From Planetizen:


A few weeks ago, Portland residents got some unsurprising news: the city’s housing prices are officially rising faster than anywhere else in the nation. …

Increasing numbers of residents are clearly upset at a wave of historic property demolitions, making way for ungainly ’50s-style white boxes and uber-trendy, in-your-face “space invaders”—or outsized, alien-looking new buildings. Human-scale places are being crowded out by new tall buildings, and luxury condos like the new Park West tower are casting unwelcome shadows over Pioneer Square and other civic spaces. …


Today the emphasis is still on mixed use and streetcars, but thanks to global architectural fashions, the anywhere-Modernism has come back—artsy (some would say cynical) designer packaging for a free-wheeling style of outscale real estate development. In the city’s new Central City 2035 plan, it’s easy to find generous deregulations for developers, but difficult to find any meaningful heritage protection. …

Nowhere is this cultural amnesia more apparent than in the city core, where planning officials seem determined to create a pale imitation of Vancouver, British Columbia. That Canadian city has done an admirable job of partially mitigating the wave of global capital that washed over its shores, fueling a tall-building boom. But Vancouver has also seen many problems and controversies, and confronted lessons that Portland would do well to study more carefully.

Moreover, Vancouver has several crucial (if too easily overlooked) differences from Portland. Its large blocks allow point towers (slender towers in the middle of the block) with minimized impact on the streets, whereas Portland’s small blocks result in massive volumes at the street and dark, dead spaces (like Burnside below US Bancorp Tower, one of the most notably dead Modernist places in the city).

Why is the city government so intent on the tall-building model? After all, the contribution to regional density of marginally more, and marginally taller, buildings in the city’s small core will be modest at best – less than 1 percent of the region’s population in the next 20 years, by some counts. There are far more units to be gained regionwide outside the core—especially in the empty parking lots and declining commercial zones of the periphery, where density is lowest. A polycentric model could offer existing residents the amenities of new walkable mixed-use nodes, while keeping their preferred homes and ways of life relatively unaffected.

Instead, the city is piling on within already relatively dense core districts, where the market offers low-hanging fruit—and the most potential to do damage, without careful controls. But such controls are in scarce supply. Instead city planners seem to have developed an “irrational exuberance” for the symbolism of tall buildings, combined with some oddly magical thinking about the miraculous trickle-down powers of tall buildings.

Some of that magical thinking lays at the feet of neo-liberal economist Ed Glaeser, who has famously challenged Jane Jacobs’ model of urban diversity in strategically curated populations, incomes, and—crucially in this case—building ages and conditions. For Glaeser, by contrast, the simplistic answer to a housing shortage is increased supply, delivered in the form of tall buildings in the city center. Following Glaeser’s model, what Portland ought to do is to double down, and build much taller buildings right in the core. That will bring down prices.

Nonsense, says Peter Elmlund, an economist at Stockholm’s Ax:son Johnson Foundation. Elmlund rebuts Glaeser on several grounds. One, real estate is not an inter-changeable commodity independent of geography; in fact, the “commodity” is not the housing unit at all, but the place—the location in relation to the network of other places around it. Sometimes, adding certain kinds of housing units (such as high-end ones) can improve the value and desirability of such a place, and actuallyraise surrounding prices, rather than lower them.

Second, the price of housing units will never fall below the marginal cost of producing them—or else, of course, they would not be produced at all. But tall buildings are much more expensive to build for a number of reasons, including stiffening against wind and earthquakes, greater space required for elevators and stairs, expensive finishes, exterior maintenance costs, and so on. That’s why they are overwhelmingly occupied by the wealthy, with perhaps a few set-asides for a small percentage of affordable housing, public space, or tokenistic historic preservation projects. …

This supply-side approach also fails to recognize that the credits for affordable housing, historic preservation, and public space dedications, are little more than Band-Aids on top of a runaway process fueled by the very buildings that the city is now deregulating. It is a tokenistic approach, focusing on small gains at the expense of a much broader loss that it self-generates.

It is here that the city’s planning leadership is failing most. It is failing to understand—just as Glaeser has failed to understand—Jacobs’ argument for a more dynamic, more distributed, more diverse approach to urban development. It is failing to spread the growth into a more distributed, catalytically targeted, polycentric regional system. Instead, the city is practicing “hypertrophy-in-place”—hoping that silver bullets, or magical towers, will deliver some kind of great boon to the city. …


Over a half century ago, Jane Jacobs made a series of lucid, compelling arguments for tackling gentrification, loss of diversity, urban decline, and related ills. She argued against “silver bullets”—of which “silver towers” are one sad example—and for a networked, diversified approach. Her criticism of planners’ faith in centralized, supply-side approaches was withering, and she took no prisoners.

In the half-century since, the evidence for the correctness of her approach is accumulating. So too is the evidence of what happens when—as in the sad case of Portland—planners and architects choose to ignore those important history lessons.

Michael Mehaffy is Executive Director of Portland-based Sustasis Foundation, and he works internationally on urban development issues.