Portland has been growing over the last couple decades, and much of that growth was absorbed by renewal districts in the central city, infill projects within the surrounding streetcar suburbs, and in the exurb additions to the Urban Growth Boundary. To the north and south of downtown, two new urban neighborhoods were created from derelict industrial lands, and the century-old single-family neighborhoods saw an influx of shops, apartments, and bicycle racks. This infill development has not come without controversy of course, with land values skyrocketing in the older parts of Portland, making some lifelong neighbors reluctantly part ways. This can be seen as either the 3rd or 4th wave of gentrification in Portland, depending on which neighborhood you look at. Many will argue that gentrification is a terrible thing, but that misses the point entirely. Gentrification is only a symptom, a ‘naturally’ occurring phenomenon, of the much larger, far more complex issue of wealth distribution/ access in our existing capitalistic economic system and coinciding mortgage finance regulations. As that is a topic that far exceeds the intentions of this site, this humble post will focus on a slightly different aspect of contemporary economics: the low-rise superblock and the new economics of development.
The wave of building high-end condos and exurb McMansions came to abrupt end five years ago, and a new wave came to Portland in the form of mixed-use, low-car apartment complexes in the inner city and McMansion Juniors in the exurbs. The higher-end materials and mid-rise construction found in the 90’s Pearl District and the 00’s South Waterfront condos are no longer seen as viable as developers focus on the new rental demographic moving to Portland. The regulation and political dream has been in place for decades, but it was only recently that developers took advantage of the lack of parking minimums, residential bonuses, and density increases along transit corridors. There has been some push-back, especially against the kitschier apartments along Hawthorne, Mississippi, and that proportionally-distracting behemoth at 12th and East Burnside (can we please, please stop using the connected awning-parapet design now? I know it looks good in SketchUp/ Rhino, but its a one liner that is quickly becoming overplayed).
The most popular new urban form, seen under construction everywhere in Portland right now, is the five-over-one concrete and wood stick framing technique. The height may vary, sometimes its a three or four-over-one, but the construction is the same: concrete ground floor with wood framing on top (and/or light gauge steel). It’s cheap, fast, and flexible. You can also make the case that these buildings are environmentally friendly in their use of local wood products and total carbon reduction/ sequestering compared to full concrete or steel structures. With modern material technology and redundancy regulations, these apartment buildings will also easily exceed 100 years of life (although their facades may fall out of fashion and their vinyl windows will leak well before then). This is why I am glad the city has taken steps to make sure the designs are still of good quality, have ground floor presence, and to differentiate the buildings as much as possible even though they use pretty much the same exterior language. Recently the 419 East Burnside project revised its design after city advice, advice that helped change a potential eyesore into a decent addition to the area. The same can be said of the Goat Blocks redevelopment in the Central Eastside and the Block 37 proposal in the South Waterfront.
The initial design of the Goat Blocks had a less than desirable street presence; heavy base materials, street set-backs, unimaginative entry stairs, and an elevated alleyway with retail on only one side. After talks with the city, the design team added more glass to the street level, made a grander corner stair entrance, and lowered the Yamhill pedestrian alley to 11th Avenue with additional retail storefronts on both sides. The grocery store anchor tenant will now have bigger Belmont facing windows and a grander 11th Avenue entrance, and the other large tenant, the hardware store, will have a better street presence and an exposed wooden truss garden building on Taylor Street. These minor changes have made a major improvement to the overall design, a design that is now more inviting, neighborhood oriented, and aligns more with the Inner-Southeast’s culture. This is important, as the surrounding urban and social fabric needs to have cohesion not just in form and function, but also in ideals and values. This area is starting to transform, and as it changes so will the demographics. All the more reason for this new development to mesh with the existing rather than import from somewhere else. Everyone wins, including the developer, if a project can fill a void in the neighborhood instead of creating something that is previously unneeded. Speaking of which, the Buckman Community Association is pushing for a small library to be part of the program, which would be another key anchor for the project and a valuable asset to the community.
Another example of better outcomes through design review is the Block 37 low-rise apartment and retail building proposed to neighbor Atwater Place in the South Waterfront District. Initial reactions called the building “confusing” with a lack of hierarchy in materials and proportions. The new version streamlines the materials into cohesive geometries, and the questionable cement paneling has been removed altogether. Edges have been “eroded” to allow for better light and view corridors, but maintains the urban street frontage along the Streetcar line and Gaines Street. The parapet was also lowered to a less suburban height, and the rooftop, a feature that would be very visible to the surrounding towers, is now proposed to be covered in a swooping pattern of decorative ballast rock. The most important change has been the way the superblock faces the river and the public greenway. A second floor outdoor “living room” has been added above the lower terrace, making a series of sloping tiers down to the riverbank. The terraces have also been redesigned to further match the public greenway, blending the previously delineated edge of public/ private.
The fact that a five-over-one is going to grace such a prime parcel, with high-density zoning and river frontage, is a bit disappointing to those who imagined an entire district of glass towers, but the economic reality of today is far different than when it was originally conceptualized. The new South Waterfront will be a broader mix of massing and scale, which could turn out to be more interesting than the vertical-only landscape previously envisioned. More importantly there could be a better mix of demographics, something that is important to an urban environment.
As far as the architecture, neither of these developments are going to win any awards or really garner any attention other than from the people and businesses that inhabit them, but the fact that the design teams listened to the city’s concerns and adjusted their projects to accommodate them is wonderful. There is a distinctive back-and-forth design process in Portland that is different from most cities, a difference that is really a social and cultural one (not to mention political). As painstaking as our design reviews and permit processes can be, I feel that the city is genuinely trying to help everyone win, and perhaps attempt to push our creativity beyond the status quo.