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City's Design Commission shares what it has been up to

After a year of hundreds of new developments backing up the city's design review process, the Design Commission shared an annual report of what it's seen and accomplished during 2017.

The State of the City Design Report 2017 was presented by Design Commission Chair David Wark at the April 19 City Council meeting.

This is the fifth report before council, and the commission has been operating in Portland since 1980.

The Design Commission, made up of seven volunteers, met 38 times in 2016 for Land Use cases, held 24 Design Advice Request and 11 briefings on city policy matters.

Commissioner Chloe Eudaly said the report comes at a time when construction is at an unprecedented level in the city.

"These neighborhoods deserve appropriate protection and predictability of quality infill that meets our density goals," Eudaly said.

Portland developer John Carroll testified during public comment about how the design review has positively affected his projects and the design of the whole city in his experience.

"Next month we have 145 people from Denver who want to find out how Portland's doing it," Carroll said. "I have just gotten an invitation from Spain to go and talk to their community about how you develop infrastructure and how you develop communities. I say the process is very, very good here."

Carroll has been developing in Portland exclusively for more than 20 years.

"Communities come from all over the world to look at Portland," Carroll said. "They ask invariably the question, whether they are from Sweden, Australia, how did Portland do it? I tell them the story through the design review process."

Significant public projects

Portland is experiencing the most dramatic development changes in its history. People are moving and visiting here at a record pace and new buildings are going up in every neighborhood in response.

"This is what it feels like these days in most neighborhoods — a sense of hyper growth," Wark said. "Fortunately, Portland, unlike other American cities, has a plan for this growth called the comprehensive 2035 Plan and also a mechanism for guiding the quality of development which is the Portland Design Commission."

The design commission oversees Type 3 zoning projects that fall into the Central City District, downtown, the South Waterfront, the Pearl, the Central Eastside and the Gateway District.

According to Wark, the design commission saw this year's projects fall into three major categories: significant public projects, affordable housing and housing.

"We have approved seven significant public projects including the Knight Cancer Research Building, the Center for Health and Healing South, the new Multnomah County healthy building … and the Multnomah County Courthouse at the Hawthorne Bridgehead," Wark said.

There's also the Convention Center Hotel and the PSU School of Business.

Housing in the city

"The next type of projects we've seen are a jump in scale — some in height, others in area, some occupying four city blocks and one actually occupying 33 acres in the South Waterfront," Wark said.

The 1400 Lloyd project will have 689 units across four blocks in the Lloyd District, in the already most dense district in the city. It's a 5:1 floor area ratio (FAR). SOURCE: CITY OF PORTLAND - Some of the largest projects that came through design review this year include 1400 Lloyd.

"This may not be a surprise to anyone, but by far the most common project type we reviewed is a mixed-use housing project," Wark said. "In every part of the Central City and Gateway, 33 projects in total with just over 4,000 apartment units — you can see the diversity in that type of architecture, this is the scale of the projects."

The Zidell Shipyards new development proposal includes 2,600 apartments and 1.5 million square feet of office space when fully built out, along with meaningful access to the Willamette River.

What was the Oregonian Press Blocks will soon be a 250-foot tower.

The third common type is affordable housing.

"Out of the 33 mixed-use housing projects, five included affordable units," Wark said. "Of the 4,000 plus units that are in those projects, 482 were affordable units."

That translates to about 12 percent of new apartment units being affordable.

"Two of those are partly a design commission result," Wark said. "The second phase of the Broadway Tower project with affordable housing units, part of that public benefit gives them more FAR."

Working on DOZA

This year, the Design Commission also reviewed and commented on city policy documents including the Mixed-use zone, residential infill and design overlay zone assessment (DOZA project. see page ?? ).

While critics complain that the design review process takes too long and creates extra expenses for development projects, most stakeholders also generally agree the results are usually improve on the original proposals.

"In terms of design review, with your pay scale you can consider this free advice," Wark said of the volunteer commission. "One of the things we have been working on with DOZA is to simplify the guidelines "We're considering a minor development threshold. We're seeing a lot of projects that are under-building and in our already crowded city, and as each site builds upon itself in an underutilized way, that's something to consider in the future."

On the other side of the spectrum, some projects are too large for Portland's small block grid.

"We're seeing a larger number of large projects, which require a larger number of loading bays, so that takes up more space in a building's facade, which then hands that over to a less attractive space and reduces the amount of active space on a block, so we lose activity on the street," Wark said. "That's so critical."

Commissioner comments

"When I take visitors into the River District — which has some of the highest concentration of deeply affordable housing in the city — I ask them to identify which is the affordable housing. More often than not, they can't," Commissioner Nick Fish said. "I hope that is a value in Portland we continue to honor, that we believe in good design and affordable housing can go hand in hand. We shouldn't sacrifice one for the other."Fish

Fish said in his experience, private sector housing in East Portland used to be designed to last about 15 years without a sense of neighborhood integration, in contrast to some of the beautifully-designed housing he sees going on in Gateway and Lents.

"There may be a debate about who we are serving and location, but the design is an enhancement, so I think we're all agreed that you can have deeply affordable housing that's beautifully designed and meets both calls," Fish said.

By Jules Rogers
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