The South Waterfront, with three 325-foot-tall buildings, is the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s model for the North Pearl. Photo by Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard

The South Waterfront, with three 325-foot-tall buildings, is the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s model for the North Pearl. Photo by Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard

Portland planners promote taller buildings as the antidote to urban sprawl, but high-rises also undermine livability. 
Lennard-venice-6-13 Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard
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New development in the Pearl, Goose Hollow and West End is increasingly trending towards high-rise apartments and condos. While many residents want increased density in these downtown neighborhoods, they are concerned about the effects of new tall towers on livability. Yet the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability seems intent on facilitating skyscraper development in these areas, as they have in the South Waterfront.

Over the last year, BPS has been presenting drafts of the West Quadrant Plan to the Stakeholders Advisory Committee. The issue that has raised the greatest discussion, particularly from members of the public, has been building heights.

High-rises around corner

• The PNCA building on Northwest 12th Avenue in the Pearl will be removed to make way for a 15-story apartment building and a separate office building.

• Block 17, immediately west of The Fields park, currently in construction, will consist of a 16-story, 178-foot slab block with 281 apartments, plus a five-story building.

• Nearby, The Overton, with 285 apartments, will be 26 stories high.

• Between Tanner Springs Park and The Fields, Block 15, a 28-story, 340-foot glass tower with 168 luxury condos, will cast its shadow over the recently completed children’s playground. This will be the tallest housing project in the Pearl—for now.

In the Pearl south of Lovejoy, the most recent version of the plan proposes permitting buildings up to 175 feet south of Hoyt (i.e. 15 stories), and 150 feet between Hoyt and Lovejoy. North of Lovejoy, development may be of unlimited height—in other words, higher than the Wells Fargo Center.

On the south side of West Burnside, between I-405 and Southwest 18th Avenue, the plan proposes heights of 225 to 325 feet, which is the height of the three tallest buildings in the South Waterfront and taller than the Indigo, which is only 266 feet. South of Burnside in the historic West End, heights of 325 and 460 feet are proposed. If buildings this tall are constructed, they will cast long shadows across Burnside.

Along the river north of Naito Parkway between the Broadway and Fremont bridges, height limits will be increased from 100 feet to 175 feet.

Pressure to go high

The construction industry is a powerful engine for fueling economic development. Tall buildings offer increased profits for developers. However, the higher a building rises, the more expensive is the construction. Thus, the tallest buildings tend to be luxury units, often for global investors. Tall buildings inflate the price of adjacent land, thus making the protection of historic buildings and affordable housing less achievable. In this way, they increase inequality. As Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and French economist Thomas Piketty have documented, trickle down economics definitely do not work.

Luxury high-rise condos are sought by the global “1 percent” as places to park their fortunes; virtual safe deposit boxes in the sky. This form of investment leads to speculation. Placing economic gains above livability also leads to housing bubbles. Wherever housing is treated primarily as an investment, as in China and London, the bubbles created eventually burst. This is happening today in China, and the effects will likely be felt around the world.

These global investors rarely visit their condos, reducing the local population actually living in the area. This jeopardizes the economic viability of grocery stores and other businesses dependent on a local residential population, further risking a neighborhood’s livability.

It is true our society must reduce dependence on the automobile associated with suburban sprawl, but that does not mean we must build as high as possible. Indeed, high-rise development is a form of “vertical sprawl,” as Patrick Condon, professor of urban design at the University of British Columbia, has termed it. Even BPS’s own publication, “Central Portland Plan: Urban Design Assessment” (2008) reported: “A recent study affirms that Portland does not need height to compensate for any foreseeable shortage of development capacity.” There are other more human-scale livable ways to increase density without creating more horizontal sprawl beyond our Urban Growth Boundary.

A high density of 120 units per acre (a 200×200’ Portland block is about one acre) does not require a tower; it can also be achieved by a human-scale, five- to eight-story, stepped back, mixed-use building around an interior garden courtyard, a plan similar to Tanner Place in the Pearl.

At the recent International Making Cities Livable Conference in Portland, Professor Condon summarized the issue thus: the “pointy” city of high-rise towers (like Vancouver, B.C.) is more expensive, less energy efficient and increases social isolation and inequality compared to the “flat” city, meaning a more continuous human-scale city of compact, mixed-use buildings up to eight stories.

The human scale and hospitable sidewalks of this Northwest 12th Avenue scene in the Pearl contrasts with the impersonal street life around high-rises. Photo by Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard

The human scale and hospitable sidewalks of this Northwest 12th Avenue scene in the Pearl contrasts with the impersonal street life around high-rises. Photo by Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard

Effects on health

Concerns about the effects of high-rise development are shared by public health professionals. In a letter to the BPS and West Quadrant SAC, Ben Duncan, chief diversity and equity officer, and Becky Bodonyi with Community Wellness & Prevention at Multnomah County Health Department, said: “Dense, high-rise living may have an adverse impact on health. Tall buildings may also decrease a community’s livability and street-level comfort (e.g., fewer ‘eyes-on-the-street,’ temperature changes and increased wind activity).”

Humans are social. Social isolation is one of the worst forms of punishment humans have devised. Companionship and frequent face-to-face interaction with a wide circle of familiars and people who share interests are key to a healthy life. Quality of life deteriorates as social interactions become less frequent and less meaningful.

Ethicists such as Martin Buber and many sociologists, beginning with Max Weber, study how the quality and quantity of social interaction and sense of belonging influence physical and mental health. They have identified what they call the “social immune system.” They find that people with strong social networks and daily involvement in face-to-face interaction don’t become sick as often. If they do get sick, they heal faster, and they live longer than those without a strong social network.

Living on the 20th floor can be exciting for young professionals: separation from the life of the street may provide respite from an abundantly social lifestyle, and a distant view may be calming after the stress of work. But Gary Evans, professor of environmental and developmental psychology at Cornell University, who reviewed all the research relating to housing and mental health, observed, “In general, people living in high-rises seem to have more mental health problems than those living in low-rises or houses.” Evans suggests, “Adverse impacts of high-rise dwellings may be due to social isolation.”

Solitary elders often do not fare well in the upper floors of a high-rise. They may spend much of the day alone at home, and they cannot even see human beings from their window. Research shows that lack of social contact can lead to depression, malnourishment, physical ill health and dependence on alcohol or medications, and elders are especially at risk.

Numerous studies show that young children and stay-at-home parents also tend to fare poorly in high-rise housing. At every age, children need increasingly more independence, to explore their surroundings and gain mastery over their environment. As Evans summarizes the literature, “Overall, these studies suggest more behavioral problems and restricted play opportunities among high-rise-dwelling children.”

Environmental impact

High-rise buildings are not more ecological, as some believe. Both high-rise buildings and single-family homes consume far more energy than low- to mid-rise connected buildings because there is so much more of the outer surface of the building exposed to the sun and wind. As Condon states in his book, “Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities,” “On average, towers consume 50 percent more energy per habitable square foot of floor space than do mid-rise structures.”

Moreover, high-rise buildings are constructed with materials (steel and glass) that require more energy in their manufacture. Glass-walled skyscrapers require air conditioning because of their immense heat gain, especially on east and west walls. This is true even if the glass is reflective. As we know from London’s infamous “Walkie Talkie Scorcher” building that melted a Jaguar, reflective glass can create other problems at street level. The “greenest” building is the older mid-rise building readapted and reused for modern times.

Street environment

Portland’s renowned livability is intimately connected to its human scale that makes the public realm hospitable. On a bright, sunny, walkable neighborhood street, we are inclined to linger, to watch children play, to stop at a sidewalk café. We see and greet neighbors, and gradually recognize familiars. Thus, streets play an essential role in fostering a healthy “social immune system.”

Characteristics of a hospitable urban street include a continuous, active and open street-level façade with cafés and shops that serve the neighborhood; human-scale buildings (up to six stories) with residential windows and balconies offering “eyes on the street” and identifiable faces; calmed traffic (or traffic-free streets); wide sidewalks, trees and benches; and room-like proportions, with building heights no greater than the street width. Sunlight on the sidewalk makes outdoor dining and social interaction more appealing throughout the year.

High-rise buildings diminish the hospitality of the street in several ways. They throw three surrounding streets into shadow for a substantial part of the day. They darken the street by blocking out a view of the sky, and if they are on both sides of a street, they create a canyon making the street noticeably darker, colder and windier. Tall
buildings catch strong winds that  pass over the tops of lower buildings and pull the downdraft onto the street. It may be a primeval instinct, but humans do not feel comfortable lingering in narrow, deep, dark canyons.

More vertical sprawl?

The West Quadrant SAC, whose membership has been heavily weighted towards economic interests rather than resident concerns, has rubber stamped the BPS Plan (see portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/496551) to encourage high-rise development. A Minority Report on building heights, spearheaded by the Northwest District Association’s representative, Steve Pinger, is sounding a more cautious approach.

On Aug. 12, the Planning and Sustainability Commission will be briefed on the Draft West Quadrant Plan Report (and the Minority Report), and on Sept. 9, the commission will hold their hearing. After that, the reports will go to Mayor Hales and the City Commission, to be reviewed at a council meeting in September.

All meetings permit public comment. A broader, more public debate in the media is also possible.  All those concerned about tall buildings should advocate at these meetings or write letters/emails prior to the meeting. Email addresses are available on the city’s websites.■

Suzanne Lennard is co-founder and director of the International Making Cities Livable Conference and author of several books. She lives in the Pearl.