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.

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