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Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Gagging on Gragg

What is the deal with this Randy Gragg guy, and what are he and his developer buddies doing to Portland?

A while back, I hurled some brickbats at Gragg, The Oregonian's "architecture critic." Or whatever he is. And his defenders came out from behind the woodwork to tell me how wrong I was. He's just doing his job writing about architecture, they told me.

Hey, look at this column. Is this about architecture? Or is this just some hip guy in a beret and a turtleneck playing the apologist for the ugliness that has become Portland development?

Well, now that Neil's gone for a while, I guess somebody has to do it.

Look at what's going up all over Portland right now, while the city sits mired in an economic slump. The taxpayers are effectively paying people to put up big, boxy, unimaginative, out-of-place, ugly cr*p. The accompanying sales job is that we need all these multi-story "luxury" apartment and condo towers so that we don't exceed the urban growth boundary. Boy, if that isn't a Goldschmidt speech -- and accordingly, a steaming load of shinola. You could build two or three stories high from here to the furthest ends of Hillsboro, Tualatin and Gresham, and have way more housing than Portland will ever need in the next century. You don't have to wreck the small-town feel of our city with this appalling collection of grotesque, New York-style six- and eight- and 10- and 15-story boxes.

In 20 years, people will look on those buildings the way we look at the Marquam Bridge and the eastside freeway now -- a gigantic mistake that somebody must have gotten rich off of. And wait 'til you see how rundown Portland's older apartment stock, in Northwest and Southeast, gets as the vacancy rates in those neighborhoods go up. We're overbuilding, folks, and when you do that, some places have to go vacant. And then the owners run them into the ground, wait and see.

Whatever the appropriate size is for a building, double it, or triple it in some cases, and that's what the developers are getting away with in Portland now. Look at what they're doing to Hawthorne. Look at what they're doing to Beaumont. Look at what they're doing on NE Weidler. Look what they're about to do next at the Uptown Shopping Center. Luxury apartment tower at MLK and Multnomah? Surely you jest. And in the classic residential neighborhoods, old single-family homes are being ripped out for 15-foot-wide "luxury" particle-board duplex townhouses.

And not only is this City Council (all five of them) encouraging this -- it's subsidizing it, while police protection, mental health services, and public education all suffer.

Our city government says it's concerned that Portland is quickly losing its grip on small businesses and families. But what is it doing about it? It's taking away the things that made Portland attractive to those constituencies in the first place.

For big, boxy, ugly condo towers. The kind Randy Gragg loves to gush about:

One need look only at the current cover of Architecture magazine to see a better outcome. New York's SHoP Architecture (a finalist for Portland's aerial tram project) piggybacked a beautiful six-story, digitally fabricated, zinc-clad addition to a six-story, brick historic building in Manhattan's Meatpacking District.

It's pathetic. Randy, do me a favor. Take your Architecture magazine, get on a plane, fly down to San Francisco, order up a nice Pimm's cup, and think seriously about not coming back. Take a couple of Pearly fat cats with you; I'll buy you all some one-way tickets.

Every building we build has to be the same -- retail on the first floor, six stories or more of "luxury" apartments above. There's a tower on top of the Safeway now. This is supposedly a wonderful thing. Next they're going to knock down a church downtown and put up a new church, with a residential tower on top. Some church. Wait 'til some kid upstairs starts blasting the Eminem over "Nearer My God to Thee." And underground parking for everyone. What are we, moles? In fact, the next time Mr. Tramcesconi goes out for bid on restrooms for the parks, someone will probably come back with six stories of "luxury" studio apartments on top of the outhouse and a parking garage below.

Tower, tower, tower. South Waterfront -- an absolute jungle of towers in the making. This is the 21st Century Portland brought to you by Neil, Vera, Erik, and the rest.

The other Randy, the neighbors' best pal, made a very telling speech right before he voted the city's millions for the Neil-Vera aerial tram earlier this month. He remarked that many of his supporters voted for him so that he would preserve the Portland we have, and resist losing the city's character.

But change is inevitable, he said, and so even he voted aye.

This is not the Portland many of us moved here for. As a critic of the tram noted a long time ago, this is gradually becoming the kind of city we moved here to get away from.

But why bitch? It's a done deal, and it's quite clear that the developers have the city in their grip for lots more of this in the future. If Commissioner Leonard won't vote no on this, there's no way Tom Potter and Nick Fish can stop it. Plus, they'll be eating out of the Pearlies' hands within six months of their swearing-in, anyway.

Ah me. Time to look on the bright side. Think of the money we'll all save on sunscreen in the summertime.

Comments (39)

Well put Jack. Have you thought about running for some kind of city office? I'm absolutely serious.

When all the bozos (including Good Randy™) don't have the brass to vote against Bad Development Ideas™ - it's time for a hero. Are you the one Jack? Please say yes.

Aha! Maybe that's the real reason he's leaving this weblog behind: To mount a write-in campaign against Randy Leonard in the general election. ;)

The city of Portland is continuing to grow at an alarming rate. According to the US Census the Portland metro area is projected to reach 3 million residents early next decade, and this is despite the poor economy. It continues to rank as one of the top 10 fastest growing cities in the US. There is little available land left to build the tpe of houses Bojack desires. Thus, the only option is to build up and build more dense housing.

Stopping growth is on par with trying to outlaw chocolate or stop the arms race. The City Council recognizes this and are doing their best to help Portland grow in the best manner possible.

I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, and I love all the new development.

There are plenty of apartments available on the very, very overbuilt west side, and light rail to bring those residents into the core (if they can find a job there). The city itself is not growing so fast -- it's the suburbs that are growing. Not surprising, given the tax and schools situation.

Every place there is a tower going up right now, there could have been some nice two or three-story Craftsman-style homes built, with actual yards. The whole South Waterfront could have been done that way. It would have been perfect, but it wouldn't make guys like Homer Williams rich.

This is not about the wise land management of Tom McCall. This is about the stinking greed of Neil and his clients.

If you like the new development so much, you missed a great life in California or the East Coast. Enjoy the Randy Gragg columns -- they're for you.

A new luxury apartment for George and Yortuk Festrunk (two wild and crazy guys)? Maybe Will Truman? The Sex and the City women (who have decided to move out of The City)?

Where will Portland put actual families who move to Portland?

Portland is made strong by people deciding to invest in it. It is made strong by people putting down roots in a community and making a long term investment in it.

Hoping to build a city on another internet bubble and the rich hipsters that will flock to inner city apartments is simply idiotic.

Couldn't have said it better myself, Stash. Take the goofball new box they slapped up at MLK and Multnomah. Burgerville Manor, I call it. What kind of parents would ever want to raise kids there? They get a gloomy interior courtyard to play in (shared with the hipsters), and certain traffic fatality if they step off the curb on either of two sides of the building.

Close to a Starbucks, though.

Jack: Actually I do enjoy Gragg's articles, and you're right they are for me. However, I tend to think most Portlanders like his articles. Meaning, I think you're in the minority on this.

You're right about the suburbs they are growing faster than Portland, but that's because there isn't a lot of affordable housing in Portland. Now, is the City Council helping build more affordable housing... Hah. Not even close. And that is something I wish they would spend more time on.

Vera Katz actually went down a list of 15 projects she hoped to accomplish by the end of her term, including renovating the Memorial Coliseum and Bringing baseball. But then said that she didn't have time for affordable housing. I wasn't impressed.

I agree with you that Portland is changing, and it is no longer the family oriented city it once was...I'm just saying that's the nature of the beast. You can't stop progress...

Anyway, I still think you're in the minority on this one. But, you make a good argument. And it is nice to hear an alternative point of view.

You and Lars would get along nicely... Haha, just kidding.

I agree with you that Portland is changing, and it is no longer the family oriented city it once was...I'm just saying that's the nature of the beast. You can't stop progress...

No one in government here's even trying. They're just all going to the bank with Neil. A pox on all of them. History will remember them, and none too fondly.

On local issues, I'm often in alignment with Lars. Just because he's a right-wing wingnut doesn't mean he's always wrong.

"You can't stop progress... "

'Scuse me? First, there is a lively debate as to whether building acre after sterile acre of monoliths is "progress." More important, here in the land of democratic free speech, "progress" is what we the people say it is. Even granted that folks with power and money seem to have a louder voice than the average Josephine, if enough people speak up abut their vision for, e.g., PDX, they can't be drowned out. Bottom line - with enough energy and momentum, the course of progress can clearly be influenced.

"You can't stop progress..."

Doug: True, one man's progress is another man's boondoggle. I probably should have said "You can't stop growth." or "You can't stop development."

I guess all I'm saying is, whether you like it or not, Portland is going to continue to grow. And since there isn't a lot of available land in the city, the buildings are going to have become more dense to accommodate the influx of people. And I don't think this is a bad thing.

But hey, Rock On with your bad self. If you can stop growth and development, then more power to you.

Oh, and Lars is always wrong. I don't care what he says. 8-)

the merrick, that horrible monstrosity at MLK and multnomah, is just unbelievably stupid. at least the architects working at the pearl get something right at the street level.

Burgerville Manor is pretty good. I was thinking of it as McPearl.

While I think that many development issues are fat-catty and that overyuppification is an actual problem, it's kinda unrealistic to expect Portland to just slump along in zero growth forever. Dumping all this on Randy Gragg seems misdirected.

I've spoken with Randy at length on many subjects. I may not agree with his aesthetic judgments some of the time (give me a falling-down Victorian or a 1925 bungalow any day over your average "impressive" boxy new design), but he is extremely knowledgeable, thoughtful, and considerate about architecture and development in Portland. Counting him as one of the "developer buddies" doesn't wash; he watches what those people are up to, and reports it from a particular POV in the Oregonian. As far as I know, Randy isn't personally buying up Safeways and building lofts on top of them. As for having such lofts exist? Why not?

Any idiot can see that the top of your average Safeway is a bunch of wasted space, and you may as well build something on top of the damned thing. But preserve the nice neighbourhoods, old Craftsmans, etc.

Unfortunately, most new building is not especially aesthetically appealing. Just drive through the suburbs and take a look at the quality of most new housing units. I speak with home inspectors quite often and they can give a pretty good run down on the horror stories they see in new houses...and how they say most of the 1920s and 30s houses in Portland are in better shape than houses from the mid 90s.

I like some of the new Pearl district buildigs, but you are right, some do look cheaply built. As for living on MLK and Multnomah, I probably wouldn't live there if I had kids either - but I would also not live in Hillsboro or Beaverton if I had kids - I don't want them to experience that type of suburban hell.

Quite a rant, Jack. I can honestly say I agree with virtually none of it, but what do I know?

I guess we'll know in 20 years whether Portland will be an even greater city than it is now thanks to all the new development (the consensus opinion of city-watchers nation-wide as well as Mr. Gragg) or whether it will be a ghettoish dump (your apparent point of view).

One specific matter you brought up: I got my first look at the new Safeway-under-condos on 10th Street earlier this week. And, whaddya know, the old Safeway it replaced is still right across the street (there's only a billboard of the tower-to-be coming soon). Go look at the difference, and tell me the new Safeway is not an improvement.

I was down in Sellwood today, and I took another look at the Sellwood Lofts over the Library down there. That I'll buy. Not too tall, the upper stories are set back, and the facade matches the neighborhood.

I'm sure the neighbors had to fight tooth and nail to get that. And it's decidedly not what's going on elsewhere in Portland these days.

You're right, I pick on Mr. Gragg unfairly, to some extent. But to me it's as if The Oregonian hired a guy to "critique" the week's air pollution. "The distinct aroma of classic paper mill, with hints of butterscotch and coffee."

I suppose that the larger point is that development for development's sake isn't neccesarily 'progress,' it's future urban renewal projects in-waiting.

If you want to break down the differences between housing 'in suburbia' (or anywhere else) built post-1970 and houses built pre-1950--is that no one will ever be renovating a 1987 Tudo-Med-Ranch 'ConstructoCorp Model "Serenity 34"' back to an 'original' "character" and condition. Not to mention how strong a reproduction market for 'Hardiplank' siding and Hunter ceiling fan/chandelier would exist.

That, of course, pre-supposes that cookie-cutter subdivisions actually don't crumble to dust in half a century.

Some things are classic, some things are just old. Some things are destined to be 'just old' as soon as they get permits drawn for them.

I realize that this defines me as a snob. But I have to wonder how much artistry and heritage was razed in perfectly restorable condition between 1946 and now in the name of 'progress.'

If the new development is just dense, crappy housing - why move-to/live-in Portland? Answer: You don't. I grew up in Portland and find the attraction is in the single-family houses Jack speaks in favor of.

Building nothing but dense, crappy housing will only serve to make Portland like other, more attractive cities. But with worse weather and fewer jobs.

Here is an article from today's Oregonian detailing how young, educated, professionals are moving to Portland in droves.


Where do you suppose young people desire to live? I'm thinking they might want to live in those bland square buildings Jack so despises.

Q: "Where do you suppose young people desire to live?"

A: "We were looking for an actual city where we could have decent space..."

In this case, 'decent space' is not a new-style house, but the single-family house Jack favors.

And if those young, educated people are lucky enough to get a career job here, eventually they'll settle down, and have a family. What do they do then? They'll either have to move to Beaverton or pay a prohibitive price for a house in town that's suitable for kids. Between that and the 1.25 percent nick they take by staying in Multnomah County, it's "suburbs, here they come."

Hopefully, Jack, the hiatus will be good for you. When you rant about density, you sound like a nut. You blame the so-called defenders of Randy Gragg--okay, I'll fess up, we meet twice a month at ClarkLewis (now, while it's still hip.)

What exactly do you propose to check the growth in the price of single family houses, especially in the Portland city limits? I suppose we could ship ten tons of heroin and crack a month into the inner east side, and watch property values fall that way.

The buildings in the Pearl are too tall? For you? Or for everyone? It's just a ludicrous position to take. Don't like it? Don't live there.

Your quote:

"Every place there is a tower going up right now, there could have been some nice two or three-story Craftsman-style homes built, with actual yards. The whole South Waterfront could have been done that way. It would have been perfect, but it wouldn't make guys like Homer Williams rich."

What? For a tax attorney, your grasp of numbers is crap. Care to guess what the cost per lot of those craftsman-styles homes would be?

Portland is a big city, in terms of land. What's wrong with a little mix of density?

"Little mix" my a*s. And if we subsidized those good old Portland-style homes the way we subsidize the Pearl Developer Welfare Program, I'm sure we could make them affordable.

And my friend, since you seem to enjoy the ad hominem game, let me give you one more thought: Any young, educated person who thinks it's cool to move to Portland, Oregon so that they can live long-term in an apartment tower is really sad.

Sorry for the personal stuff. It's unnecessary and uncalled for.

I don't think you could make single family housing pencil out on land like the south waterfront area. I don't know what the subsidy is, but it seems clear to me that the subsidy would have to be a lot higher to make single family work. And I don't think you'd see the quality of construction that we get in pre-WW II homes when labor was cheap and high quality lumber was widely available.

If I can try to retreat to substance, without all the nasty window-dressing, I'd say that the transition from a critique of subsidy to a critique of density is lost on me. The first can be evaluated in terms of the overall benefit relative to the subsidy, but I don't understand the point in trying to argue that everyone should have the same taste in housing. And young people aren't moving into those towers. It's mostly empty nesters who are tired of taking care of the yard--at least that's the case in the Pearl.

And how do you lay the blame for the high cost of single family housing at the feet of the city government?

There are indeed two issues: the density and the subsidy.

1. To some extent, the density is just an excuse for the profit margin. We're not in a luxury condo shortage situation. And in any event, you can do density without building cheap, ugly, and out of scale.

2. When the city is too broke to fix bridges and fill police positions, it's no time for subsidy.

"Any young, educated person who thinks it's cool to move to Portland, Oregon so that they can live long-term in an apartment tower is really sad."

That's such an odd position to take. Actually it's not sad, it's cool. Hence the reason San Fransisco and Manhattan are such popular places for young people to live.

Justin, to compare Portland to NYC or SF is ludicrous. In those two big cities, there are countless opportunities that are lacking here -- big bucks jobs, diversified economies, prestige, ethnic diversity, significant outposts of national government, serious international exchange, and world-class entertainment, sports and cultural events.

Portland has none of that. Smart people come to Portland because it's a large-ish city with a small-town feel. Great place to raise kids. Nice, older homes -- for sale or rent. Polite, warm, and friendly.

People who come to Portland to wear black clothes and smoke clove cigs with Randy Gragg at goofy art galleries in the Pearl would be eaten alive in NYC. They're just silly.

As for all those empty nesters who are trying out the Pearl, they're not going to stay long. Many won't like the hassles of the inner city, a few will get mugged walking around Old Town, and the rest will wind up in nursing homes in a few years.

Once the tax abatements go away, the Pearl could start diving. Maybe before. Unfortunately, it will already have been replicated elsewhere in town.

Jack, your point seems to be that people are only willing to live in apartment towers if they are also granted such world class amenities as "big bucks jobs, ethnic diversity, serious international exchange, and world-class entertainment."

I say people (not just young people) are willing to live in apartment towers, because they enjoy big city life with a small town feel. (which Portland offers.)

You seem convinced that this downtown renessance is a fad, and people will be fleeing to the suburbs in a matter of years.

I am convinced that there is a reason NY, SF and other European cities are so popular, and it's not JUST world class amenities. A lot of people in the world, including Portland, enjoy the dense exciting urban environment, over the bland cookie cutter suburban neighborhood environment.

I know how you despise ad hominen attacks, but Jack, you seem to think that because you don't want to live downtown in an aparment/condo than no one else does either. And I'm telling you that simply isn't true.

At this point, however, only time will tell.

The problem, Jack, with your wish to have young families remain in Portland in single-family homes is an economic one.

Assuming the existing single-family housing stock in Portland is preserved to the maximum, either

a. That stock will rise in value to the point where young families can't afford it, and the Eastside housing prices will rise to the levels of Portland Heights, or

b. That stock will not rise in value because the neighborhoods they are in are crummy. In which case families won't want to live there anyway.

I would suggest that anyone interested in this topic take a trip to Vancouver B.C. They've done what our city leaders seem to be attempting to do. I think it's great, but you should go and spend a few days there and judge for yourself.

Gordo, I'm not talking about "preserving" the single family homes we have in the city now. I'm talking about building more.

Justin, I'm not saying that no one wants to live in a tower. I'm saying that people with families don't. And those families are moving out of Portland in droves. It's what happened in NY and SF (and Vancouver, BC, I suspect) 40 years ago. I thought we were different here.

"the dense exciting urban environment"


Jack, to the extent that families are rapidly leaving the city, I agree. And should Portland do more to keep families in the city, yes. The City Council does seem to be attracting young professionals, rather than families. And this, in all honesty, is probably why we have our differences. You are a family man. I am a young single man.

Also, as for mocking the "dense exciting urban evironment" statement, I'm telling you Jack, there is an excitement about the Pearl District that I have never seen in this city before. People love it. And I honestly, feel bad for you, if you don't sense it. You don't have to like it, but the majority of Portlanders really do...

No matter, at this point, we will probably have to agree to disagree.

Maybe I'll have to go down there and see if I can capture some of it. No doubt I will have trouble "blending in," however. What should I wear?

I wouldn't purport to speak for the "majority of Portlanders," but if you think you can, it's your prerogative.

Jack, things change.

The South Waterfront redevelopment area is 140 acres in size. If it were developed as a single-family subdivision, assuming 5000 square foot lots, taking out land for roads, taking out land along the river for a public walkway, the density would probably be about 5.5 dwelling units per acre, or about 770 single family homes, 2,000 population. And no non-residential development of any kind.

And that would be great!

Keith, they can change for the better if you let the right people manage them and you stop worrying about a favored few getting rich in the process.

"Portland has none of that. Smart people come to Portland because it's a large-ish city with a small-town feel. Great place to raise kids. Nice, older homes -- for sale or rent. Polite, warm, and friendly."

That's why I'm back here. PDX could not be further from NYC, nor the young people who flock to either.

As for the Sellwood library condos, the woman who cuts my hair lives in one with her husband and kids, and she loves it. I guess it can work for families if done right (my guess - location, location, location).


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