PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Downtown residents are preparing to object to two proposals to build high-rise towers near the west bank of the Willamette River when the City Council considers updating the Center City Plan on Thursday.

Mayor Ted Wheeler already supports the larger of the two proposals, which would replace a failed health club and low-rise apartments in the RiverPlace development with eight new residential buildings, including one up to 400 feet high. He says downtown is the best place to increase residential density to accommodate newcomers, and notes the city now requires that all new residential buildings with more than 20 units to set a certain percent aside as affordable housing or pay a fee.

“Downtown is the most logical place to grow. All of the growth we can accommodate there is growth that doesn’t have to go into neighborhoods,” Wheeler says of the proposal, which is being pitched by NBP Capital, a local company with international connections.

On another downtown site, city planners are recommending increasing the allowable height at the west end of the Morrison Bridge from 75 to 250 feet, to encourage a long-stalled redevelopment project there. They say the increase is necessary for the completed project to generate enough revenue for the property owners to justify the cost of paying to reconfigure the existing ramps to and from the bridge. The site owners are Morrison Bridgehead LLC, which is associated with the Melvin Mark development company.

Walling off river?

But some downtown residents, including occupants of the existing residential towers in the South Auditorium District west of RiverPlace, says such buildings would violate existing city policies that require a “step down” in building heights near the river. The goal is to prevent the river and Tom McCall Waterfront Park from being walled off from the rest of downtown.

“This would forever change the face of the river. If the City Council approves it, other developers will seek the same thing,” says Phil Gilbertson, a South Auditorium District resident helping to organize a new group to speak on development issues in the area. Gilbertson, a retired California academic administrator, says about 100 people are participating in the South Downtown Neighborhood Development Coalition, including dozens who attended meetings to discuss the project last week.

Gilbertson insists those concerned about the proposed RiverPlace proposal are not anti-development. Many of them live in apartment buildings constructed as part of the city’s first downtown urban renewal project, after all. And they say the surrounding area still has many needs, such as a full-service grocery store.

“We know the area is underdeveloped and is going to grow over the next 20 years. But we also think the people who live here should have a say in it,” says Gilbertson, who is among those planning to testify at Thursday’s meeting.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz has already said she supports maintaining the step-down to the river, meaning the final decisions will be made by the remaining members of the council, commissioners Chloe Eudaly, Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman.

Revising central city plan

The proposed update is officially called Central City 2035, or CC2035 for short. It is intended to guide development in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods on both sides of the river for the next 20 or so years.

Many of its recommendations have broad public support, such as the concept of concentrating residential density increases along the Transit Mall downtown, which is served by TriMet buses, trains and the Portland Streetcar.

Another popular concept in CC2035 is creating a six-mile “Green Loop” for pedestrians and bicyclists that links residential, employment, retail and entertainment districts on both sides of the river.

Most of the proposed update has already been the subject of numerous public hearings. It was drafted by staff at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and heard by the appointed citizen panel that passes judgment on their recommendations, the Planning and Sustainability Commission. The commission’s version was then referred to the City Council, which held three hearings and three work sessions on it last year.

But some of what the council will consider on Jan. 18 is new. At the work sessions, the council approved dozens of amendments to the recommended update that are now subject to new hearings and votes. They include an amendment by Wheeler that would allow the project proposed for RiverPlace. The recommendation for the Morrison Bridgehead property was already included in the update.

Bypassing normal process

Prominent local developer John Russell accuses NBP Capital of bypassing the city’s complex and time- consuming planning process. Russell served for years on a committee that helped draft the Southwest Quadrant Plan that recommends adjustments in the area where the project is proposed. No one from the company approached the committee with it. Nor did the developer present its current proposal to the Planning and Sustainability Commission before it voted to recommend CC2035 to the council last year. The commission recommended increasing the maximum allowable height at RiverPlace from 75 to 250 feet, well below the tallest towers now proposed by the company.

Instead, the company circulated a professionally produced 22-page “Vision Booklet” for the project within City Hall after the planning commission vote and before the council began holding its hearings.

“That’s outrageous. That’s not how proper planning is supposed to work,” says Russell, whose company owns the 200 Market Building on the south side of downtown.

NBP Capital did not return calls for comment. The company was founded by a Portland brother and sister, Lauren Noecker Robert and Spencer Noecker, and is majority-owned by a New York-based investment firm for philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen.

The booklet shows the eight new residential buildings would replace the RiverPlace Athletic Club, the 296-unit Douglas Apartments and other buildings that are located at Southwest Montgomery Street and Southwest Harbor Drive between the Hawthorne and Morrison bridges. One of the new buildings would be 100 feet tall, another would be 150 feet tall, another would be 200 feet tall, two would be 250 feet tall, one would be 325 feet tall, and the final one would be 400 feet tall. As designed by the world- renowned firm of Kengo Kuma and Associates, the booklet shows them as stunning, futuristic glass towers.

The booklet says the eight buildings would add 2,617 housing units to downtown, and promises that “up to 500” of them will be affordable. The city’s inclusionary housing policy says that a household earning 80 percent of the area median income must be able to rent them for not more than 30 percent of their earnings.

Portlandmaps.com says NBP River Drive Investments LLC has owned three parcels in the area since 1994. Together, they are assessed at $86.8 million, with the land alone worth $47 million.

The proposed RiverPlace redevelopment is still largely conceptual. NBP Capital has not submitted any building plans to the city. The same is true of another potentially large development where buildings heights are proposed to be increased.

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry is working on a master plan for the 18 acres it owns on the east side of the Willamette River. Although no specific projects have yet been proposed, CC2035 recommends rezoning the property from industrial/employment to central employment and setting the maximum allowable building height at 250 feet.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner.