the Design Review panel.
The intended limitations of the Commission has caused delays in the review process, and has resulted in a general slowing in the development pipeline as individual cases all vie to be seen as quickly as possible in this time of economic upswing. Over the last year, the Design Commission has made improvements, mostly relating to maintaining an effective schedule (e.g. getting a proper timer) that has reduced delays and overruns. But the task force still sees room for improvement. The Commission and the local American Institute of Architects chapter as well as numerous others in the design profession and the public at large would like to see more review, not less, as the city continues to develop at its perceived rapid pace.
As noted during the report, the Comprehensive Plan Update will address many of the issues that are currently challenging the city's built environment, but that plan will not fully take effect for years as the details are still being hashed out in a willingly arduous, all-inclusive manner.
The Design Commission was created with the goal of improving architecture and urban design in the central city. It aimed at reducing the vast number of blank walls and lifeless streets that the automobile age had unintentionally and haphazardly created. In the past, the State of the City Design Report has been focused on the importance of design review, design appropriateness, long-term planning, and inequality issues regarding new development in the city's downtown core and immediate surrounding neighborhoods.
Now, however, the Design Commission is seeing more proposals than ever before, and the city is receiving pressure from neighborhood activists and associations to include the "d" design overlay (designating areas where projects fall under Design Commission review, mostly in the central city) across the entire city as a means to rein in what is perceived as the uncontrolled and inappropriate growth. The review process is something that is unfamiliar and commonly misunderstood by many, but it is generally regarded as valuable and increasingly important as the city grows.
Portland is not alone in this influx of new developments, as many American cities are currently experiencing similar construction booms, created by a combination of repressed supply and the fear of the impending increase in Federal Reserve interest rates. As an example, our neighbor to the north, Seattle, has the equivalent of one quarter of Portland's downtown office space (6 million square feet) currently under construction, with even more proposed to start in the coming years.
Portland's boom is primarily residential in nature, with a sharp increase in apartment building and an unprecedented number of new hotel units, over 2000, currently proposed or under construction. The city's growing pains are exacerbated by the wholesale condominium conversions that took place during the last housing boom that greatly reduced the city's inventory of existing rental apartments. Additionally, Portland's strict zoning code unintentionally prices most residents out of their own homes by limiting the housing supply in the guise of preserving neighborhood character, a duality that inadvertently pits the preservation of forest and farmland against existing neighborhood aesthetics and density.
In the State of the City Design Report, the Design Commission recommend five changes: (1) make design review mandatory throughout the city based on the scope of new development projects; (2) create an additional design review team to oversee this inclusion; (3) update the Community Design Standards as an alternative to design review; (4) rethink the housing bonus to include affordable and low-income units; and (5) remove residential as an acceptable ground floor use along commercial corridors. As with the nature of recommendations, none of these action items were immediately accepted, but the first three changes were welcomed by the City Council and the event's commentators.
Generally, expanding design review was seen as a potential means of addressing the current neighborhood and design community's concerns without encroaching on the ongoing revision process of the Comprehensive Plan. But updating the Community Design Standards would be an onerous process in itself and probably implausible at this time. What the new design overlay would look like, what initiates a review, and how it would be orchestrated are currently unknown, but the mayor, Charlie Hales, was keen on the idea, which means these changes could be explored sooner rather than later. The recommendation to change the language of the automatic housing bonus is an interesting idea, especially since the original intent was to increase the housing supply in the city's core, a goal that no longer needs incentive due to market conditions. Rewriting that particular bonus would be premature however, as any new housing policy would be reliant on the outcome of the Comprehensive Plan Update.
The most interesting change to be recommended, and one that could be implemented immediately, is a moratorium on residential ground uses for commercial corridors. The Design Commission ran through numerous examples on Burnside Street, Hawthorne Boulevard, and Martin Luther King Boulevard where such 'active' uses have actually broken up contiguous retail storefronts with dead space. The original intent was to create a mix of ground floor spaces, dynamic and interactive, but instead of the porches and stoops dreamed up by city planners, reality tends to repetitiously repeat closed doors painted the same color as the walls flush around them accompanied by a permanent set of adjacent window blinds. As currently written, code allows for residential uses in any commercial zone, regardless if it’s a high rise or a main street storefront, which means that the review team cannot object even if they deem it inappropriate for the location. That does not mean that the reviewers have been silent on this issue, as many times their advice has led to ground floor changes that were ultimately beneficial to the developer. In cases where ground floor commercial uses are unfeasible due to market conditions, the Design Commission recommends having the discretion to allow residential uses with the caveat that it could be adaptable to future retail uses with higher ceilings, open layouts, and ADA accessibility. Live/work units, such as those in the Pearl District or on upper Hawthorne, are a good example of how to accomplish successful adaptable ground floor spaces. The end goal is not to have commercial on every street, the goal is to maintain active uses along specific corridors where they are already thriving.
Regardless of whether any of these proposed changes actually come to fruition or not, the Design Commission is proving to be incredibly successful in positively impacting our built environment. There was ample testimony that reiterated the importance and benefits of the commission, and what their efforts have meant to the city.
With the current polarization of neighborhood associations, which is directly related to the prevalent anti-density groundswell, it is more important than ever to have a team of professionals who understand all sides of development to help bridge the emotionally-charged divide between growth and preservation. The coming Comprehensive Plan Update will hopefully address many of the issues currently in debate across the city, but the grand narrative of a sustainable Portland, the one with 20-minute neighborhoods and easy access to healthy foods and healthy places, must be heeded by developers and neighbors alike.