A Fight Over The Height of Portland’s Skyline is Raging. Who Wins May Determine Whether The City’s Housing Crisis Ever Ends.

A Fight Over The Height of Portland’s Skyline is Raging. Who Wins May Determine Whether The City’s Housing Crisis Ever Ends.The prospect of skyscrapers along the Southwest bank of the Willamette River has alarmed tower residents. (Abby Gordon)

Stanley Penkin, a transplanted New Yorker who lives on the fourth floor of Cosmopolitan on the Park, the tallest condo building in the Pearl District, is on the front lines.

He and his wife, Susanne, have a panoramic view: dogs cavorting in the Fields Park, sailboats rolling down the Willamette River, and the graceful arches of the Fremont Bridge.

But soon, if developers and city planners have their way, a 17-story glass-and-concrete tower will partly block Penkin’s view of the bridge.

Residents of Pearl District condos fear a new development will block views of the Fremont Bridge from their windows and Fields Park. (Abby Gordon)

“The city is so desperate for housing that it’s sacrificing the integrity of our city,” Penkin says with the distinctive honk of a Bronx native. “Is it just build, build, build to the maximum at any cost?”

His allies? Fellow residents of the 28-story Cosmopolitan who paid up to $5.4 million (in some cases, more than $1,000 a square foot) for their condos in a building that opened two years ago. Penkin, who bought his condo in 2016 for a more modest $866,603, serves as condo board chairman.

Penkin and other Pearl District residents started complaining in October about the new tower, called Fremont Place Apartments. Signatures were gathered. The Portland City Council agreed to re-evaluate the project in February, even though a city panel approved its design in December. Donations started to arrive unsolicited at Penkin’s concierge desk to fund the challenge.

Says a Penkin colleague on the board of the neighborhood association, John Hollister, who lives in another Pearl District condo (without a bridge view): “The Fremont Bridge is basically the most expensive piece of art in Portland. I can’t imagine a building that big going up in the middle of the city’s most expensive painting.”

“What are we coming to?” asks Glenn Traeger, a third member of the neighborhood association board. “Are we losing our Oregon soul?”

Aside from the irony of well-heeled rebels fighting towers similar to the ones they live in, these insurgents are also gaining traction.

The City Council faces a decision in March on how high developers may build in the central city. Irate residents are packing council chambers and penning op-eds, demanding that the skyline they love stays the same way it’s been since, well, at least last year.

“We feel overshadowed by investors and developers,” testified Joan Kvitka, who lives on the 18th floor of American Plaza Towers, a Southwest Portland building with views of the Willamette River, and says she supports density but not a plan for taller towers nearby. “We oppose diminishing the nature of our waterfront forever.”

(Abby Gordon)

If the City Council approves the changes suggested by planners, developers would be allowed to build up to 250 feet higher near Willamette River bridges. Citizens are begging commissioners to amend the planners’ proposals so that current views are preserved.

Economists and other experts say the solution to Portland’s housing crisis is more housing. In a city, that means raising building heights so more people can live on a single block. The battle over view lines is really a battle over whether rents and home prices across the city will ratchet ever higher or be moderated by the increase in housing units that skyscrapers offer.

Portland’s southwest waterfront near RiverPlace. (Abby Gordon)

News flash: Portland has a housing shortage. And people keep coming. The metro area will need to produce 13,000 new apartments and houses a year for the next decade, estimates state economist Josh Lehner.

Mayor Ted Wheeler hears testimony on height limits and the 2035 Plan. (Daniel Stindt)

Wendy Rahm, who bought a 10th-floor condo more than a decade ago, has repeatedly testified for lowering the height limits in the West End.

RiverPlace (Abby Gordon)

The project would include 141 apartments, 10 percent of them priced so that a family of four making $44,820 a year could afford the rent. But it’s in a historic district.

The number of apartments at the Grand Belmont was cut almost in half—from 214 units to 131—after it went through landmarks and design review for a year and a half.

Miles Sisk (left) testified to Portland City Council last week in support of more housing in the central city.

In 2015, Brenneke bought an undeveloped block at Northwest 21st Avenue and Pettygrove Street on the old Con-Way trucking company site. It holds a parking garage and some vacant lots. He had already started the official design process.

Brenneke commissioned new designs. This time, he decided not to compromise. He would build the maximum square footage allowed. He planned 200 units, 40 priced to be affordable for families of four who make $59,750 a year. And he would build to seven stories instead of six.

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