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Your guide to understanding development news in Portland, OR

Become a development terminology expert faster than you can say “special use permit for a mixed-use zone.”


Though there are a few exceptions, the normal legal limit on skyscraper height in Portland is 460 ft.

Photo by @bdsportland

Table of Contents

If you want to be a development detective but find yourself turned around by the terminology in various city releases and news reports, never fear.

Here are some definitions of common terms paired with ongoing projects and examples you might recognize in the Rose City.


Projects that provide more than one purpose in the community, like a building with apartments on top and retail shops on the bottom. Expect to see combinations of housing, retail, parking, commercial, and industrial components.

Think: From the rubble of the former Pearl District post office, housing, offices, retail, and parks will rise as a major component of the Broadway Corridor Project.


Changing an area of land from the city’s designated use. Examples of rezoning requests might be developers looking to build a high-rise in a neighborhood with a certain building height restriction, or opening a business in a residential area.

Think: The Lower SE Rising Area Plan, which proposes bringing businesses and affordable housing to the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood and surrounding communities.

Special-use permit

Granted to provide relief from regulations when land is being used in a manner not normally compatible with the zoning. Only granted when intended site use is deemed appropriate and compatible with the surrounding area.

Think: Common applications include hosting events and adding outdoor dining in the public right-of-way.

A graphic shows the permit life cycle from the Portland Bureau of Development Services

Learn more about the permit life cycle.

Graphic via Bureau of Development Services

Enterprise zones

Areas of the city where building a site earns you incentives, including a break on real estate taxes and money back from costs of relocating, machinery and equipment, and construction permits.

Pro tip: This map helps visualize the city’s commercial and industrial emphasis for promoting economic development.

Multifamily home

One building that contains multiple housing units. Multifamily is a type of zoning district in the city.

Think: In 2020, Portland expanded where dense housing could be built, opening up neighborhoods that had previously only allowed single-family homes.

Principal use

The primary activity or function of a site. A site’s principal use must be aligned with the zoning ordinances of the land it’s on.

Example: Living in a home within a residential zone is an allowable principal use.

Accessory use

An activity or function of a site labeled subordinate or incidental.

Example: In Portland’s tough housing market, many local residents and city officials are turning to Accessory Dwelling Units (or “tiny homes”) as part of a solution.

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