Portland City Council is approaching a vote that could alter the makeup of downtown Portland. The question before them: Should a developer be permitted to build a new tower in Old Town that’s taller than its surrounding buildings by more than nine stories?
The property in question, Block 33, sits in the heart of Old Town, tucked between Northwest 4th and 5th near the historic “Hung Far Low” sign. The owners of the property, Guardian Real Estate Services, operate 10,000 apartment units throughout the country. They’re perhaps best known locally for developing the Yard (or, as it’s perhaps better known, the “Death Star”), the severe dark building that looms over the east end of the Burnside Bridge.
The city’s current maximum height for any building on that block is 100 feet, or around 10 stories. Guardian’s proposal before council would raise that height limit to 160 feet, or 16 stories on the western half of the block and 125 feet (around 12 stories) on the eastern half. Surrounding buildings in the historic district range from one to seven stories.
The location is currently a surface parking lot which has not been developed because the scarcity of parking in Old Town makes it so profitable, according to Guardian. Helen Ying, president of the Old Town Community Association, has advocated for the height change. “Block 33 has been a parking lot for quite some time,” she says. “I would love to see something go in that space. It has long been seen as a catalytic development for the neighborhood.”
Ying says she’s pro-historic preservation, but adds that more housing in Old Town is a matter of public safety: She wants “more people living in the neighborhood to have more feet and eyes and ears on the street.”
Some officials think the proposal could go even further. At a March 22 city council meeting, Commissioner Dan Saltzman suggested raising the limit to 200 feet.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz was not on board. “You’re going to double the height of the White Stag building and put it next to a historic district,” said Fritz at the March meeting. “That just doesn’t seem reasonable to me, that that [building] could possibly be in context.”
Mayor Ted Wheeler insisted on keeping the 160-foot height cap on the table for discussion.
Dozens of advocates swarmed the council meeting to give testimony about the height change—both in favor and against. “At 125 feet, Block 33 will overshadow historic buildings. At 160 feet, it will swallow them whole,” said Katelyn Weber of Restore Oregon, a non-profit devoted to historic preservation.
Jackie Peterson, executive director of the Portland Chinatown History Foundation, argued that 160 feet would be “injurious” to the Chinatown historic district, which only takes up 10 blocks. “It’ll quadruple the value of the property, and we have been promised nothing,” she said. “Please, save this district.”
In an interview with the Mercury, Peterson emphasized the importance of the historic district where the parking lot sits. “Portland Chinatown is the second oldest in the country,” she says. “This is what remains of what was always Portland’s multiethnic center.”
Peterson says that historic districts typically recommend heights no higher than 75 feet because sight lines are important to preserving “the fabric of a neighborhood.” She and other advocates worry that a tall building in the district could threaten the neighborhood’s historic designation—a label given to them by the National Register of Historic Places.
The developers, promising more market-value housing, have the backing of the neighborhood association. Guardian Real Estate spokesperson John McIsaac tells the Mercury the development will bring 324 apartments to the area, as well as parking, office space, and ground-floor retail. While plans for the building have yet to be made public, McIsaac says it will have a
“modern” look. Update: McIsaac has now told us he was wrong about the building's modern design, and instead says it will "fully comply with the New Chinatown Japantown Design Guidelines." He says those opposed to the height changes “want everything to look like the old buildings. But what they neglect to remember is that Chinatown moved out to 82nd. It’s not there anymore.”
As of now, it’s hard to predict how city council will vote. The city’s Historic Landmarks Commission, which advises council on matters of historical importance, voted against the proposed changes to Block 33 in Old Town on March 12. Marshall Runkel, chief of staff for Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, says, “There’s concern that we could lose the historic designation of that area with more nonconforming uses, or uses that don’t reflect the historic nature of that area.” But he adds that Eudaly hasn’t made up her mind. “We’re in the listening- to-the-experts, listening-to-constituents part of the decision-making process.”
Commissioner Nick Fish is also undecided, he tells the Mercury. Fish says he hears compelling arguments on both sides—the need to protect the historic district designation versus the need for more housing. “I want to know if they can be harmonized,” he says. “This is a close call for me. I’m generally supportive of adding additional housing in downtown.”
Fish adds he’ll look closely at public testimony before he comes to a decision. “It’s the context for this decision,” he says. “We’re talking about a historic district, and we’re trying to balance some guidelines we put in place and the obvious need for new housing.”
The council is set to vote on the amendment on April 4 unless they require further discussion.