Portland is growing up.

The blueprint for the next 20 years of development on the city’s westside is almost ready for prime time.

On Wednesday, the City Council held a more than four hour public hearing on planning proposals that could be coming to the downtown core.

Background: In 2012, The Oregonian’s Anna Griffin had a three-part series ahead of the Central City 2035 process (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

The planning process is winding to a close after more than two years of work. Nearly 70 people testified to talk about the West Quadrant component of the city’s Central City 2035 plan. The West Quadrant is Portland’s downtown, South Waterfront, Pearl District, Goose Hollow and everything in between (see map below).

The City Council didn’t approve the plan on Wednesday – they plan to take up the issue again in a few weeks. More changes could be in the works.

Public comment is still open on the 238-page proposal. Here’s a flavor of some of the big takeaways:

Tall buildings

As Portland grows, the city’s skyline will inevitably grow, too, as new buildings pop up. Where that growth occurs, and how high buildings can go, is a matter of some controversy. According to city planners, the best places to go continue to be along the transit mall (the entirety of 5th and 6th Avenues) and in the North Pearl. How tall are we talking about? In some areas, zoning could allow for 40-plus story buildings (with added height bonuses for including affordable housing or other incentives). Some of the more controversial height adjustments call for 325-foot buildings in areas of Old Town Chinatown on specific blocks. A vocal cohort of people at Wednesday’s public hearing urged the city to reduce building heights for the West End to 100 feet, despite previous plans already approving the current height limits. The consensus from those speakers: Portland will lose its livability and potentially historic buildings in the process. On Thursday, Portland’s chief planner on the project, Karl Lisle, weighed in. “The proposed height map in the plan is not final and will be adjusted as we move into code writing work….we know that the map will change significantly in specific areas in order to protect important public views. Those views are being inventoried and evaluated now through a separate parallel process (Scenic Resources Inventory). So as we move toward an actual zoning code height map, you’ll begin to see a lot more detail and heights will be reduced in many areas to reflect those views.”

 

Cap I-405

Interstate-405 carves through downtown Portland. It’s an eyesore, adds to pollution downtown, and it creates a physical barrier for neighborhoods west of the freeway. In a plan that is sprinkled with potential projects that are admittedly aspirational, capping I-405 is a hefty notion. Eventually, capping the freeway may make sense for developers, as land values and potential project sites evaporate downtown. “Potential capping areas identified in the plan include a stretch of freeway directly south of South Downtown/University as well as several stretches between the West End and Goose Hollow.”

Bridgeheads

The eastside is already moving forward with the Burnside bridgehead projects, and more intense development could be coming to the westside, too. An interesting wrinkle in the plan would increase building heights at the Morrison and Hawthorne bridgeheads. That is contrary to typical Portland policy of “stepping down to the river.” But conditions on the ground are already changing. Multnomah County announced that it would build its new courthouse at the bridgehead to the Hawthorne Bridge. The James Beard Public Market is expected to be built on the west end of the Morrison Bridge, and conversation is beginning to explore removing the off-ramps on that bridge to encourage development on what would otherwise be awkward to utilize parcels. Katherine Schultz, vice chair of the Planning and Sustainability Commission, said Wednesday that taller buildings increase the flexibility for development on those sites. Schultz added that having people live on the water front will bring “24/7 activation.”

Housing

One of the hallmarks of the West Quadrant Plan is a simple reality: more people will live downtown. The housing will likely be concentrated in the Pearl District and South Waterfront, where the city expects 5,000 and 4,500 new housing units respectively. That accounts for nearly half of the roughly 23,000 housing units city leaders project in downtown in the next 20 years. The plan calls for 30 percent of the housing provided be affordable to households that earn between 0 and 80 percent of the median family income (roughly $55,000 for a family of four). Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the Housing Bureau, said the city doesn’t have the money to meet those goals.

Jobs

Portland’s downtown area is already one of the economic engines of the state, but that’s expected to only increase in the coming years. Planners expect another 30,000 jobs to be created in the West Quadrant during the next 20 years, with some 10,000 projected to occur in the South Waterfront.

Willamette River/Environment

Portland’s relationship with the Willamette River is complex. For years the river was treated as an after thought, but that’s already beginning to change. The Big Pipe made the river safer than it’d been in decades, increasing recreational opportunities. Events like the Big Float, held during the summer, show the potential love affair with the river. The West Quadrant Plan calls for increasing opportunities to get into the river. There are big dreams of a ferry system, step-downs to the river throughout downtown, and a hard look at removing sections of the seawall on Waterfront Park. Environmentalists and conservationists see some bright spots but areas of concern, too. They’d like to see more areas of river restored for salmon habitat, bolder programs to expand on green infrastructure and an acknowledgement of the light pollution issues in downtown.

The Park Blocks

The West Quadrant plan includes a potential 10 mile “Green Loop” for walking and bicycling throughout the downtown area. The Green Loop would be “a smooth signature 10-mile walking and biking parkway” that could be easy to get to and connect jobs, neighborhoods and institutions downtown.

Broadway and Burnside

What’s the first thought that pops into your mind when the words “Broadway and Burnside?” To hazard a guess, it’s not “civic place.” Portland planners think this area of downtown is a potentially hidden gem. The Burnside corridor has historically been identified as having a large number of crashes and fatalities,” according to the planning documents. Planners say this intersection could be “Portland’s Times Square.”

Naito Parkway

Naito Parkway is a vital connection in downtown Portland, connecting commuters to Willamette River Bridges and freeways. It’s also a hub of activity for major events like the Race for the Cure, Portland Marathon and other big races. But there aren’t a lot of people living on Naito. City planners want to see that change, and have downtown embrace the river.

Southwest Jefferson

Southwest Jefferson street runs from Naito Parkway all the way into Goose Hollow. West of I-405, though, the street has loads of untapped potential. The goal is to “create a vibrant neighborhood main street environment with pedestrian-friendly, green street design and contiguous neighborhood retail.” Jefferson should be strengthened to become the heart of that are of Goose Hollow, planners say. That could include a “reconfigured open space” at Collins Circle.

— Andrew Theen
[email protected]
503-294-4026
@cityhallwatch

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