State Officials Reject Portland’s Plan for Taller Buildings in Chinatown

Critics said proposed skyscrapers would throw the Lan Su Chinese Garden in shade and dominate venerable structures.

(Sam Gehrke)

38 feet: The height of the Chinatown Gate.

125 feet: The maximum height of Chinatown buildings recommended by preservationists.

200 feet: The maximum height of Chinatown buildings preferred by developers and City Council.

The city of Portland will have to convince the Oregon Court of Appeals that it acted appropriately when it set controversial new building height limits in Chinatown last year.

The City Council vote infuriated Portland's historic preservationists. In a statement, the Bosco-Milligan Foundation/Architectural Heritage Foundation said the decision would promote "out-of-scale, incompatible development in one of the most diverse and culturally significant districts in the city." Critics said proposed skyscrapers would throw the Lan Su Chinese Garden in shade and dominate venerable structures.

The 10-city-block neighborhood north of West Burnside Street and east of Broadway has been referred to as "the New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District" since it won protected status in 1989. For years, city officials, landowners, neighborhood residents and others have grappled over the future of the neighborhood, which has physically changed little even as the city around it has grown dramatically.

As part of the Central City 2035 plan, city officials last year revisited height limits in the neighborhood, which is dominated by low-rise shops. Under existing city code, developers could in theory have built structures up to 425 feet tall—although for a variety of reasons, including a requirement that new structures go through historic design review, nothing remotely near that height was built.

The city's Planning and Sustainability Commission initially recommended the City Council lower the height limit to 125 feet. Under pressure from developers and owners, including Tom Brenneke's Guardian Management and the Menashe Family, the council initially considered a 160-foot limit—then, in a contentious June 6, 2018, vote, raised the limit in parts of the neighborhood to 200 feet.

Critics, including Bosco-Milligan, Restore Oregon, the Oregon Nikkei Endowment and the Portland Chinatown History Foundation, appealed the 200-foot limit to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.

On Aug. 8, LUBA returned its decision, declaring the city of Portland had failed to justify the extra 75 feet of height.

"The city's findings in support of the 200-foot height limit are inadequate," LUBA ruled Aug. 8.

An attorney for Bosco-Milligan and Restore Oregon was not available for comment.

Eden Dabbs, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, declined to comment on the city's plans.

The deadline for the parties to file replies with the Oregon Court of Appeals is Aug. 27.

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