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Design Commission endorses housing at Con-Way site

News Article
This image is a design concept for a new multi-unit housing building in Northwest Portland.
Additional units are proposed for a vibrant Slabtown neighborhood.

It took one hearing and less than 70 minutes for the Design Commission to approve a master design for up to 192 market-rate housing units as part of the Con-Way Master Plan site in Northwest Portland on Nov. 2.

The project covers the eastern half of Block 292, which is surrounded by NW Savier St., NW 20th Ave., NW Raleigh St. and a pedestrian walkway on its west side. The project proposes building a seven-story U-shaped structure with a west-facing courtyard and approximately 115 below-grade parking spaces.

The proposal sought a few changes to existing requirements and limitations, including a request to add almost 15 feet in height beyond the 67-foot maximum limit. Modifying the height limit created an opportunity for architectural and skyline variety in the neighborhood by allowing two-story townhouses with gable roofs, generously setback from the building edges, at the top of the building. Roughly the same amount of floor area could have been achieved without a modification to height but would have required the building to have a blockier, six-story form with a flat roof. Setting back the top two floors into a penthouse featuring pitched roofs offers a welcome contrast to the more typical flat roofs in the area. In addition to adding architectural variety, the gable roof forms will break up the height and massing of the high-density building. The gables also give significant character and sculptural interest to the block, providing a distinctive place-making and wayfinding feature to the Slabtown neighborhood.

This image provides an aerial view of a design for a multi-unit housing building in the Slabtown neighborhood in Northwest Portland.

SERA Architects, the project applicant, sought a design advice request to receive feedback from the Design Commission on the proposed building design. Following that Aug. 17 session, the proposal was revised to lower the building height, improve the building's relationship with the pedestrian realm, and make the overall design more cohesive. The height modification request was reduced from 19 feet of additional height to 14 feet 10 inches by reducing the height of the penthouse gables.

Multiple improvements were made to the ground floor residential units, including relocating the three units along NW Raleigh St. to provide ground-level amenity space that created a more active frontage, enlarging the stoops to make the outdoor area more usable, and adding a landscape buffer to the units along NW 20th Ave. The architectural relationship between the base and penthouse was improved by adding brick detailing to the five-story base while simplifying the penthouse design, adjusting the color composition, and applying a more cohesive window patterning across all floors. The main entrance was differentiated from the rest of the building and made more prominent and transparent to create a more active relationship between the building and the street.

In addition, the revised proposal before the Design Commission included balconies for many upper floor units and art installations near the pedestrian walkway.

Kurt Schultz from SERA Architects described the design concept: “The narrative that we created for this building is having a lower scale building, a building that is shorter than six stories that would be at a five-story scale that really reflects the industrial warehouse heritage of this site. It also has penthouse living added to the top of that building that is set back to allow more light and more air into the parks and open space.

“We also wanted to break away from the precedent of the flat roofs because there really isn’t a lot of volume and roof diversity within the Con-Way Master Plan right area now,” said Schultz. “We chose to use gable roofs for capping off our penthouse that are a nod to both the residential historic buildings that are around the Northwest District. It is also a nod to some of the more industrial buildings in the district as well that had pitched roofs and gables as a way to differentiate the building.”

Design commissioners expressed support for the proposal, though concerns about granting the allowance for additional height were discussed. Commissioner Joe Swank aired his reservations about granting height allowances beyond what are normally allowed for buildings that include affordable housing. “It’s just a real struggle for me to grant height modifications in excess of what we grant affordable housing buildings as a bonus,” he said. “The one thing on the height modification is that the two buildings adjacent have received height modifications to the same level.”

Commissioner Zari Santner countered, “We could consider the height modification if the public realm was greatly improved. In my view, they have done a stellar job in improving their design of the public realm. It is just remarkable beyond what I was expecting, especially on Savier.”

In the end, four of the five commissioners (with Swank dissenting) approved the project as presented, including the added height allowance, after recognizing that the added height was a reshaping of the same floor area that could have been built on the site within the normal height limit and the two-story penthouses with pitched roofs better met design guidelines than would a design that complied with the maximum height allowance.

Design Commission chair Brian McCarter praised the work of the design team. “The applicant and design team went away and listened to our concerns and did a whole number of refinements,” he said.

The Con-Way Master Plan was approved in 2012. It is part of the Northwest Plan District. The master plan site originally accommodated a trucking depot and truck maintenance facilities; it evolved over time to include headquarters for Consolidated Freightways and office facilities that supported trucking operations. Since the Master Plan’s approval, numerous shops and hundreds of housing units have been added to this former industrial area.