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On the skinny side

Portland Tribune

Vancouver, B.C., high-rises are getting desiring looks from neighbors to the south

January 17th 2003

Developers are determined to build tall, skinny high-rises in Portland, much like those that punctuate the skyline of Vancouver, B.C.

Copying the Canadians right now would run afoul of a multitude of local and state requirements - including state and city building and fire codes.

But that may be about to change.

Like San Diego, Miami and Seattle, Portland is moving to adapt its building and fire codes to pave the way for the Vancouver style. The state, too, is considering more flexible fire and building codes.

City Planning Director Gil Kelley - a big advocate of the Vancouver model - is working with his department to make building code changes and also with the Portland Fire Bureau and state agencies to alter fire codes.

If Kelley succeeds, the ultimate result would be: a vastly altered, perhaps more graceful and dramatic, Portland skyline; more greenspace around buildings than is common now; and fatter bottom-line returns per square foot for developers.

The South Waterfront and West End sections of the city, where a throng of residential towers is on the drawing boards, probably would be the first places where the Vancouver look would show itself.

The construction industry in Canada operates under far less stringent restrictions than builders in the United States do and than those in Portland in particular.

Canadian high-rise developers are allowed to squeeze more residential units into a given structure, for example, by devoting less space to corridors, stairways and elevator lobbies. The building footprints, however, often take up less than half their sites, with the rest of the land devoted to greenspace and other amenities.

Instead of short, squat buildings, the Canadians get the desired square footage by reaching skyward.

Ergo: tall, slender buildings, or, in architectural lingo, "point" or "needle" towers.

"Vancouver buildings are not only beautiful to look at but very, very efficient," said Jeff Myhre, a principal at Myhre Group Architects in Portland.

Planners and architects estimate that on average 84 percent of the space in Canada's high-rise residential buildings generate income compared with 77 percent in Portland.

"They've gotten really good at these building types," said Jeff Joslin, land use supervisor for the Bureau of Planning and Development Review, referring to Vancouver developers. "They're achieving substantial savings by doing these point towers over and over."

The concern is overreplicating a homogenous Vancouver style without imprinting Portland's own character, said Myhre, who is working with Canadian developers on the Mosaic Building at Southwest 11th Avenue and Columbia Street.

Said Joslin: "It's hard to know if this is a new paradigm. It's a marketing unknown that we will find out one project at a time. If we change codes to allow for this building type, other developers may consider them for the central city."

Long road ahead The biggest obstacle to adoption of the Vancouver model lies in the exits, hallways and stairwell requirements that make U.S. residential buildings larger and more costly to build. Back-to-back stairs, such as those in the needle towers, are not allowed under U.S. building codes, a design factor that Canadians say makes U.S. high-rises less efficient.

If, as in the World Trade Center attacks, an airplane were to slice through the core of a Vancouver-style needle tower, where stairways are concentrated in the center, there would be no exit. In Portland high-rises, with two stair systems required at opposite corners from one another, that's less likely.

"In Seattle, for example, they devised a safety equivalent," Kelley said. "We're looking to devise an equivalent that would allow wraparound stairs and slimmer hallways."

Builders to the north also don't have to adapt to stringent energy codes and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Developer Homer Williams, who plans to break ground this fall in the South Waterfront district on an Oregon Health & Science University building, is one of the local champions of the Vancouver model.

"If you have a smaller floor plate and build taller, then you have more light than a building that goes the continuous length of a lot," he said. "You have three to five stories on the bottom. It would be nice if we can figure out if we can do it down here, depending on fire and building codes."

A proposed aerial tram would link OHSU's Marquam Hill campus to the 30 acres being developed by Williams and others off North Macadam Avenue, which the city hopes will become a biotech industry center.

Northern exposure Portland has had a fascination with Vancouver since the 1986 World's Fair was held there.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, Vancouver went through a building boom that spawned dozens of residential and commercial high-rises. Last year, an estimated $600 million of high-rises were built in Vancouver.

Much of that growth has come with fewer restraints.

The Vancouver style utilizes floor-to-ceiling clear glass window wall systems - a no-no with the U.S. energy code - and an eroded building base set back from the street to make way for walkways and boulevards.

To muscle through the energy code here, you either must provide a certain amount of insulation or go through a formulaic approach to meet the requirements, Joslin said.

Portland's central city guidelines, by comparison, require buildings to be situated at the property line so there is no wasted space on the street, as well as retail or commercial space to promote pedestrian activity. Joslin doesn't see a difference between the two city's streetscapes, however.

Said Myhre: "People have seen Vancouver and watched this evolution. When people say what should Portland look like, it's Vancouver. It's foolish. There are things about Vancouver that don't work here. We should look inwardly and find our own style."

What eventually may emerge is a mix of the two styles. Williams this week hired Vancouver-based architect Peter Busby to design two buildings at the South Waterfront site. He also is considering another Vancouver architect, James Cheung.

Busby, a principal at Busby & Associates, currently is doing sun, shadow and wind studies in South Waterfront to place towers in the right places.

The needle tower design clearly offers "economic advantages," Busby said. "Obviously there is an interest along the river in capturing the view to the east and to the mountain. We will try to do as much glass as possible. Some will be finished in brick, metal, lots of glass. We don't want all the buildings to look the same."

Canadian developers, who are kicking off an estimated $60 million in residential projects in Portland, are worried about a consumer backlash. Eric Van Doorninck, who plans to build the 24-story Benson Tower at Southwest 12th Avenue and Clay Street, the former site of the Simon Benson house, said people "are getting miffed at all this talk of 'Vancouver, Vancouver, Vancouver.'

"You're never going to please everybody."