15 Story Tower Near PSU Approved Amid Zoning Debate

Dated: 03/04/2016

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A plan to build a 15-story tower near Portland State University with 424 apartments and a ground-floor supermarket won the Portland Design Commission's approval last week, despite neighbors' contention the project may not comply with zoning code.


The commission voted 3-0 to approve the project, by Chicago developer Core Spaces. The property at the northeast corner of Southwest Fourth Avenue and Harrison Street is owned by Portland's Goodman family and is currently a parking lot.


The building has been in the pipeline since 2014, and it took six meetings between the city and developers along with large-scale changes to the design before commissioners were satisfied. Last week's hearing lasted nearly three hours.


"This experience has been truly eye-opening for us," said Chad Matesi, senior vice president of development at Core Spaces, at the hearing. "We've never experienced anything like it. ... The interaction that we've had with [city] staff, with the neighborhood ... has created a project that is much different than when we started and also, I think, more successful than when we started."


In addition to the grocery store, the ground floor of the building will have 5,000 square feet of other retail space. The project will include underground parking spaces for at least 208 vehicles – 137 for residents, 66 for the grocery and five for the additional retail space. The site abuts a pedestrian trail and Pettygrove City Park.


The above-ground square footage comes to nearly 355,200, which is perhaps the figure that most irks the neighbors. The dispute centers on a concept called "floor area ratio," defined as the relationship between a building's total floor area and the size of its footprint. Cities use zoning to put limits on floor area ratio and, in the process, regulate the size of new buildings.


The proposed building at Fourth and Harrison would have a floor area ratio of nearly nine to one. The building would fall into two Portland zones, "Central City" and "South Auditorium," each of which normally limits the ratio to six-to-one.


But in the "Central City" zone, developers can win "bonus" floor area ratio if their projects include a residential use. The Core Spaces proposal is mainly a residential project, so the city is awarding the bonus. The bonus is an extra three-to-one ratio, meaning the Fourth and Harrison proposal falls within the allowed limit.


The neighbors, though, point out that the maximum floor area ratio in the South Auditorium zone is six-to-one, and the city's code language in the South Auditorium plan says, "Where the regulations of this chapter conflict with the regulations of the Central City plan district, the regulations of this chapter prevail."


"The South Auditorium district is overlaid on, and completely enclosed by, the underlying City Center plan district," Thorson wrote. "The South Auditorium overlay was created to ensure special protection – beyond that afforded by the City Center plan – for its exceptional architectural and landscaping features, green spaces, pedestrian experience, and value to the general public. It exists, in other words, because it is by nature more specific than the general City Center district."


But in a city staff report, land-use planner Staci Monroe said there is "no conflict" between the two zones' regulations.


"The South Auditorium plan district does not include any regulations that explicitly prohibit additional floor area ratio above the maximum, either through a bonus option or transfer from another site," Monroe wrote. "Because the South Auditorium plan district does not contain bonus floor area ratio regulations and does not contain any prohibition on bonus floor area ratio, there is no conflict."


Monroe also pointed out that the adjacent Cyan building, which is on the lot north of the Fourth and Harrison site and also in both zones, took advantage of a similar bonus in 2006.


The neighbors have said they do not oppose development at the site, but they feel the Core Spaces proposal is out of scale with the neighborhood.


The Design Commission quibbled with other aspects of the project but largely did not discuss the issues surrounding floor area ratio.


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Mark Ross

For Mark Ross, founder of Ross NW Real Estate and professional real estate broker, real estate has always been the career of choice. During his 25+ years in the industry, Mark has gained experience in....

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