Want to take you higher: Portland's vanishing views

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) -- Fields Park sits along the edge of the Pearl District with a spectacular view of the Fremont Bridge. But a planned 17-story condo unit would block the river and bridge views.

"It's a beautiful view of the bridge," said Allan Classen, the publisher and editor of the NW Examiner. "This proposed building, 17 stories tall, will kind of take the heart out of the view."

Classen's paper has been sounding the alarm on Portland's vanishing views in "the Pearl District, where they keep getting taller buildings."

KOIN 6 News anchor Jeff Gianola and architecture journalist Brian Libby chatted in a Facebook Live discussion about Portland's growth.


Organized opposition to the project comes from nearby Pearl District condo owners. But it's not just the loss of private views. Classen said public views are vanishing.

"There are livability consequences. It affects the community, the value of the community for everybody."

Everywhere you look -- the Pearl District, the riverfront, neighborhoods -- Portland is growing higher. Decades-old height restrictions are being lifted, and Mayor Ted Wheeler said high buildings mean more housing.

"Naturally, there are going to be some tradeoffs," Wheeler said. "I some cases that means views that people enjoy today might be infringed upon but (it's) housing in the future."

Is going higher the solution to Portland's housing crunch?

"When people say we need more supply and there will be more affordable housing, it's not true," Commissioner Amanda Fritz said. "It's not a matter of supply-and-demand."

Fritz served as a planning commissioner and said those who really need housing can't afford to live in a high rise. City leaders, she said, need to stop and think.

"We just spent 4 years discussing the heights in (Portland's) central city, so to throw it all out at the last minute, like some people are asking us to, I think is short-sighted," she told KOIN 6 News.

Going higher reached record heights late last year, with a proposal for 2 soaring skyscrapers at the old main Post Office site. One building in the proposal would soar to 970 feet.

"I think architects knew there was no chance this was ever going to happen," said Brian Libby, who writes about architecture. "Arguing for a 900-foot building, there is a way for the city to accept the idea that a 500-foot (building) is OK."

Portland first became aware of vanishing views in 1972, with the construction of the 546-foot Wells Fargo Center -- which remains Portland's tallest. 

It was not a welcome addition to the skyline, Libby said, "because people saw that building going up and saw the heights it went to and said, 'We don't want that in our city.'"

The city imposed height restrictions that protect key views of Mount Hood, including the Vista Tunnel view corridor. But 10 years later, the city scrapped the protected view from the tunnel. And the new KOIN Tower ended up blocking that view of Mount Hood.

"The KOIN building is kind of a reminder we've had the same basic conversation maybe once in a decade or so," Libby said.

The latest fight

The latest height fight is happening along Portland's waterfront, though the push to go higher along the river began a decade ago at South Waterfront. For years, city planners mandated a step-down to the river. That is, buildings drop lower as they approach the river in order to guarantee all citizens unobstructed public views of the Willamette.

But river views are in danger of vanishing. The city is considering raising building heights dramatically at the major downtown. Currently the height is capped at 75 feet. The proposal is for a 250-foot limit at the Morrison Bridge to 325 feet at the Hawthorne.

"We've got this beautiful river in the middle of our city that we've spent over $1 billion cleaning up. We need to celebrate that. We need to step down to the river," Fritz said. 

She acknowledged that many of the buildings are beautiful.

"But the expectation was going to be that we would have these wide-view corridors (from the South Waterfront) where you were going to be able to see Mount Hood, able to see Mount St. Helens," she said, "and it hasn't turned out that way."

The ambitious new proposal along the waterfront immediately south of the Hawthorne Bridge is to tear down a huge section of Riverplace -- including more than 250 apartments -- and in its place build 8 residential towers soaring from 100 to 400 feet high.

It's not just about blocking river views on the west side of the Willamette. One building on the east side has become a target of controversy -- The Yard.

Libby said one time he was crossing the Burnside Bridge and he thought the drawbridge was up. 

"And I realized it was just that building, so big and black. People aren't used to it," he said. "A building like The Yard seems to be a lightning rod for how old Portland is disappearing, and how yuppies and millennials are moving in. And they don't care about our traditions, and they just want to build a really tall skyscraper city. So Yard is kind of a manifestation of our fears, I think."

Randy Gragg, the former architecture critic for The Oregonian, believes we can have taller buildings as long as we protect the established view corridors. He supports a new proposal: The Salmon Springs View Corridor, a view from the fountain looking west across the river, protecting the views of Mount Hood from future eastside high rises.

"That's a public view," Gragg said. "That isn't somebody buying a million-dollar condo to get a view of the mountains. ... It's important for a city to have a relationship to its landscape, particularly the kind of landscape we have."

But can Portland continue to grow without sacrificing the very things we love about this city?

"Even architects in Portland have often said that the icon of our skyline is Mount Hood, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t add hundreds of thousands of people and not sprawl out at the edges and not get taller," Libby said. "With popularity comes a loss of innocence and some difficult questions."

 


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