Density and Design Around the Nation

By Don MacGillivray

The City of Portland is experiencing a housing boom and crisis happening simultaneously. In spite of herculean efforts by government and the not for profit sectors, the for profit interests rule the day. It is not just about affordability. The current building boom affects many of aspects of Portland’s economic, social, and environmental life.

Most of the new housing is multi-family buildings that are four or more stories in height, greater than fifty units in size, and priced at luxury or market-rate rents.

Many critics of the newly-built housing cite the damage done to the existing fabric of area neighborhoods and communities. Almost all ethnic groups with average incomes for their group are priced out of the housing market both for new homes and for new rental apartments throughout the entire city.

The character of Portland’s neighborhoods is one of the most attractive features of the city and beloved by everyone, yet big, new modern style buildings replace older and often serviceable structures that were part of the surrounding traditional urban context.

These large and often tall buildings hurt the neighborhoods where they are built in many ways. They are thought by some to be the answer to increased density, but one big building in a low density neighborhood does not serve the interests of either old or new residents.

The best neighborhoods have a homogeneous character where the new development is only slightly higher than the neighboring buildings. Many of the densest neighborhoods have these low scale apartments and condos. An example of this is Georgetown in Washington D.C. which is 22 units per acre. This type of neighborhood keeps it charm by being compact, walkable, and low rise. Another example of this is the French Quarter in New Orleans with 38 units per acre. Portland has many inner city neighborhoods where density meets the newly-desired standard.

In 1950, the population of Washington D. C. was 800,000 and today it is 625,000. It would seem that the existing housing could accommodate an additional 175,000 residents with the redevelopment of the 30,000 vacant or abandoned lots that are available within the city.

Low-rise buildings also maintain affordable housing. The less expensive and most profitable buildings are those that are already built and are without a mortgage. Generally speaking the cost per square foot of any building is higher as the height increases.

Another factor is that high-rise apartments and condos generally are not conducive to families with children. Often this housing is made up of relatively small studio, one bedroom, and two bedroom apartments without enough room for a family with several middle-aged children.

Distinctiveness with compatibility should be a key concept of new economic development. Creating a sense of place within a given neighborhood intended for humans must be a prime concern. This would include consideration given to the visual, cultural, social, and environmental factors of any location. Those involved with development are too focused on the numbers such as units per acre, cars per hour, and floors per building, not to mention profit rather than the values and characteristics that make a place appreciated and loved.

Diversity, vitality, and vibrancy is found in mixed commercial areas made up of small shops and services, in charming residential neighborhoods with warm homes and beautiful gardens connected by pleasant streets with wide sidewalks. These communities play an important part in encouraging social, economic, and cultural vitality.

In the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, her opinion is that demolition and replacement of small buildings with new larger ones disturbs the vitality and desirability of the surrounding community. Often this is because older buildings are established with shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues owned and operated by local residents.

New development brings with in more expensive shops and restaurants operated by large corporations that do not have a connection to the community and the local patrons. Older businesses in neighborhoods have 40 percent more jobs per square foot of floor area than the newer, larger buildings and new buildings often add to the gentrification of these neighborhoods.

In recent years, developers in New York City are building residential skyscrapers for the well-to-do. One of these is 432 Park Avenue, between 55th and 56th streets, only slightly shorter than One World Trade Center, making it the second tallest building in the city. It cost $1.25 billion and its 147 units will reap $3 billion for the owners. The average two bedroom condominium goes for $9.7 million, and the studios will often be purchased for their maids at over $1.5 million. A personal, climate controlled wine cellar is $300,000.

Other owners and developer are following their lead. Three more of these 1,000 foot buildings will change the skyline of New York and more are likely to follow. It is expected that these buildings will only be one-fourth full for many years. This is what happened to the Empire State Building in the 1930s when it was nicknamed the “Empty State Building.”

This does nothing to help with the housing crisis in New York. In fact it generally will lead to rent increases and inflation of the housing market for all. It reduces the incentives to build workforce housing and it will be increasingly difficult to find housing for workers and low income people.

It is difficult for one big project to replace what it removes from a community and is likely to take years to recover. Small projects driven by community interests work together more synergistically to create places where residents want to be.

By adaptive reuse of the older buildings in the community, the buildings themselves continue to provide services to residents of Portland by adding vitality at a human scale and affordable price.

Density and Design Around the Nation

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