Tuesday, March 6, 2001 

Clock tower keeps top spot over Yards

The City Council votes against a housing proposal at 150 feet but says 75 feet is better for inner Northwest

By David Austin of The Oregonian staff

When it comes to building development in Northwest Portland, is taller better?

Not necessarily, according to the Portland City Council, especially if obstructing the view of Union Station's historic clock tower has anything to do with it. Last week, the council voted 3-2 against extending the height limits for a proposed housing development for the Yards at Union Station project because it would hinder the view of the clock tower.

On the table were two possibilities for a building that will go up north of the Steel Bridge between Naito Parkway and the rail tracks. The project is slated to include condominiums and apartments.

The first plan called for a five-story, 75-foot building, which would be similar to many of the housing developments that have become popular in the nearby Pearl District. It would have 100 to 110 units of mixed-income housing.

Tower with costly condos

The other possibility was a building that would start out at 40 feet before cutting back from the street with a 150-foot tower. The top floors of the tower would be expensive condos that would help pave the way for more affordable housing. Overall, the building would have had 150 to 165 units.

City law prohibits buildings in the area from being taller than 75 feet, but the council could have removed the limitations. A majority of commissioners rejected the tower in favor of the lower building because they want the clock tower to be the area's dominant feature.

"It came down to the fact that Union Station is one of our few real architectural landmarks," said Commissioner Charlie Hales. "You can see it from all over. I simply didn't want to mess that up. "Portland's changing a lot right now. Some of that change is worth celebrating, and some of it isn't. But when you have something as special as Union Station's tower, you have to take the planning equivalent of the Hippocratic oath: 'Don't block the view of a really great tower.' "

But Commissioner Erik Sten, who voted with Commissioner Dan Saltzman to approve the height extension, said the council missed an opportunity.The tower would not block the view of the clock tower, he said, because of the initial cutback from the street.

"These are tough calls," Sten said. "Protecting the view of the clock tower is an important thing to consider. But what was so exciting about this was the possibility of having the very high-end housing mixed in with the low end.

"It would've been the only place like it here. It's a chance that could come again in the future, and I hope we pay attention to it."

An ambitious project

The Yards at Union Station has been one of the city's most ambitious projects. The project has been divided into four phases along 6.5 acres of land along the Willamette River. The first two phases have been completed and include apartment buildings next to Union Station just below the Broadway Bridge. Construction is set to begin on the third phase, with 56 town houses, next month.

The project's final phase, which would have been home to the 150-foot condo tower, will include at least 100 more housing units, including high-rent condos on what is being called Lot 5, said Bruce Allen, the development manager of the Portland Development Commission. The Lot 5 building will consist of five stories of condos and other housing.

A study by the city's Planning Bureau determined that portions of Northwest Portland near the Steel Bridge could be built higher without obstructing the view of the clock tower, said Graham Clark, a senior planner.

"The study showed that it would have been compatible," Clark said. The Portland Development Commission owns the property that will be developed by GSL Properties. Officials with the commission wanted the taller building because they don't want the box development taking over in inner Northwest Portland.

"This area has really been growing and changing so rapidly," Allen said. "One of the things we try to look at is how to come up with more innovative designs. There's a real sense in trying to come up with taller buildings where possible.

"We knew that there were going to be pros and cons with this one. But we don't see it as a big loss. We're going to try to do something else along the same lines somewhere else if the opportunity comes up."

Hales said that even though he voted to restrict the height on the Lot 5 building, he thinks having diversity in building heights is important. "It doesn't mean we shouldn't have tall buildings in the river district," Hales said. "Having everything be five or six stories tall would be rather monotonous. I'm sure we'll come back to this, just not here."

You can reach David Austin by e-mail at davidaustin@news.oregonian.com or by phone at 503-294-5910.

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