Portland’s affordability mandate saved its latest skyscraper proposal

Portland’s council just showed why inclusionary housing can lead to more homes if done right.

by Michael Andersen | March 28, 2018

A rendering of a conceptual project legalized by city council last week on the south edge of downtown. Images: GBD Architects and Kengo Kuma and Associates.

Portland’s new affordable-housing mandate includes a lot of details worth debating, and Portlanders certainly are.

But last week, the city council gave Portlanders a powerful illustration of why inclusionary housing matters: when you require 10 to 20 percent of homes in any new project to be below market rate, that makes every new housing project something to get excited about.

In an unusual move, the council reversed its March 7 vote against raising height limits in downtown, west of the Willamette and north of the Ross Island Bridge. The swing vote: Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who won in 2016 on a housing affordability platform. Her switch from “no” to “yes” changed the vote from a 2–2 deadlock to a 3–1 pro-housing majority. Buildings in the RiverPlace area won’t be allowed to be larger in total floor area, but they can now go as high as 325 feet.

Last week’s vote clears the way for a conceptual building design, prepared by architect Kengo Kuma, to begin potential development. The concept imagines adding 2,500 new homes, 250 to 500 of them below market rate, to Portland’s riverfront on the south side of downtown.

Arguing against taller buildings in this case: people who live in the area whose views might be affected, and also Commissioner Amanda Fritz.

(Though some issues are similar, this vote is different from the council’s other March 7 decision, in which commissioners unanimously blocked another apartment tower proposed for the Pearl District.)

But last week’s vote is relevant not only for what happened, but for why it happened.

Image: City of Portland via YouTube. Eudaly’s statement and the council’s vote is viewable here.

For housing advocates who may have been startled by the Commissioner’s earlier vote against taller buildings, her statement Thursday is worth quoting.

My original intent had been to vote yes on this amendment. … It’s rare that I feel unprepared on the dais, due to the great work of my office and city staff, but this was one of those days. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know, and I’m not embarrassed to admit when I need more time and information to make an informed decision. …

The drawing from famed Japanese architect Kengo Kuma is not a proposal; it’s a concept. A concept that is very unlikely to ever be realized. What it does do is reveal the potential of the Riverplace site, and that is what today’s vote is really about — increasing the potential of the site. The potential of raising the heights would include (but are not limited to and do not guarantee) a more significant architectural work; a greater likelihood that the site will be fully developed, which it is not currently, creating much-needed density in the central city; the possibility of the better sight lines that taller, slimmer buildings provide; and more variety and liveliness on our waterfront.

As commissioners we’re charged with looking out for the best interests of our city and its residents. Cautionary tales abound in our cityscape that lead me to be skeptical of promises made by private developers. I needed to be assured that we stood to gain as much as we were giving on this site. …

Initially, the voices I heard were overwhelmingly in opposition of this amendment. Since my vote, I’ve heard from many more constituents who support it. I’ve also had a deeper briefing on the site with BPS, and talked with my colleagues as well as experts from the field. So today I move to reconsider council’s March 7 vote.

Eudaly is making several nuanced points here, but here’s one thing worth noting: She changed her vote in part because she heard from lots of Portlanders upset that the concept had been rejected.

In other words, politics works. And the below-market-rate units proposed here were part of those politics.

To be sure, even if all 2,500 homes here did get built and ended up housing only well-off Portlanders, that’d still be good for housing affordability citywide. Those 2,500 well-off households would wind up living in these towers instead of competing with everyone else for the rest of Portland’s homes.

But wouldn’t that new community of 2,500 households be significantly better for everyone if it were income-integrated?

Yes, I’m going to say it would.

This is a vision that Portlanders don’t merely accept but get excited about. When Portlanders get excited, they take action. Last week, their actions helped lead to thousands of potential new income-integrated homes.

As Eudaly pointed out, the Kengo Kuma concept “is very unlikely to ever be realized.” So Portlanders shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that this vote means the city’s inclusionary housing policy is currently perfectly balanced. That’s an issue worth debating with spreadsheets.

But is the inclusionary housing policy working to build a pro-housing coalition?

Yes, it just did — and in a way no spreadsheet could ever capture.

Portland for Everyone supports abundant, diverse, affordable housing. This is a reported blog about how to get more of those things. You can follow it on Twitter and Facebook or get new posts by email a few times each month.

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