Housing Takes the Podium

Wood frame apartments built atop a concrete base — known as five-over-ones, or podium buildings — are growing in popularity right now. Are they Eugene’s answer to high density?

The ground floor of Homes For Good’s downtown affordable housing project Market District Commons is almost literally the ground. The wide-open space still has gravel on it. 

Standing above are four stories of wood-framed housing, a form of housing generally referred to as podium housing, though “five over one” is often used when it’s five stories over a concrete ground floor. The Market District’s Commons’ ground floor won’t be completely finished until a business moves in, leaving the interior construction for the future occupant, whether it’s a restaurant or retail store. 

These buildings all have very similar characteristics. They have an open concrete ground floor for retail, parking or resident amenities. Built above are several floors of blocky wood-framed housing, which ranges from a colorful yellow hue like the Market District Commons, to dark olive and brick Gordon Lofts. Color aside, the buildings are distinguished by their lack of distinguishing characteristics — they are basically rectangles with windows, though some add in balconies or other external decor. Still, once you have seen one, you have seen them all. 

Podium buildings come in various price tags for tenants. Just a block away from Homes For Good’s affordable housing project is the Gordon Lofts, marketed on its website as luxurious living. Developing podium buildings is a way to have a high yield of housing units, using a small amount of land. It’s becoming more popular as housing for young professionals who don’t need a lot of living space, and a way to build housing in commercial zoning that could address the city’s housing shortage. 

But it does have its faults. 

Although the wood frame is a relatively inexpensive construction cost, podium buildings may not be the best solution for Homes For Good’s affordable housing projects because of the often retail component that’s found on the ground floor. And, says University of Oregon Department of Architecture Associate Professor Peter Keyes, podium buildings may not be the answer for the type of housing that would be appealing for the city’s older demographic who are looking to downsize their living space. 

Eugene may not have as many podium buildings as cities such as Seattle or Portland, but you start to notice the blocky character around town: Lane Community College’s downtown campus, Arena District Apartments near the University of Oregon, the 35 Club near the Eugene Police Department, the Midtown Apartments on 16th and Pearl — the list is growing. 

Housing the Masses

Podium housing’s roots begin in the Pacific Northwest, Keyes says. Oregon was in an economic depression during the 1990s, and housing developers couldn’t make money from building concrete buildings because there was a low demand for apartments. 

The city of Portland told developers that they could build five stories of wood over a concrete podium. The style of housing is more cost-effective than building with concrete or steel and can withstand an earthquake better, Keyes says. 

Since the 1990s, podium buildings have been growing in popularity. Keyes says he recently talked with a Boston architect, and he said there’s been an increase of podium buildings in Boston’s working class neighborhoods. 

“It’s a response to a young single demographic who need a small, affordable place,” Keyes says. In other words, “yuppies,” Keyes says. 

In Eugene, podium buildings emerged as a way to provide housing for college students, who have normally piled into houses near campus, he says. As housing prices began to rise in Eugene, and the UO was redirecting recruitment toward out-of-state students to compensate for dwindling financial support from the state of Oregon, podium buildings were constructed as a way to house students, who may be from more urban areas of California, he adds.

Although there are podium buildings near campus, Keyes says he doesn’t think Eugene has the young urban professional demographic in town to support the buildings in the urban core. 

But that could change. 

In past years, young professional architects would move to Seattle or San Francisco after graduating from the UO, but now there’s a trend of them staying in Eugene. “We’re always predicting these periods of growth in Eugene,” Keyes says. “If we see this growth of yuppie population in Eugene, I could see us getting more of the building types that they can live in.” 

In the 1990s, Portland prepared for its population growth by building higher density on major arteries. “Now you go down that stretch on Belmont [Street]; it is solid five-over-one,” he says. If there’s an increase of the yuppie demographic in Eugene, 20 years from now, Keyes says, the city could develop even more podium buildings like Portland did. 

But would an increase of podium buildings destroy Eugene’s architectural character? Keyes says no because the city’s character isn’t as unique as podium building critics may think. Eugene’s neighborhoods have similarities to other cities from Sacramento to Omaha, he adds. 

And new buildings destroying Eugene’s character isn’t a new conversation. 

When Thom Mayne held discussions with Eugene residents about the Wayne Morse Federal Courthouse, the 2005 Pritzker Architecture Prize winning architect had to break the news about the city’s character, Keyes remembers. “Thom went on to say that, ‘I’ve gotta tell you, I’ve been all around this country. I’ve built stuff everywhere. Eugene doesn’t look that different to me than anywhere else,’” Keyes recalls. “And I think that’s absolutely true.” 

An Affordable Housing Approach

Homes For Good’s Market District Commons is in the heart of Eugene’s downtown area. Located at the 5th Street Public Market Expansion, it’s near social services, grocery stores and possible employment that includes restaurants. But future affordable housing podium buildings may need the help of the city’s real estate developers. 

“People who live in affordable housing have somewhere they can work, somewhere to buy groceries,” says Homes For Good spokesperson Ela Kubok. “Neighborhood-friendly increases the walkability.” 

The Market District Commons is a podium building and it is the first time in years the housing agency has developed affordable housing in downtown Eugene, Kubok adds. 

It’s a recent example of affordable housing developed in a podium building, but its success is tied to the benevolence of a real estate developer, Obie Companies, which bought and manages the commercial ground floor. 

The Market District Commons has 50 residential units, 42 one-bedroom and eight two-bedroom, with prices ranging from $720 to $840, though many residents receive subsidies to pay for rent, Kubok says. 

What’s common with other higher-end podium buildings, Kubok says, is granite counters and luxury light fixtures. Installing that in 50-plus units drives costs up, she adds, so the housing agency didn’t go that route to keep rent low.

Homes For Good decided to have a podium building downtown because the agency’s board of directors, which includes Lane County commissioners, wanted to have an active commercial space on the ground floor, says Homes For Good’s Real Estate Development Director Steve Ochs. 

Ochs says the city also wanted commercial space at the ground floor of Market District Commons to allow the building to engage with the area — and avoid the controversy that occurred with the 13th & Olive student housing building, aka Capstone, which has residential units at the ground floor of a pedestrian-heavy area. 

Homes For Good says there are plans for a healthy grocer in the retail space on the ground floor. But the retail ground floor, which satisfied the board’s request for commercial space, is part of what would prevent the organization from investing in future podium buildings. 

There’s risk involved with owning retail space, Ochs says. The agency would have been responsible for finding tenants for the commercial space. “I don’t even know if the bank would have financed us,” he says. 

Because Obie Companies bought the retail ground floor space, Homes For Good was able to construct the Market Commons, Ochs adds. And with that support from Obie Companies, which owns Fifth Street Public Market, the four stories of wood was more affordable, compared to building steel or concrete construction. 

Whether Homes For Good would pursue another podium building depends whether the agency were to partner with an investor like Obie who can pay for the commercial space, Ochs says. Homes For Good would consider investing in another podium building for affordable housing, and there would also have to be some push from the city, he adds. 

The Podium Gallery

Podium buildings are a unique approach to build housing in areas where city codes are slated for commercial zones, says John Rowell, an associate professor at the UO’s Department of Architecture and the founder of Rowell Brokaw Architects. 

Rowell Brokaw designed the podium Amazon Corner, which has 117 units, ranging from 397 square feet studios to 1,103 two-bedroom two-bathroom units. The building is located in a commercial zone on 32nd and Hilyard, so the ground floor leases space for businesses.  

When the project was first proposed, neighbors sent in comments during the application process, concerned about the consequences of the high-density project, its impact on traffic and its aesthetics on the skyview for property owners in the Amazon neighborhood. But environmental group 1,000 Friends of Oregon did commend the project for redeveloping commercial land for multi-family housing units.

Rowell says the community now welcomes the project, especially how the building encourages residents living there to walk or bike for transportation. And the retail space attracted Marché’s Provisions South to open there. 

“The benefit of that is that when it’s done right, it’s vitality and a smaller footprint,” he says, “and you can get rid of your car.” 

Rowell’s firm is also working on a podium building at 1059 Willamette, to be called The Montgomery, for the city of Eugene, the location of the former Lane Community College downtown campus. His firm was the only submission to the city’s request for proposals, which he says shows the health of the housing development market. If constructing housing were inexpensive, he adds, there would have been more firms sending in bids. 

Building a podium that can withstand the weight of the five stories of wood framed housing is expensive, Rowell says. “If you could do it without a podium, you would,” he adds. “It’s something you have to do.” 

Retail ground floor is necessary at The Montgomery not only because of zoning matters but also because if there was a residential ground floor, it would be vulnerable to everyone walking downtown. “That’s why cities don’t have a residential ground level,” he adds. 

The Montgomery’s unit rental price has received some negative feedback from residents, and even Eugene City Councilor Emily Semple said at a June 9 work session that she couldn’t afford one of the units. 

Although Homes For Good’s Market Commons and St. Vincent de Paul’s The Aurora are examples of affordable podium housing, Rowell says there aren’t a lot of tax credits for developers to construct more. 

To lower the cost of housing, Keyes says there are two options: Housing units have to be smaller and at higher density, or the government has to step in to provide more tax subsidies. 

A form of higher density units that could help lower the cost of housing may result from Oregon’s House Bill 2001, which encourages cities to build more housing on single family-zoned lots. 

 Podium apartments can be suitable for an older household wanting to downsize in exchange for a more walkable community, but building smaller houses in areas like south Eugene could have similar effect, while matching what attracts people to the city — the outdoors. 

“In Eugene, it’s a small scale place and there really are these beautiful neighborhoods with trees, landscape and outdoor yards,” Keyes says. “I would not want to move out of my house, which has a beautiful yard and garden, and move into an elevator apartment building. I want to be able to walk outside and have a small outdoor space and a garden. I think that’s the type of housing that Eugeneans would be happy to live in in higher density.”

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