Will These Massive Skyscrapers Actually Get Built in Portland?

A starchitect's proposal aims to raise rooflines on the waterfront.

By Randy Gragg December 28, 2017 Published in the January 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

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A rendering of Kengo Kuma and Associates’ waterfront proposal

The Douglas Apartments at RiverPlace look a lot like Monopoly game hotels—296 of them—glued tightly together atop a plinth of garage doors. Vintage 1995, they were an affordable, if homely, early city effort to lure new residents downtown. But now, those units could be swept away for the tallest, toniest residential towers in Portland history.

In the fall, the Douglas Apartments’ new owners, NBP Capital, circulated a new 22-page “vision” around city hall. Rendered by globally renowned architects—and designers of the stunning addition to the Portland Japanese Garden—Kengo Kuma and Associates, the sumptuous bird’s-eye views portray eight new buildings, from 100 to 400 feet tall, green roofs and tree-festooned decks verdantly rising from lushly planted steps that cascade toward the river. The fine print proposes 2,617 new units of housing, “up to 500” of them affordable under Portland’s new inclusionary housing rules. If anything resembling the drawings were ever built, they would be Portland’s most expensive-to-build residential towers ever.

NBP’s high hopes join a wider upward surge of Portland’s skyline. Early this year, the city council will finalize Central City 2035, the first new downtown blueprint since 1988. After years of arduous debate with property owners and neighborhood advocates, city planners are set to unleash buildings 400 feet high in places like the north Pearl District and 460 feet along the transit mall near PSU. (For perspective, Big Pink and the Wells Fargo towers are around 540 feet tall.)  But according to Portland’s chief city planner, Joe Zehnder, “We really never thought about RiverPlace as a redevelopment opportunity.” At NBP’s urging, Zehnder’s team raised allowed heights in the area from 150 to 250 feet.

Is the vision real? Or, in developer parlance, just “eyewash”—pretty drawings to seduce politicians and jack the land value for a flip? (NBP declined to be interviewed.)

Either might be true. NBP’s website brags of a $500 million portfolio of 57 properties across Portland and Seattle, joint ventures with billionaire and philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen. In its nine-year life, NBP has scooped up landmarks like the Roosevelt and Mayflower Park Hotels in Seattle and is currently redeveloping Portland’s Woodlark Building and Cornelius Hotel. Berggruen has developed high-rises by top-shelf architects across the world, but NBP itself has never actually built anything taller than four stories.

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Another rendering of Kengo Kuma and Associates’ waterfront proposal

Reached in Tokyo, Balazs Bognar of Kuma and Associates quickly points out that the RiverPlace vision is “very early conjectural work”—not proposed buildings. Berggruen and Kuma have a “personal relationship” and have been looking to collaborate. “The heart of it,” he adds, “is we’d like to give something great to Portland.”

Mayor Ted Wheeler offered a wide-armed welcome. But Kuma’s vision promises more kindling for fiery height debates as Central City 2035 chugs toward final approval. Some longtime developers express dismay at NBP’s cheeky bypassing of Portland’s tortuous planning process, instead directly pitching a mayor looking for a win. Phil Gilbertson, a resident of one of Portland’s oldest skyscraping condos, the nearby American Plaza, is helping to rally the neighborhood against a “Central Park South on Tom McCall Park.”

Whether a real estate flip or a path to an architectural landmark, NBP’s vision appears on track to further raise Portland’s roof.

“We have an affordability crisis,” says Kyle Chisek, the mayor’s director of bureau relations. “We need to use every tool at our disposal. That means infill development. That means maximizing downtown. We’re not talking about building it in the middle of Irvington.”

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