Taller building height limit weighed on Old Town parking lot site

By Elliot Njus | The Oregonian/OregonLive

The Portland City Council is considering whether to allow a building up to 200 feet tall on a vacant block in Old Town Chinatown that’s currently a surface parking lot.

Mayor Ted Wheeler had proposed to raise the height on the block bounded by Northwest Davis and Couch streets and Fourth and Fifth avenues to 160 feet on its west half and 125 on its east half.

The owner of the lot, Guardian Real Estate Services, on Thursday asked the council to go even further, raising the allowable height to 200 feet on the west side of the site. Company President Tom Brenneke said a housing development isn’t feasible with lower height limits and said the parcel is profitable as a parking lot and by implication could stay that way for a while.

Previous development proposals for the site, including an Uwajimaya Asian grocery store, foundered under the existing 100-foot height limit.

Members of the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission, which would eventually weigh in on the design of any building on the site, said they opposed raising the height limits because it could erode the integrity of the 10-block New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District, which has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1989.

“We all want to see development on a surface parking lot, especially in a historic district,” said Kristen Minor, vice chair of the commission. “This has really been a blight, and we would like to see it filled. The height amendment, though it is reduced on the half block, is still out of scale with the historic contributing buildings.”

The Old Town Chinatown Community Association supported the 200-foot height if it led to a development that includes affordable and median-priced housing, saying it was convinced redevelopment wouldn’t be possible at lower heights, said Chair Helen Ying.

“At this time, the way Chinatown and Japantown is, even my own children have a hard time wanting to come into the area,” Ying said. “That does not help to pay respect to the community. We need to find a way to make this area thrive and be economically viable for the Chinese business there.”

The council will revisit the issue at 2 p.m. on April 4.

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