Think Out Loud

How Dense And Tall Should Portland's Neighborhoods Be?

By Allison Frost (OPB) and Ivanna Tucker (OPB)
June 5, 2015 3:59 p.m.

City of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability

In the next 20 years, the Portland region is expected to grow by an estimated 700,000 people, to nearly 3 million. Portland is considered to be the country's 28th most populated city. Planners and community members have a big question to ponder: where are all those people going to live and what will those neighborhoods look like?

"Most people move to Portland to live in our classic neighborhoods, and that is the image we have projected," Portland architect Rick Potestio says. "That is is the environment we are struggling to preserve and protect."

With Portland's growing attraction to potential residents, the city is looking for ways to create more housing to host the expanding population.

"The way it's going to evolve here is pretty much in a Portland way and look different. We are counting on that," says Joe Zehnder, the city's chief urban planner with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

In recent years, neighborhood activists in Portland have run into conflicts with developers over new apartments constructed without parking, the appropriate place for so-called skinny houses, tearing down older homes to construct bigger ones, and a new 15 story development in the Pearl district.

"On some of these situations, there is really no easy win at all," Zehnder says.


Community members, such as Steven Cole, president of the Irvington Community Association want developers to be more selective about where they are building new housing units.

"Later on down the road, we might have to change what we are doing," Cole says. "Right now, there are a lot of underutilized lots."

Potestio is inspired by how some older Portland neighborhoods, like Goose Hollow in downtown, have developed. He thinks they provide a good blueprint for future development.

"They were able to blend different types of houses and scales of houses together in such a way that you don't really notice or differentiate whether there is one house on one lot and a twin house on another," Potestio says.

The demand for affordable housing presents a host of other issues.  Postestio says that if Portland's housing situation continues on its current track, the city could see housing costs approach those in San Francisco.

"The demand for [housing] will always outstrip our ability, as a public sector at least, to build," Zehnder says. "We need to focus on that and keep building it so they can keep our neighborhoods in a mix."

The rise in housing prices has made it difficult for people to afford a traditional single-family home. Zehnder says building multi-family units is what the the city will be focused on in the foreseeable future. Of course, where new structures can go up depends on zoning requirements, which vary widely throughout the city.

That's a system architect Rick Potestio would like to see changes in.

"With zoning, we are segregating our city out into very distinct types of neighborhoods," Potestio says. "That is not a strategy that is going to benefit our city in the long term."

Potestio thinks there could be much more density in a lot of places around the city, but Zehnder thinks the current plan for growth is adequate to handle the expected population influx.

"If we design these new neighborhoods well enough, they will demonstrate to folks that it can actually produce a great place," Zehnder said.