Why was the issue all about protecting views of the Fremont Bridge … until it was not?

Why was the issue all about protecting views of the Fremont Bridge … until it was not?

Allan Classen
Editor & Publisher

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Why was the issue all about protecting views
of the Fremont Bridge … until it was not?

 

It was all about protecting views.

It had nothing to do with views.

Perhaps it takes a broader perspective to unwind the contradictions.

Portland City Council upheld the appeal of the Pearl District Neighborhood Association against a view-obstructing 17-story apartment building last month.

But in so doing, council members emphasized that view protection was not the reason for rejecting the proposed design, which they did unanimously.

“At the outset, I want to be clear that I don’t consider the view from The Fields park to be at all germane to this discussion,” City Commissioner Amanda Fritz said at the March 7 council meeting. “There isn’t a scenic or a view corridor from the park, nor is there an amendment on that in the Central City 2035 Plan.

“If there is anybody here who believes that there will be protected views from the park,” Mayor Ted Wheeler added, “I want to quickly dispel people from that belief.”

So why did so many neighbors, news departments and the public dwell on losing sight of the iconic Fremont Bridge?

Perhaps because that’s the direction the developer, Lincoln Property Group of Dallas,Texas, drew their attention. The project architect who negotiated with the Pearl District Neighborhood Association, Tim Wybenga of TVA Architects, continually reminded neighborhood representatives that, despite the absence of any legal requirement to do so, the developer was sensitive to public concerns and was doing all it could to make the building as unobtrusive as possible.

To accomplish that, Wybenga advised the association to accept code modifications allowing the structure to expand in other directions. The application exceeded limits for building width, infringed on open space requirements, overrode normal stepbacks for upper floors and reduced the width of the greenway corridor along the Willamette River. In all, the developer sought seven code modifications, all aimed at achieving greater building volume.

“I’ve had my views taken away and I know how that feels,” Wybenga told the PDNA land-use committee in December. “Your concerns are not being ignored. I just want you to know that we’re listening.”
Wybenga said “preserving as much of the view as possible” was the thrust of the modifications and the reason for the building’s L-shape, which presented a narrower profile from the park.

Through all but the last of four PDNA meetings Wybenga attended last year, the committee was on board with the tradeoffs, believing the accommodations made the design more appealing and respectful of the bridge view. That consensus ruptured in December, however, when Pearl residents, aghast that the organization that was supposed to be representing them seemed to be taking the other side, jammed association meetings.

Simultaneously, the Portland Design Commission was reviewing the project, and it too had misgivings about the extent of code modifications sought. Although the commission ultimately supported the project 3-1, the lone opponent was its chair, Julie Livingston, who made the case that the proposal failed, not due to view obstruction but because it pushed out in too many directions and failed to achieve a coherent whole.

Fremont Place Apartments stretched allowable size limits in several directions, more having to do with width than height.

Fremont Place Apartments stretched allowable size limits in several directions, more having to do with width than height.

That was also the direction taken by Commissioner Fritz, whose analysis formed the backbone of the council’s decision.

“What matters is the greenway,” she said, referring to the bike and pedestrian pathway that failed to meet the 25-foot required width.

“To have a greenway that’s 13 feet … at the pinch point, does not celebrate the river, and it does not … contribute to the interest and activity that focuses on the Willamette.”

Fritz was also confounded that the Design Commission granted an extra 10 feet of height for rooftop mechanical systems in addition to a 75-foot bonus above the 100-foot limit in the base zone.

The public plaza north of the building would be 84 -percent shaded at noon on a mid-length day, exceeding the code limit of 50 percent. While city staff and the PDNA had not worried about that discrepancy, Fritz said it was a clear example of sacrificing the public benefit for the private gain of the developer.

The developer claimed the Willamette River sufficed as the required water feature and that park benches qualified as public art. Fritz didn’t buy either assertion.

Commissioner Nick Fish, who admitted he had been on the fence, praised Fritz for making it “clear that there are a host of approval criteria that have not been met. There is no single factor. But in the totality it does not rise to the level of meeting our standards.”

Upon hearing that Fish would support the appeal, Lincoln Property’s attorney asked if it could substitute an alternative plan moving the building farther from the greenway.

Wheeler was willing to hear more about the eleventh-hour offer, but the other commissioners wanted to move ahead with the vote, which came out 5-0 in favor of the appeal.

In casting his vote, Wheeler said, “because this is an iconic location and because this building will set the standard for that location, I want us to set that standard very high.”

Willamette Week reported later that it was the first time in 12 years that the council had overturned a decision of the Design Commission.

Council reverses

Second readings of City Council decisions are usually pro forma affairs; a step to adopt final language for actions approved earlier.

However, on April 4, the council reversed its unanimous rejection of the Fremont Place Apartments in March and established a timetable for considering a revised design. Lincoln Property Group will have an opportunity to address shortcomings in its original design without starting over with a new application.

Mayor Ted Wheeler led the change of direction, picking up votes from commissioners Nick Fish and Chloe Eudaly to pass a reconsideration motion 3-2.

Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman voted against reconsideration.

Wheeler, who said encroachment on the greenway was his main concern, suggested that reducing the building’s width might satisfy him.

On the other hand, Fritz said the proposal needs several significant changes that should be evaluated in a new application. “The process is completely blown apart,” making it difficult for developers or the public to rely on council actions in the future, she said.

Wheeler admitted that having the council oversee details of design is “loathsome,” but nevertheless wanted to see if a compromise could be reached.

A council hearing will be held on Thursday, May 10, 2 p.m., on a revised design. The following week, the council will vote on the new version.

Although Pearl District Neighborhood Association President Stan Penkin said that while the redesign may be an improvement, “the council may have opened a can of worms for themselves” with its unprecedented dive into architectural review.

While there was discussion within the association that a taller, more slender tower could preserve more of the bridge view while maintaining the greenway and providing affordable housing, those compromises may not be possible without filing a new application under the updated comprehensive plan.