Why Doesn’t Portland Have Any Buildings Taller Than 35 Stories?

The main reason for our edificial inadequacy is that there’s a legal limit to how tall a building in Portland can be.

The Pacwest Center. (Brian Brose)

Why doesn’t Portland have any buildings taller than 35 stories? If Portland wants to get in with the big-boy cities, we need some 50- and 70-story buildings scraping those ubiquitous winter clouds. —Envious for Skyscrapers

My initial reaction to all this talk of skyscraper envy and getting with the big boys, Envious, was to conclude you have an obsession with mightily thrusting towers that might be better suited to Dr. Freud than Dr. Know. Upon reflection, however, I decided you’re hardly the first to use the size of a city’s buildings as a proxy for overall municipal status. If a pecking order among cities is inevitable, I guess I can understand why you’d rather be a pecker than a peckee.

That said, you might want to invest in a peck-proof helmet: The closest thing we have to a 50-story building is the U.S. Bancorp Tower (aka Big Pink) at 42 floors—and it’s probably the closest thing we’ll ever have, so get used to it.

The main reason for our edificial inadequacy is that there’s a legal limit to how tall a building in Portland can be. Under normal circumstances that limit is 460 feet. (The city has occasionally granted variances to go a bit higher, but they usually regret it.) That means the tallest possible building you could erect in Portland would be in a 10-way tie for 1,072nd-tallest in America, which doesn’t give you much to wave your big “We’re #1!” foam finger about.

Worse (at least for a size queen like yourself), we’re not likely to get many buildings even that tall anytime soon. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but demand for office space in downtown Portland is not exactly through the roof at the moment, which is the kind of thing that makes banks a bit skittish about lending money.

Demand for residential space is through the roof, of course. However, there’s a lot of opposition to satisfying that demand by building tall residential towers downtown, most of it from people who already live in tall residential towers downtown and are worried about their view of the mountain or whatever. That’s obviously bullshit, but they have money and lawyers, so don’t hold your breath.

In short (heh heh), you should probably learn to love our modestly endowed city as is. You know what they say: It’s not the size of your high-rise, but the zoning where you’re owning that really counts.

Questions? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.