The lone citizen taking a stand against a proposed development “in his backyard” may be an American icon.
In the dense urban core of Portland, few lone wolves achieve their aims. They may write letters, testify at hearings, get on the news—even hire a lawyer—but the weight of public policy, zoning codes, bureaucracy and politicians aligned in favor of development prevails in the end.
Without the backing of even their own neighborhood associations, they are often brushed off by City Hall as NIMBYs not representing the will of the community.
John Hollister, who lives in a condominium next to the proposed seven-story Pearl East at Northwest 13th and Glisan streets, was given all the usual warnings about the futility of his mission. He couldn’t even get to first base with the Pearl District Neighborhood Association, which informally supported of the 96-foot-tall building before Hollister had a chance to present his concerns.
But Hollister, a former high-tech and banking professional, was undeterred, attending all the city design review hearings on the project, reading technical documents and engaging with city planners to better understand the rules.
At a preapplication conference in 2015, the Bureau of Development Services informed the developer of a 75-foot height limit in the NW 13th Avenue Historic District.
In an April 2016 Design Advice Review session, Hollister learned that the height limit would instead be 100 feet. Because Hollister came to the meeting unprepared for the revelation and unready to speak, the Design Commission told him he could comment at later hearings.
But at a formal design review hearing last November, when he presented his arguments, he was told the commission had already decided 100 feet was permissible at the prior meeting.
At the final design review hearing in February, Hollister presented more refined evidence, only to hear that it was too late for the commission to reconsider its position.
Despite a dizzying process in which there apparently never was a right time to be heard, Hollister remains unfazed. He has one more chance to make his point, and he is ready.
The final shot is costing him $5,000, the fee for an appeal to City Council, which has scheduled a hearing Wednesday, June 14, at 2 p.m.
Hollister doesn’t come across as bitter or desperate. In fact, he says he’s having the time of his life. He’s made friends and allies digging into raw data, customs and history, learning the intricacies of local land-use administration and testing his ideas on any who will listen. A broad smile and an eagerness to learn are among his best weapons.
He’s also begun reading Jane Jacobs, the author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961), who revolutionized urban planning.
The issue boils down to height. Pearl East was approved at 96 feet, just under the 100-foot limit. But new construction in the NW 13th Avenue Historic District must also satisfy the subjective assessment that it is compatible with existing structures. The Portland Landmarks Commission concluded that it is.
The commission, however, used faulty data. It relied on numbers supplied by BDS staff indicating that two existing buildings, Irving Street Lofts and Wieden+Kennedy, were far taller than they really are. The five-story Wieden+Kennedy building was listed as 122 feet though it is only 58 feet according to highrises.com. The seven-story Irving Street Lofts is 89 feet tall according to both highrises.com and portandmaps.com, but was mistakenly described as 120 feet.
In addition to reprinting these two mislabeled sites, Pearl East’s developer included a taller building just outside the district to claim the new structure would be only the fourth tallest in the historic district. That gave the Landmarks Commission cover to treat the new project as merely among the tallest structures along 13th Avenue instead of the very tallest. The applicant also described the building as six stories plus a penthouse invisible from the sidewalk below.
To illustrate the array of numbers, Hollister generated a bar graph showing the height of all 21 buildings in the 13th Avenue Historic District. Two-thirds are no more than 50 feet tall. Only two go above 75 feet. Pearl East would be the tallest by a 7-foot margin.
Why all the fuss about a few extra feet? The usual reason residents fight tall buildings is that they block views. Hollister said that is not his motivation. He assumed a building would one day go up on the parking lot just south of his second-floor condo in the Confectionary Lofts. Any building, whether three, four, five or six levels, would block his southern view.
The bigger problem with allowing substantially greater building heights in a historic district is creating market pressures that encourage demolitions. If a one-story structure can be replaced by a tower, property owners may realize a huge gain in value. If, on the other hand, a new building were limited to four or five floors, the payoff may not justify the destruction of a viable existing structure.
“The greater the financial incentive to demolish, the higher likelihood it will happen,” Hollister said. “The entire historic district is vulnerable if new buildings this tall are OK.”
This logic is embedded in the city’s land-use policies and has been regularly supported by the Pearl District Neighborhood Association, which has consistently advocated for protecting the historic district. It has also strived to save smaller “character” buildings spread throughout the neighborhood by promoting the sale of “air rights” so taller structures can never replace them.
Follow the money
Hollister’s initial anxiety about a single building looming on his horizon sent him on a search for reasons. It didn’t feel like he was in a fair fight, and he wanted to know why.
The 100-foot height limit had also bothered the Portland Landmarks Commission, which recommended last year that maximum heights in the historic district be lowered to 75 feet.
But PDNA President Patricia Gardner, testifying at a work session on the Central City 2035 plan, spoke for keeping the cap at 100 feet south of Hoyt Street. Al Solheim, owner of four major buildings on 13th Avenue, also wanted a 100-foot limit south of Hoyt.
Why was Hollister’s own neighborhood association, which until that time he was scarcely aware of, taking the opposite side on this issue?
Gardner, an architect with commissions in the Pearl District (though she says none from Solheim in the last six years), is an unabashed evangelist for greater density and taller buildings.
“We are pro development,” she said earlier this year. “I can count on my hands the number of times we say no [to a development proposal].”
Gardner chairs the PDNA Planning and Transportation Committee while simultaneously serving as president of its board of directors, giving her control of the organization’s two most powerful bodies. Actions of the planning committee are supposed to be reviewed by the board at the earliest opportunity, but that step is frequently omitted in practice.
There is no record of PDNA approving the height limit recommendation offered by Gardner or that the committee or board even discussed the details she brought forward in testimony to the city last fall.
When asked by the NW Examiner to explain, she emphasized her opposition to bonus height provisions and noted that 100 feet was not a change from existing code. While those statements are true, they do not surmount the obligation to have PDNA authorization for public statements and policy recommendations.
If her testimony was not rooted in the neighborhood association she spoke for, what was her guide?
Hollister believes Gardner’s profession and association with development create potential conflicts of interest, or at least that appearance.
PDNA’s bylaws contain conflict of interest procedures that include annual acknowledgment of principles in statements signed by each board member. Board members are also required to disclose their personal and professional interests and leave the room when topics touching on those interests are discussed.
In the four years since their adoption, however, there is no evidence that signed statements have been collected, and no one has declared a conflict and left the room.
In her defense, Gardner told the Examiner, “I signed the COI the last time the board signed it. It is on our to-do list for the current board.”
As for the absence of board review of a letter she wrote in support of Pearl East, she said, “I will look into the March meeting minutes. I will also talk to the executive committee to institute a more clear method of reporting moving forward.”
Hollister presented his case on Pearl East to the PDNA Planning Committee Feb. 21, but failed to get even one vote of support. Gardner’s letter of support for the project to the Design Commission did not mention concerns about building height.
Hollister took his presentation to another body, the Historic Resources Committee of the Portland American Institute of Architects chapter. That committee, chaired by Peter Meijer, did not reverse its earlier support for Pearl East at seven stories.
Meijer found Hollister’s report of procedural miscues by the city and Landmarks Commission disturbing, though he had not independently verified the facts.
Meijer says Hollister is onto something when he argues that allowing taller buildings in the historic district may lead to the demolition of shorter ones.
“That is a salient point, and his information and detail on it is of importance and should be heard by the City Council,” Meijer told the Examiner.
That’s as close to a victory as Hollister has come in his long campaign.
If it helps strengthen his case before City Council this month, he’ll be satisfied. n