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Maccoinnich

The quote above about the Portland zoning code is somewhat selective. The full paragraph reads:

"The Central Commercial (CX) zone is intended to provide for commercial development within Portland's most urban and intense areas. A broad range of uses is allowed to reflect Portland's role as a commercial, cultural and governmental center. Development is intended to be very intense with high building coverage, large buildings, and buildings placed close together. Development is intended to be pedestrian-oriented with a strong emphasis on a safe and attractive streetscape."

And quite right too. Portland's central city is at the heart of a metropolitan region in which more than 2 million people. It should be dense. Cities are about interaction and exchange, and this happens best when the land is used most intensely. I'd argue that the biggest problem with Old Town/Skidmore/Chinatown/Yamhill collectively face is the lack of economic activity in them. There just aren't enough people living and working in those areas. Development along the lines of the Brewery Blocks or the ZGF building would do wonders for these areas. Density is also great for the environment. (What's the greenest city in the US? New York, a direct result of how dense it is.)

While it's a shame that so many historic buildings have been lost and turned into parking lots, covering the whole of downtown with CS zoning rather than CX zoning isn't going to bring them back. It's an interesting premise that "high rise" zoning prevents investment on vacant lots and low rise buildings, but I'd like to see some evidence of it.

While I regret the loss of certain historic buildings in Portland, including in recent years, I think the blame lies at how weak historic building preservation laws are in the US; not at a City Government that believes in development in the center of the city.

Jim Heuer

High urban density is certainly a reasonable goal for much of Portland's downtown area, but there is no reason why the Central City has to be turned into monolithic blocks of 300 foot tall buildings. Indeed, the city's own Buildable Lands Inventory demonstrates vividly that all the growth in downtown office and residential capacity projected for many decades into the future can easily be handled by areas outside of the Historic Districts.

And the example of New York illustrates that there is merit in having a variety of building heights across the central core. While New York may be a paragon of low intensity energy use, it is not exclusively because of its clusters of very tall skyscrapers. The average building height across the 5 boroughs is only 2-1/2 stories, and even Manhattan is comprised of large expanses of 4-5 story 19th and early 20th Century structures. The truth of the matter is that New York has a vast, almost fully electrified, system of subways and commuter rail routes that, depending on the metrics, is from 3 to 5 times larger and more heavily used than in any other U.S. city. While the density of office space in Mid-town Manhattan and Lower Manhattan contribute to the continued viability of New York's transit network, that network also provides vital transport across all 5 boroughs where density is much lower. If there is a lesson for Portland in this, it's that we need to press on with our light-rail and streetcar expansions while introducing electrified heavy rail commuter service along the I-5 corridor where the facilities permit and traffic justifies it.

It is certainly true that lack of economic activity, especially in Skidmore/Old Town and China Town, is what makes those areas dull, but the culprit is obvious to anyone walking around those areas... vast surface parking lots do not a vibrant neighborhood make. What is needed is a combination of sensible infill that respects the many surviving historic buildings accompanied by sensitive rehabilitation (and seismic retrofits) of those not already rehabbed. Those actions are what are being impeded by a combination of inflexible seismic regulations and the perverse effects of high-rise zoning in Historic Districts.

One doesn't need a whole lot of "evidence" to understand the economic effects of high-rise zoning in a Historic District where the design guidelines would otherwise restrict building height to 45 or 65 feet. The arithmetic is simple. You have bought property on the cheap 40 years go. It is used for a surface parking lot that earns a very handsome return on that long-ago investment. If you build to the 65' height limit now, you make $X when the building is sold to investors -- once the building is built, the costs of tearing it down to replace it with a true high-rise will be prohibitive for many years. If you hold out for some future time after the city has caved in and you can build a 300' tall building, you will have made dramatically more from the deal. From my comparisons of current land values inside the Historic District with those where high rises have been OK'd, I've estimated that the increment in market value of the land from "breaking" the Historic District guidelines for Skidmore/Old Town/China Town would total around $150 million to the small group of property owners involved. That is plenty of incentive to wait out the City, especially given the ongoing revenue stream from the surface parking lots. Remember, that the owners in question are not like most of us worrying about how to afford their next mortgage or rent payment. They have a decades-long view of their investments, and can easily imagine a future time when political sentiment or de-designation resulting from demolition by neglect make possible covering Skidmore/Old Town with 300' tall buildings.

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