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High Tensions Over Portland High-Rise

One of the last options for Oregon's largest city to create the kind of vibrant environment enjoyed by residents of New York, Paris and other cities is ready to launch. The largest and most expensive redevelopment effort in Portland history, the project will transform an abandoned 130-acre industrial brownfield along the Willamette River south of downtown into a $1.9 billion high-rise neighborhood as dense as parts of Manhattan.

Though opponents charge the development will benefit private investors at public expense and destroy the city's character, local leaders have believed strongly enough in the project to give it a green light. On Aug. 14, the Portland Development Commission signed an agreement with Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) and a group of waterfront property owners that cleared the way for construction of a 31-acre central district, which includes 3,000 residential units, 1 million sq. ft. of office space, 150,000 sq. ft. of retail and a hotel/conference center.

Work also has begun on the first public element, a bioswale for stormwater runoff, and in January OHSU will break ground on a 360,000 sq. ft. clinic and research building. In February, local firms Gerding/Edlen Development Co. and Williams & Dame Development Co. will begin building a 300-unit condominium tower.

“This is the most exciting development Portland has ever had,” says Dennis Wilde, a senior project manager for Gerding/Edlen.

Not everyone shares Wilde's enthusiasm, however. The most vociferous opposition comes from residents of hillside neighborhoods overlooking the site who fear a wall of towering buildings up to 33 stories will block their views. The Portland Mercury, a weekly newspaper, has championed the neighbors' cause, questioning why Portland should emulate Manhattan when, in the editors' view, New York is infamous for the intractability of its urban problems.

Other critics, led by the League of Women Voters, have challenged the decision to divert public resources to a largely private project they claim will benefit people with high incomes. According to The Portland Mercury, condo prices are expected to average $357,500.

Proponents call the criticisms misguided. Project planners insist building designs will minimize obstruction, and they point out the extremely high residential densities will relieve pressure to build housing in the prized natural greenbelt around the city.

In regard to affordability, Jane Blackstone, a PDC development manager, says 26% of residential units will be set aside for households earning below median income.

As for criticisms that the project will drain city coffers, Vancouver, Wash.-based consulting firm E.D. Hovee & Co. calculates South Waterfront land values will increase 161% to 423% over 20 years, generating more than enough property tax revenues to cover public investment. In addition, Hovee says the development will create 10,000 jobs.

Infrastructure improvements to all 130 acres are in the works, with government agencies providing $71 million (including $40 million from tax increment financing) and developers contributing $32 million toward the cost. Improvements include environmental remediation and new roads.

The university's participation was crucial to launching the project, says Blackstone. While a 17% vacancy rate downtown makes private office development unlikely in the near future, OHSU is eager to build.

“This is a fabulous piece of property,” Blackstone says. “It has wonderful views of Mt. Hood and downtown, but it's been underutilized for years.”

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