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The City of Portland, Oregon

Development Services

From Concept to Construction

Phone: 503-823-7300


1900 SW 4th Ave, Portland, OR 97201

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I want to remodel an existing commercial building. I won’t be changing the use, but may do some work on the site or on the exterior of the building

A project that would not involve any work on the outside of a building or to the site, and wouldn't change the legal use of any part of the space, is generally one of the simplest types of permits that we issue. An example of this type of project is where an existing office or retail space would be remodeled for a new office or retail tenant, or where the existing tenant wants to make some changes to the layout. 

If this will be a new location for you, and even if you will be using the building for the same use as did the previous tenant, we recommend that you check the building permit records to make sure that the use has actually been permitted and that a change of use permit will NOT be required. It is not uncommon to find buildings that, for many years, have been used in a way that has never been approved through the permit process. Legalizing a change of use can be a lot more complicated and expensive than remodeling an existing legal use. You can avoid surprises by doing the research ahead of time. 

Even with relatively simple interior remodeling projects there are some potential complications to be aware of -- most of which have to do with improvements that could be triggered based on the value of the work.


It is a good idea to check that your use is allowed by the zoning code at that particular location. If your proposed use is a prohibited use in the zone, you may need to prove the use has "nonconforming status". That means documenting that the use was allowed when it was first established and that the use has continued over time. An expansion of a nonconforming use or change to another use prohibited in the zone may require a nonconforming situation review or may not be permitted at all.


Some uses may be limited in floor area even if allowed in the zone and the other uses in a building may need to be identified to determine if the floor area of the proposed use may be allowed. For zoning information, call a planner at (503) 823-7526.


Design Review

Many areas in the city are designated as design districts. If the land use zoning of the property that you are considering has a "d" overlay (e.g. is zoned EXd or CSd), that means that any exterior changes to the building will need to go through the city's Design Review process. Design review may evaluate the architectural style, the building materials, the color, etc. to make sure that they meet the guidelines for that particular design district.


In some cases, objective standards in the zoning code may be used instead of design review. Community Design Standards may be used for some projects depending on the square footage of the exterior affected and what plan district the work is in. There are several types of design review and even the quickest can be expected to take several months. It may be possible to break out the exterior work from the remainder of the project in order to get started with the interior work sooner. Speak to a planner in the DSC, or call (503) 823-7526 for more information on design review and how it might apply to your exterior alterations.


Nonconforming Development

Even if you don't intend to make any improvements to the site, the zoning code has a value of work trigger that could require site improvements. When the value of your interior improvements have a market value totaling more than $131,150 (adjusted annually), up to 10% of the project cost must be spent toward making the existing site development meet the current zoning code.


The project value for this purpose can be reduced by the cost of any required seismic or accessibility upgrades included in the project. Site work required by zoning could include improving or providing: landscaping, bicycle parking, pedestrian circulation systems, screening and/or paving. The zoning code calls a situation where those existing elements on a site don't meet current code requirements "nonconforming development".


Stormwater Management

If you know that your project will add more than 500 square feet of new and/or redeveloped impervious area (such as paving or new roof area) then we suggest that you contact staff from the Bureau of Environmental Services to discuss your options for dealing with the stormwater discharge. This advice also applies if your project would change the way stormwater is currently discharged off the site. You can reach BES staff at (503) 823-7761.


System Development Charges (SDC)

System Development Charges are one-time fees charged to help pay for the facilities (such as street and sewer systems) required to meet growth-related needs for the city. SDCs are paid at the time that a development permit is issued. Building owners, but not tenants, can finance the SDCs through the city. BDS has pulled together information on all the SDCs online. From there, you can also jump to more specific information on each bureau's individual website.


If your project will add more than 500 square feet of new and/or redeveloped impervious area, or if your project would change the way stormwater is discharged off the site, then the Bureau of Environmental Services can be expected to charge an SDC. BES also charges a Sanitary SDC for commercial projects whenever a development permit includes the addition of one or more new plumbing fixtures. (A new "fixture" is a sink, toilet, dishwasher, floor drain, etc.). Different plumbing fixtures are charged at different rates, and the type of business also affects the charge. Visit the DSC or call BES at (503) 823-7761 for more information on SDCs.


If your project will add floor area to the building, then the Bureau of Transportation will charge an SDC based on the new floor area. The per square foot rate will depend on the proposed use. Transportation staff is available in the DSC and at (503) 823-7002.

For the Water Bureau, any SDC is based on the size of meter installed. If your new project will include the addition of plumbing fixtures, a larger meter size may be required and an SDC charged. Water lines required for sprinkler systems are exempt from SDC fees. Portland Water Bureau staff is available to answer your SDC questions at (503) 823-7368 or find information.


Improvements to the Public Right of Way

Even where no exterior work is proposed, the building owner may be required to make improvements to the public right of way. If the Office of Transportation determines that the existing right of way conditions are substandard, and the value of the proposed alterations to the building exceeds 35% of the assessed value of all existing improvements on the site, Transportation may require that you dedicate part of your property to construct street improvements. With a dedication, private property is legally converted to public right of way so as to improve a sidewalk, bike lane, etc. The value of required fire, life safety, accessibility and seismic upgrades may be subtracted from the total permit value for purposes of determining the 35% threshold.

Transportation staff at (503) 823-7002 can give you information about the status of the right of way at any location.


Street Trees

Urban Forestry performs a Street Tree Review for commercial projects with a market value of $25,000 or more. As a result of this review, you may be required to plant trees along the street frontages. For more information, contact Urban Forestry at (503) 823-4489.


Life Safety/Building Code

In general, where there is no change of use, only new work is required to meet the current code. Existing conditions or arrangements that will not be altered or affected by the proposed work can be maintained even where they don't meet the current code. BDS has some detailed information in the Fire and Life Safety Code Guide for Existing Buildings.



The building code building code requires that new work (such as new restrooms) meets current accessibility standards AND requires spending up to 25% of the value of a project on improving the access to and within an establishment. This "25% rule" applies to changes of occupancy as well as remodeling projects. The code lists the order of priority for improvements:

1. parking,
2. an accessible entrance,
3. an accessible route to the altered area,
4. at least one accessible restroom for each sex or an additional single unisex restroom, etc.

For more information on accessibility requirements, speak to a Life Safety Reviewer at (503) 823-1456.



When an alteration for which a building permit is required has a value (not including costs of mechanical, electrical, plumbing, permanent equipment, painting, fire extinguishing systems, site improvements, eco-roofs and finish works) of more than $219,694 (adjusted annually) a seismic evaluation is required.


Unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs) have some unique requirements under the city's seismic ordinance. Seismic triggers for URMS consider the work done to the building over time, and not just the current proposed work. Repair or replacement of more than 50% of the roof area over a five year period may result in the requirement to improve the structural roof system, roof anchorage, and parapets.


Another seismic trigger for URMs is based on the combined market value of repair and alterations done to the building as a whole over any two year period. That means that the city will look at the value of your proposed work and add it to the value of other work done on the building in the past two years. When the combined value of that work is over 40 dollars per square foot for a single story building, or $30 per square foot for a multistory building, the entire building must be seismically upgraded. The value of required accessibility improvements, required elevator improvements and improvements to nonconforming development on the site can be subtracted from the total for the purposes of that determining that combined value.


For more information on the seismic triggers and/or requirements speak to one of the Structural Reviewers at (503) 823-1302.



The city will require that plans for any project with complex issues or structural work be prepared by a licensed professional. Plans need to be clear and complete, regardless of who prepares them.


Plans will generally include a site plan, a plan of each floor, a cross section, and often stair details. Plans should show how the proposed use and layout meet current code requirements. If there are areas that need to be improved to meet current code, the drawings should include construction details showing how these will be modified.


Depending on the age of the building, we may have plans of the existing building in our microfilm records that can help during the planning stage. See information on Resources/Records.


We encourage you to visit the Development Services Center (DSC) as soon as you have preliminary plans showing what you have in mind.


The DSC is on the ground floor of the building at 1900 SW 4th (4th and Hall). See DSC Hours and Service Availability.


In the DSC you will find technical staff from virtually all of the city bureaus that can discuss requirements applying to your project and that will be reviewing your project when it comes in for a permit.


DSC staff can also give you an idea of the permit fees for your project.

Permit Process

There is a lot of information available about permits and the permit process on the BDS website. You may want to look at the Commercial Alterations or the New Users section.

Be aware that commercial permits for work of any complexity are not generally issued "over the counter". That means that you must provide the city with four sets of plans, pay part of the building permit fees up front, then turn the plans in for review.

Staff representing the various groups with an interest in development (building, zoning, fire, transportation, sewer, etc.) will be assigned to your project. Any reviewer who looks at your plans and needs additional info/corrections before signing off will mail you a "checksheet" telling you what they need. The city's goal is to get all of those checksheets to you within a couple of weeks.

To respond to a checksheet, you will go to Document Services, which is on the second floor (above the DSC). You will need to update all four sets of the originally submitted drawings, either by replacing the original sheets with new sheets or marking changes on the originally submitted sheets. Keep any replaced sheets with the new sheets, and mark them "Void".

When all the corrections are made, the reviewers will check the changes made. When all the reviews are completed, it takes several days to process the paperwork. Then, you pay the rest of the fees and the permit is issued. Licensed contractors will need to apply for separate permits to do the electrical and plumbing work.

When all the inspections (building, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) are approved, and the card you are given at permit issuance is all signed off, then the space can be occupied.