Height Limits: Another Zoning Decision that Causes Sprawl

In Friday’s Oregonian is a story of another suburban city whose residents are fighting code changes to allow higher buildings in its downtown.

Troutdale, like Lake Oswego, Wilsonville and other suburbs, have very low height limits for buildings even in their “downtowns.” Height limits are intended to maintain a “village” feel, even if these “villages” are part of a bustling metropolis and the “villagers” mostly commute to the high density towers of the city to make their livings while the wife and kids are safely ensconced in Pleasantville. This is an example of citizens using zoning codes to enforce a particular lifestyle and class structure on their communities. (See previous post on Sprawl and Zoning).

Most of these height limits are 35 feet, which allows for a three story building or maybe two if there is retail on the first floor with higher ceilings. Recent work by the City of Portland with developers of projects along main streets found that mixed-use projects need at least 4 stories to pencil out. Its just simple economics: the cost of land and construction divided by more units means lower cost per unit resulting in a more competitive product.

Last year, Metro convened a task force of housing developers, non-profit and private, as well as government representatives to help it find ways to lower the cost of housing production and to get more housing built in centers, main streets and corridors (Metrospeak for downtowns and areas well served by transit). The Housing Choice Task Force will soon make its final report to the Council.

Among its recommendations is to establish regional policy to allow higher buildings in these areas. The actual standards will be developed as part of Metro’s New Look process of updating the 50 year plan for the region.

15 responses to “Height Limits: Another Zoning Decision that Causes Sprawl”

  1. I don’t get this post.

    Rex, isn’t it true that the downtown core has been losing jobs? Isn’t most of the job growth in the height limited areas (Hillsboro, Beaverton, Wilsonville)? Your post implies that folks keep their kids in “Pleasantville” with its low rise architecture while they take advantage of Portland’s willingness to build towers where folks “make their living.”

    And maybe the folks in Pleasantville just don’t endorse the same development path that the Portland dominated folks at Metro do. Downtown Lake O looks pretty dense to me. When you push for four stories, how long until you want to bump it to five? Six?

  2. John wrote:
    “…Isn’t it true that the downtown core has been losing jobs?”

    John –

    A few people on this blog have brought up the assertion that downtown has been losing jobs. The data just does not support this assertion, in fact, the opposite is true. I have asked time and time again when people post this assertion to see their data, but so far no one has come forward with any data.

    Here is a copy of a comment I posted on the subject just a few weeks ago:


    What is your basis for stating that employment has declined in the City Center? I would love to see the report.

    Here’s the report I usually look at: The Metro Regional Data Book.
    Scroll to page 64 of the report (page 69 of the PDF).

    Specifically, consult Multnomah County Subarea 1. This is the portion of downtown Portland bounded by the freeway loop, and also includes small portions of the east bank. There is also a map showing the subarea near the front of the data book. It’s about as close to “Downtown Core” as you can get in a statistical sense.

    Key points:
    1980 Subarea 1 Total Employment: 88,917
    1990 Subarea 1 Total Employment: 103,872
    2000 Subarea 1 Total Employment: 121,222

    In 2000 there was a 16.7% gain in the downtown core over 1990. Retail jobs also grew about 28% in the same decade. And, since 1980 (the Transit Mall opened in 1978) downtown core employment has grown by 36%.

    If downtown core employment has really declined by any amount since 2000, I’d love to see the data.

    – Bob R.

  3. Question:

    how do you do infill development if you can’t build higher?

    I’m going to cite an example:
    the city of Curitiba, Brazil. Average per capita income in Brazil is $4,900 – compared to $40,000 for the US (source: CIA world factbook, yesterday).

    Metro population is 1.7 million. This compares pretty closely to Portland, OR. Note the following picture – it appears the city suffers from much less sprawl than we do, due to the massive amount of high rises that house the city’s population.

    I believe people in the US view the city and their home as an investment, not as a place to live – and therefore there is a far different approach to your perception and reaction to what goes on in a city. New denser development? Nimby’s cry it will lower their land value. New office buildings? Ditto. Yet more people and jobs in a neighborhood makes it function better, driving up land prices that you can (ironically) – if you own your property – benefit from. See CTLH neighbors’ complaint with the SOWA development for this.


    Course, this doesn’t have much to do with transportation, other than the fact that the only thing propping up urban sprawl are [in town] freeways.

  4. John also wrote:
    “When you push for four stories, how long until you want to bump it to five? Six?”

    The scope of current human engineering can construct buildings over 100 stories and over 1,600ft tall. Is it so unreasonable then in a commercial town center area to ask that building height limits be raised a story or two?

    There is a logical argument to be made for 4 story buildings over 3. Once you go to 3 stories, an elevator becomes a necessity (for ADA and for marketability), easily adding $150K in initial costs plus maintenance. By adding a story, the cost of that elevator can be divided up amongst twice the square footage. The other costs associated with that square footage are largely incremental.

    Four stories is still within the reach of fire ladder trucks, so additional expensive fire mitigation measures are not needed, and four stories does not block significantly more light from the street than three.

    It will be interesting to see how Measure 36 plays out in this. I wonder if anyone will try to claim that they have owned property in LO since before there was any height restriction, and therefore they should be able to build a 20-story tower? Will any of the LO residents that voted for Measure 36 object? :-)

    – Bob R.

  5. The million plus residents that are coming here in the next twenty years have to live and work somewhere. We have to allow ourselves change our notion that our neighborhoods will always be exactly the same as they are now. They will change. Trying to fight it is useless and will just end up making yourself unhappy in the end.

    With that said, we can plan for how and where this growth occurs. In a city nearing 100,000 residents I don’t think it would be a crime to have a downtown with buildings 10 stories tall in the future. The key is in writing the right codes (and city masterplan) so that these taller buildings benefit the community instead of hurting them, by making sure they have windows on the sidewalk, making sure they front the street in a pedestrian-friendly manner, etc.

    Remember, the more we concentrate the high-intensity growth in the planned town-center type areas and along main streets, the less disruption will happen in those revered single family neighborhoods.

  6. Rex says “Its just simple economics: the cost of land and construction divided by more units means lower cost per unit resulting in a more competitive product.”

    So if higher towers are built out in the burb’s will they become affordable? A typical Portland area income would not allow one to live in any of the towers now being built –excepting the subsidized units of affordable housing. However, I know, both from my construction background and from having actually worked in these projects, that there is hardly anything that is unusually expensive in them. The most deluxe features would be: the concrete floors and columns, the cast-iron waste piping, certain “high-end” appliances and plumbing fixtutes (which are no-doubt bought at a big discount by the developers), and the low-E or energy conserving glass. And fire protection, as mentioned above. The metal studs, insulation, sheetrock, paint, floorcoverings, cabinets, lighting, plumbing pipe, wiring, etc. are more or less generic. So why does a unit go for $500-$1000 sq. ft?

    Someone is making big bucks on these. Having priced units in Vancouver, BC I found that there were many units in older buildings that were comparable in price to single family homes, so it was obvious there was nothing unusually expensive in their construction in the sixties and seventies! Moreover, the fact that there was a demand for new hirise units would lift the price of older ones at a faster than normal rate, anyway.

    I might even live in the burbs–Troutdale would have great views- if I could be ten or fifteen floors up! I think crackerbox and McMansion homeowners get jealous when a vacant parcel can be sold for more than their entire home! Canucks have high rises for the middle income citizen: I searched in other Canuck cities and found units as low as US75,000: out in the prairies of course, but the const. costs are similar. Why can’t we? Makes me want to shelter my assets to qualify for a low income hirise apartment.

  7. Check out some of the pics above – there is a marked difference in design from middle-income high rises to luxury units.

    Some of the new units feature $50,000 appliances, like luxury ovens, two or more bathrooms (for a couple? ridiculous and a waste of space!)

    Additionally, structured parking costs anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 per space – a hefty sum for a middle-income family, even more for a single person. In cities such as Manhattan, where only 8% of the population owns a car, there really is not much demand for structured parking. Unless its near a light rail line, Portland has a zoning formula mandating parking regardless of what kind of development it is.

    Generally, high quality design, tons of design reviews mandated by the city, additional permitting processes – all slow down the development and make developers less willing to do cheaper high rises. Community opposition is another biggie.

    Lastly, lenders don’t like to finance them, because they assume nobody will buy/rent in a lower-income highrise. All the federal subsidies, Fannie Mae, etc, are to help people by SINGLE family detached dwellings. Takes a lot to alter 50 years of momentum in the housing & real estate investment industry.

  8. Justin,

    I’m convinced affordable high rises won’t happen here–except the subsidized “affordable units” for renters. But the fact that people in Latin America can live in them must indicate a level of affordability. I once checked out prices in South Africa–some of the cheapest on Earth. These could not have been overly expensive to build–and a low asking price, if not realistic, would have to point to imminent bankruptcies and bank failure; I don’t think the latter is the case.

    But knowing the contorted reasoning and insipid logic of nearly all construction people, I would write off affordable hirise condos in the Portland area. But, as I posted several weeks ago they are affordable in other North American cities, although prices on older units are climbing fast, buoyed by the higher cost of new ones. So to promote THAT kind of development will rely on a continued, sizable influx of out-of-state money. Rex, got any ideas? Can these be affordable for the typical native?

  9. Ron-

    Well, one thing I will say is that costs per unit in highrises do go up the higher you go. Partly due to codes (fire escape, earthquake, etc), and partly due to simple physics (gravity and wind), there are certain heights at which the structure must be beefed up to be stronger and more resistant to forces… Being a mere architecture student, I don’t know what those are yet. I’m guessing ~5 stories, then around 15-20, 35, etc, on up – no more wood framing, require larger columns, some sort of bracing system higher up, then on very tall buildings, either a steel structure, or dual steel/concrete structure. Don’t forget, we’re in a major earthquake zone.

    Parking also seems to doom ever taller buidings… it seems the taller the building gets, the deeper the hole that it has to build out of. I can almost imagine a 1,000 ft high rise tower with a 500 ft deep parking garage. =(

    Perhaps midrise buildings are the perfect form of affordable housing: smaller scale, the architect won’t have to deal with structural issues to the degree a larger building will require, and more modest parking requirements would allow them to tuck parking behind the building and even allow wood construction. An example would be the Sitka and Belmont Street Lofts. These are great projects that are scaled well for the various Portland neighborhoods, as they won’t have such a large impact on them like a 35-story tower will.

    However, places like Gateway and the area around the Beaverton Transit Center should be slapped with a minimum FAR of 9 and a minimum height of 150 ft for new construction, in my opinion. I also can’t imagine a 3-story building being built in downtown Portland – would be highly efficient in terms of $ per sq foot of land.

  10. There’s also an even larger force that affects the overall trends in condo pricing… and they have nothing to do with physics.

    As Portland has become more and more popular for people to move from around the country, developers have been getting smarter in their efforts to maximize their profits.

    Why sell a small house when you can sell a larger house for more money?

    Turns out that in single family house construction, it doesn’t cost much for a developer to add another 1000 sq foot or so… so they do, and charge an extra $50,000.

    Well, I think the same mentality is affecting the Pearl, downtown and SoWa: since these guys are in the business to make money and be able to fund their next high rise, they want to make as much money as possible – so they keep moving the bar up a notch with each building, trying to surpass how much the units cost. On the one hand, it makes them a ton of money – and on the other, its pretty risky, as not that many people can afford them, so they risk oversaturating the market and sinking their own checkbooks with the interest from the lending loans they get from financial institutions.

    Plus, all normal people lose out – which is, of course, the big problem. It’s all based upon greed, like everything else in American society.

    From my viewpoint – the market of the middle class is FAR, far larger than the super-rich… and there is a decent % of middle-income people who would probably love to live close-in or downtown. The problem is, nobody in finance or real estate would ever believe me… precedence has to be set first; we’ll see if there are any affordable units in Villebois’s downtown or Orenco station.

    If you can tap this market, you’ll never run out of demand – the US is supposed to build another 80 million or so units of housing in the next 20 years, and it ain’t all for rich people!

  11. There are a lot of advantages to owning a condo; virtually no repairs, no yard work, tree-trimming, brush removal, lawn mowing, demossing, repainting.

    I still maintain that, by analyzing prices in a variety of North American markets over the last thirty years, these buildings have not been astronomically priced–until now. Materials and wages are not that much cheaper in places like Saskatchewan or Ohio. Until a few years ago units in the Fontaine were relatively afordable.
    Sometimes I think about checking out someplace like Spokane….

    Tower condos use an easily replicable design: Slab, columns, metal framing, glass and cementitious exterior. Floor after floor. Go look at the So Wa buildings. Heaven help us if we get a Richter 9 quake..who knows what would last?

  12. Let me sum up what I said above:

    developers don’t want to make affordable housing for normal middle-class peope: they make more money selling expensive units.

    Just like Ford, Chevy, and GM selling huge SUVs when the market has more demand for samll econoboxes. Except for in this case, people can’t afford the big SUV (condo).

  13. Up here, in 1989, Seattle Voters approved the CAP(Citizens Alternative Plan) Initiative that set building hieght limits. A new wave of skyscrapers was under construction(In the 1960s, the Seattle First National Bank Building eclipsed the 1915-vintage Smith Tower as the tallest in the city), and combined with the Downtown Transit Tunnel, the Center City was a Construction War Zone. Turns out the civic activist that was leading the charge, Perter Steinbreuck, was an Architecht, somebody that would benefit from taller buildings. Thanks to CAP, sprawl in King County went out of control, and Olympia reacted with the Growth Management Act. Now 17 years after the voters passed CAP, it seems the height limits will be raised, and one of the biggest proponents besides the Mayor, is Peter Steinbreuck, Councilmember Peter Steinbreuck, now. Growth Management plans call for Downtown to absorb up to 50,000 new jobs, and 20,000 new households. The biggest stumbling block is a fee for affordable housing. THe mayor is being a little conservative(Liberal is the least of some of the insults I have heard hurled at him) on this, at $10 per square foot. Some Councilmembers want it to be $20, but there seems to be a few willing to compromise.


    Within a decade or two, King County will top 2 million in population, Seattle is currently at around 500,000 people. I have not heard much about suburbs complaining about the possibility of taller buildings, perhaps taller than the Columbia Seafirst Center(I just do not like calling it by the successor to Seattle First National Bank, aka Seafirst Bank). That building can be seen for miles, from Tukwilla to the south, Bainbridge Island to the west.

  14. Well, I know that in Bellevue they are building some 450+ foot condo towers, which will be taller than anything in the Pearl or South Waterfront here in Portland.

    Evergreen, I’m not exactly sure what you’re getting at…? Just an observation?

  15. That even some big cities arbitrarily putting on hieght limits for buildings in downtown. Plus, it was only temporary anyway, we needed a cooling off period, as it was just too much construction. The problem was, that this just pushed suburban growth further east, and it did make some timberlands near Redmond and Snoqualmie(grandfathered in under the county’s growth management act, despite the latter being outside the main Urban Growth Area), valuable property that could be more profitable selling off as residential. Now the city believes it is time for a development boom in Downtown, for residential. In Bellevue, the leading developer is pro-sprawl as he has proposed through initiative t take a portion of the state gas tax, and dedicate it to keep expanding I-405, I5, I90, SR520 to accomodate his sprawl, and build a new freeway in the Snoqualmie Valley. He rarely has signatures to present, as Eastern Washington and other areas of the state would not want to see their portions of highway funds decline, and Urban King County is pro-transit(Mainly Seattle, the Northern Part of the County, and East King County, South King County, which gets a lot of the hours from the latest sales tax increase for Metro, voted against it, and for I776).

    DOwntown Seattle is at the hub of a Light Rail line under construction, at least one new stretcar line, and pretty frequent bus routes. Even King County Metro Transit is trying TOD at Park and Rides, several on the Eastside are having the un-used space above the parking areas turned into housing and other uses. Overlake is one that is complete.

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