Howdy ho. Greetings from your kissing cousin, Portland.
I see you're making headlines again—always the ham. Congrats on that bold skyline of the future everybody's gabbing about. Nice to see you finally growing up instead of just out. ;-) But this time, rather than being quietly jealous 180 miles to the south, I want to write and share some of my feelings.
I'm growing, too, but like always, not as fast as you. I get all the kudos for my light-rail system and urban-growth boundary, but every time I visit you, I get some bad big-city envy. And, now, Greg Smith is planning a 410-foot-tall condo?! Who do you think you are, Hong Kong? I tell you, it makes my biggest new condo—a li'l 325 footer—wilt like a willy in a cold shower!
It's a funny thing. We're both Northwesterners, born within a couple of years of one another, yet now we look so different, you with a skyline that rises to a peak and me with one that makes a valley.
Indeed, Seattle, it all boils down to topography: You've always been about panoramas, while I'm about the axial view. Your head spins with visions of whole mountain ranges, two big lakes, Puget Sound, and, of course, Mt. Rainier. I've got one good vista: Mt. Hood.
Don't laugh, cousin. It makes a difference. The distant landscape is your border, bigger than any city you could build. You were designed from your hilltops, making you feel free to try anything, whether sluicing away Denny Hill, sticking party hats on your towers, or letting ol' Marty Selig top off the whole damned skyline with that Darth Vaderish Columbia Center.
I grew up along a marshy bend in a river. My founders platted me with wee little 200-foot blocks—the smallest ever for an American city. It's an old design trick—diminutize the architecture to make the landscape seem bigger. But have you ever tried to build a decent skyscraper on such a little footprint? And, don't forget, small blocks mean more streets and sidewalks; 53 percent of my downtown is open to the sky, compared to 33 percent of yours. I can't even get a decent urban canyon going!
Everybody gets all smiley about my downtown—"You're pedestrian scale!" they coo. But that damned Louis Kahn's words still burn in my brain: The little fucker called me "Lilliputian."
And then there's Mt. Hood. Everybody here worships it like an altar piece. It may be over 11,000 feet high, but at 60 miles away, it looks puny. Chrissakes, I had to write a zoning code to protect it: "Thou shalt not build any skyscrapers that block the little volcano." Nobody had to do that with Rainier!
Okay, let's be real: We've both got Vancouver, BC, envy. All those point towers and new waterfront parks! Both our developers like to pretend we're building point towers. But everybody knows a real point tower is thin with floorplates usually 10,000 square feet or less. Ours are Barry Bonds thick.
Still, now that you've lifted that silly CAP thing the hippies passed back in the '80s to stop any more Columbia Centers, your new towers will be bigger than mine ever will. I don't know, maybe building big makes you feel, act, and be big—so many more viewpoints from which to ponder the panoramas of the world and its markets. Maybe carving out picturesque notches for li'l ol' Mt. Hood keeps me focused on the quality of life at home, up close and on the ground. Like, how many light-rail lines have you built? And don't forget my urban-growth boundary: It's kept me trim, trim, trim.
I know, cheap shots. But as the late historian Terrence O'Donnell used to say, you were founded by people looking for gold; I was founded by people searching for Eden. You're a real city; I'm a village.
But again, congrats on that new skyline. It's everything you deserve, and maybe even more.
Your loving cousin,
Randy Gragg writes on architecture and urban design for the Oregonian.