Tallboys, The Floor is Lava, and Other Consequences of Parking

This is the beginning of what will be an occasional series on the design impacts of parking on urban housing. Let's start with a look at what we'll call the "tallboy" - referencing those 16 ounce cans of cheap beer or malt liquor, for when 12oz just isn't enough. Here's one, under construction in NE Portland. 

   16oz of residential pleasure


16oz of residential pleasure

Distorted proportions represent distorted priorities

Distorted proportions represent distorted priorities

The stretched proportions of the tallboy houses are a parody of the archetype of the house. We generally share an ideal image of a house, and it's reflected in the homes we've built for ages. The image of "house" is has a loose canon of proportions, neither too high, nor too wide, and we can observe this in a walk around our neighborhoods. As a rule, the height is generally less than twice the width, or the width is never more than twice the height. 



The archetype, with its infinite variations, is the monopoly house. 

The universal signifier for "house"

The universal signifier for "house"

Beyond the cognitive distress of these funhouse mirror distortions of basic form, there are some real urban design impacts to consider. These impacts are eminently quantifiable too. Let's examine the traditional relationship of dwelling to public realm. Streets are more than just a network of routes from place to place; they are public spaces. Streets are the negative space between private spaces, where civic life, life between buildings happens. The sidewalk is where public meets private. In traditional neighborhood design, there is a sophisticated gradient mediating between public and private space. This gradient is defined by both horizontal and vertical separation. The distances involved do not need to be huge to be effective either, as we will see below. 


The 21st century spec townhouse eliminates this gradient however, isolating the dwelling behind what is basically a small parking lot. The pedestrian experience is degraded to a stroll past the ass end of a row of luxury SUVs in more than a few projects we've observed. 

Normal 2D.jpg

The traditional neighborhood design, with its graduated layers of privacy is based on the way the building relates to its site. The ground plane, shown here, is the plane that the building sits on. The way the building relates to this plane (or doesn't) has an enormous impact on the way it functions, and what it contributes to the public realm. Some buildings are fortified and hostile, while others are open and permeable. Urban design studies have confirmed people seek out places characterized by the latter and avoid the former. 

Tall 2D.jpg

When the building is raised up above a garage, the traditional ground plane zone is levitated, functionally eliminating any relationship between interior space and the yard and the street. This turns a house into a one story apartment building. Indoor outdoor living and the opportunity for gardening is usually replaced by a useless space covered in "beauty bark." 

This levitating condition results in a design motif we've come to think of as "the floor is lava." What we see here is a row of houses, that, if they were situated on a traditional ground plane, would actually be pretty great. 

Tallboys Ground Plane.jpg

But no, we can't touch the ground. It's lava!


Designs like this have brought a lot of undeserved heat on the "skinny house" typology. We don't think the skinny house is a priori a bad form. It often is, though, and that's a direct consequence of trying to shoehorn parking into the typology. As we can see here, skinny houses situated on the ground as God intended, are quite attractive. We suspect many people who pass these on the street never even guess they're 21st century interlopers. 

short bois.jpg
Lair Hill Stoops.jpg

They contribute synergistically to the neighborhood because of the way they relate to the ground plane and to the public realm. The public/private gradient and the stoop can function in a very dense, urban setting, and doesn't necessitate huge setbacks. Here's a row of early 20th century homes in Lair Hill. The front walls are no more than 10' from the lot line, and the porches are possibly as close as 3'. However, it's very clear what's public and what's private, and the pedestrian environment is a safe, inviting place. 


Contrast that with this recently completed project on the east edge of the Eliot neighborhood. When you prioritize parking, which is what most unsophisticated spec builders, and the lenders who fund them do, you get parkinghouses. These townhouses are in the R2 zone, and represent a pretty typical market response to that zoning. 

Lets be very clear here: absent any additional code stipulations on building form, upzoning single family areas will not result in more of the Prewar plexes and small apartments we and others have profiled and analyzed. What we will most likely see is more of what we're already getting in the R2.5 and R1 zones; very large, luxury townhouses stacked above parking. No stoops, no transition from public to private, just places for cars, and houses jacked up in towers, like a one or two unit apartment building. 


Portland has ample precedent for code interventions that block the worst of auto oriented design. Our planning community recognized decades ago that when parking dominates the design process, we get quantifiably bad outcomes. Strip malls and similar retail designs that set shops back from the street behind seas of parking have been outlawed in most of the city's inner commercial zones. As of 2018, new drive through uses have been outlawed city wide, extending a ban on new drive-throughs in the Central City Plan District to the whole of Portland.

Similarly, "snout houses" were banned by the city's residential code. It's really not hard to see why:

Snout Fever.jpg

The building industry's current standard response to the duplex zones justifies a similar intervention. Compare the way the following buildings relate to their context. The one on the right is called "Z House" because of its clever offset floor levels, and for its residents, it's probably a pretty nice space to occupy. However, it has a minimal relationship to the public realm and the neighborhood. One-offs like this are not really a big issue, but cumulatively, the impact is huge. Part of what makes cities wonderful is the way they add up to more than the sum of their parts. This is because the individual buildings relate synergistically and support life between buildings. When life takes place entirely inside buildings or designated outdoor recreation spaces, you get suburbia. 

z house.jpg

We want to conclude this essay by noting that we're not advocating an absolutist position on parking by any means. The correct lesson to take away from this exploration of building forms is that in the Prewar era, building form took precedence and parking was an afterthought -  shoehorned into the residual space on a lot. In the Postwar era, however, parking began to drive the design process. Garages were situated on sites and residential space was shoehorned in around them. As we can see from the illustration below, older development has room for off street parking. The difference is that unlike the last image, where the housing is stacked on top of the garage, cars are accommodated on-site; they just aren't invited into the house itself. They are allowed on site, but the principle structure is a building for people


Lloyd Russell - Part II

Creston Lofts Building 1 (east)

Creston Lofts Building 1 (east)

The following is the second half our Plan Design Xplore's interview, which we began last week, with Architect/Developer Lloyd Russel of San Diego. Our conversation started with a discussion of Russell's Creston Lofts project in Southeast Portland, and lead to a wide ranging discussion of development, zoning and urbanism in Portland. 

Plan Design Xplore: What were some of the regulatory challenges and hurdles that you faced?

Lloyd Russell: We didn't have any - I didn't perceive any - I mean the zoning was great and We didn't have problems with that. Our biggest problem was we designed it and Andy had a kid!

And then we decided that can we hold this property for a couple years. We're gonna do something and we got back onto it. The only challenging thing was we had designed it at one point, and then we took it back up again a couple years later just finished - you really raised the money and push it through and stuff like that and the bigger challenge was the financing, I think, because even though Portland didn't require any parking there were a handful of banks that looked at us and said you don't have any parking? We're not gonna give you a construction loan we think you're crazy.

I think the form based zoning, I mean I love it, but it could be abused, and that’s why the Creston is kind of a critique of that. It’s embracing the form based zoning, but I’m trying to set a model for what I think it should be.

There was also a project on Hawthorne, I think, that exploited that no-parking policy by doing 80 units with no parking, and the Business Improvement District or something had them in a lawsuit or something.

PDX: I think that's probably the one kind near the new Safeway at say about 28th, 27th-ish. That's a large one of the largest projects on Hawthorne.

Hawthorne Twenty Six

Hawthorne Twenty Six

LR: That’s one where they’re kind of abusing the zone, and I think the form based zoning, I mean I love it, but it could be abused, and that's why the Creston is kind of a critique of that. It's embracing the form based zoning, but I'm trying to set a model for what I think it should be, as opposed to you know 80 units with no parking and Just maxing everything out that doesn't feel right?

PDX: One of the things that we want to offer is our own critique of development and the development status quo in Portland, and see what are the “black hat” and “white hat” scenarios for development under our existing code and hopefully use form based principles to guide better outcomes.

LR: When we’re teaching, you know you're trying to empower the architect and we talk about… we tell them how to make a pro-forma, how to develop it. How to develop real estate, how it’s very profitable; it's more profitable than being an architect. You know we talked about how these kids can go over to the dark side, and so what we end up with, what we quickly get into discussion about is ethics. What’s the right thing to do?

We talk about it all the time, about housing, and your responsibility in the city and being a good urbanist and all this sort of stuff. I don't think that discussion should ever end. It's not just about maxing out zoning diagrams.

PDX: That's pretty much exactly why we got this project going in the first place is exactly that concern!

LR: Let me give you a little background. So in San Diego, they were building a ballpark downtown and they were updating the [planning ordinances] for downtown and one of the guys that was that worked at the Center City Development Corporation was this guy Gary Papers, who came from Portland.

So he gave me a little background on how the form based zoning was intended to work back in the day, and what the Planning Department wanted. They would go into an area and make a little node. You know on Hawthorne there are these nodes, like every five blocks or something where anything goes. You know, no FAR, no parking…

I want to set the bar pretty high so that the neighbors - whoever gets to build next to me - no one does a crappy job. They’re going to build something nice, or they’re going to rent for less than my project.

Height limit up here, something crazy, you know, something crazy like that, and the first project that we get built in that area, the idea was that the Planning Department would be really strict, but have a lot of coordination with the developer to make sure the project was built well, and to a high standard because it would raise the bar for all the other neighbors’ different projects that would come along and they’d build stuff, and as there were more projects, eventually they would form some sort of Business Improvement District. Then the people in the neighborhood would have power and control over what got built next. But the first project is the one that sets the bar.

Maybe things started to move too fast at this point because things are getting built everywhere, but I took that to heart when we did the Creston project and said we've got the zoning on a couple other blocks, and I want to set the bar pretty high so that the neighbors - whoever gets to build next to me - no one does a crappy job. They’re going to build something nice, or they’re going to rent for less than my project.

PDX: So it sounds like you have a lot of good things to say about the CN1 zone and the kind of work that you can do there. Basically, you were scouting for CN1 sites, and this is the one that appeared?

LR: A couple of commercial zones that would work but Andy lives over by Reed College, and he says hey, there's a dedicated bike path, and the they're gonna extend the train over there. We just thought it was kind of a nice and appropriate project. I mean we looked at a whole bunch of stuff as well, but you can only do one project at a time. We're not a big corporation.

PDX: Let's talk a little bit more about the financing of this project. We would love to understand how it the deal was structured, if you had a difficult time with banks, etc. Where were you able to find financing?

LR: It was mostly… there was just funny that there were a couple local banks that wouldn’t touch us because there was no parking, more than anything else.

But the deal is I have a very simple partnership or I try not to have preferred returns for investors because that kind of puts the investors and developers at odds, and I try to just say, hey, everyone's in it together. I try to also to leverage my architecture fee and sweat equity so that sometimes takes a bank… it has to kind of think about that for a little bit, and try to find a good group of people that want to hold onto a building as opposed to trying to have it be speculative, and sell a building or have some crazy structure to their returns. I want people that are in for that for the long haul, that's all.

PDX: Well with all that being said all the challenges that come with designing and constructing anything new, what were some of the things that might have made the project easier to execute in the first place?

LR: After I did the three buildings I swore never to do three buildings again because it's an inordinate amount of exterior wall and then it got me nuts as an architect, as I'm trying to design so many elevations. That was more challenge than I thought, so the reality of it was really simple in plan; I've got three buildings clustered around a tree. It's the transition green into the neighborhood. But then it was like twelve elevations, and I hate doing elevations! I totally like figuring out 50 units in section and all sorts of other stuff.

Creston Lofts Site Plan.jpg

Next building, I don't care what it is. It's gonna be one. I'm not gonna do a campus of buildings again because that was a challenge. But it was kind of fun too, so I don't know…

PDX: What drove you into the direction of doing three separate buildings, a campus…

LR: It was a low infrastructure building, and just being able to occupy and activate the whole site, you know that was part of it, we've done a similar project in San Diego where it was an entire city block, designed by five different architects everyone did their own building. It was just it was really fun at that scale.

PDX: Do you have any plans of doing more projects in Portland in the future?

LR: Yeah, yeah, we're doing a little project in Brooklyn, on Milwaukie. It's across the street from Andy’s office; another eighteen unit project. It's different, it's a narrow and deep lot so the building is kind of like a long bar, But there's a little twist to it, you know.

PDX: Has it already been submitted for review is there something that we could go and look?

LR: It’s under construction. And you should talk to Andy. He’s my lead partner he's got his office across the street. We've known each other since the mid 90’s. We've talked about doing projects the whole time, so this will be our second one together. Our experience is so deep that we have an elevated level of conversation, and to me it's endearing because it's like he's a general contractor, and we can talk to urbanism.

The way it was developed was great at that area at the time. It was it was blighted and, one of the problems with blight and nobody can get financing ‘cuz there's no comps And this is a way for the city to provide to provide a bunch of housing types that other people could get comps to and get financing

PDX: That's terrific

LR: And actually, then I'll say that about that in Creston, That was the challenge was trying to get comps for the project because there wasn't much new product at that time and so it was hard for them to get comps for one bedroom units I’ve got a lot of one bedroom units and studios. Most of the rental stuff was two bedroom units and the more more efficient stuff in studios and one bedrooms and the housing stock was so old that the rents wouldn't support new construction. We were trying to tell the bank and the appraiser ‘till; we’re blue in the face that no, no we know this is gonna rent for X, and they're like yeah, we don’t believe you, but the appraisal came back, and it said so.

Now today, Portland's had such a boom that there's so many buildings and units it's easier to get in front of comps and get your financing in order. So we were kind of pioneers at that point with that project.

PDX: With that being said do you do you have any plans of doing more projects in Portland in the future?

LR: Yeah, we're doing a little project, in Brooklyn, on SE Milwaukie down there. It's across the street from [Andy’s] office; another eighteen unit project, but it's different, in that it's a narrow and deep lot, so the building is kind of like a long bar. But there's some little twist to it, you know.