Remember a few years ago when there was a big to-do over which developer would win the Portland Development Commission's RFP contract for the Burnside Bridgehead? You can be forgiven if it's a foggy memory by now. In fact, it was a full four years ago that PDC first floated the idea of having a big-box retail outlet there, before withdrawing the plan amidst widespread community uproar against it.
As I read in Lee Perlman's Southeast Examiner report, but has also been reported in bigger media outlets, the winner of the Bridgehead development rights, Opus Northwest, has been unable to find a non-big-box anchor tenant. They're now asking PDC for more "flexibility" in choosing one. According to the article I read, an Opus representative told members at a Buckman Community Association meeting that while it won't be Wal-Mart or Home Depot, it ought rightfully to be able to be something popular like Ikea. It seems to me that's just a way of pointing out that people's feelings about retailers are not all the same, and trying to use that as a wedge to get approval for big-box scaled retailers there.
Opus, unlike the two other developer finalists for the Bridgehead job, also has in its plan improvements paid for by PDC to facilitate Northeast Couch as part of a new couplet with Burnside, as per Commissioner Sam Adams' proposal. Other causes for delay cited Opus says have been PDC's fault: securing zoning changes for the property and relocating tenants of the Convention Plaza office buildings on the site. PDC, according to Lee Perlman's Examiner article, has conceded some blame on this. But the other big factors are "the collapse of the condominium market and other changes in the marketplace, rendering Opus's original development plan unfeasible."
Let me ask you this: If we had to choose between an Opus-developed Burnside Bridgehead that supplants their original plan with a big-box retailer or having PDC select a new developer, what would our answer be? On one hand, you can't blame Opus for the market changing, or for delays on the PDC side. Yet I can't help but wonder if Gerding Edlen or Beam Development could make something interesting and more architecturally compelling happen here without, say, a Lowe's occupying one of the most prime riverfront spots in the central city. If PDC were to select a new developer, it might further delay something happening here. And regardless of how one feels about Opus, might there be a risk that kicking them out undermines the integrity of such a city-sponsored selection process? What kind of message does that send to companies vying for, say, the Centennial Mills development rights?
Personally, I think if the original plan no longer works economically, even by Opus's admission, then PDC should hold some kind of intervention to jump-start things in terms of ideas and brainstorming. With all this dour economic, legal and real estate talk, it's easy to forget what an incredible site this is, right along Burnside and MLK and the bridge and the river, all directly across from Downtown, Old Town, and the Pearl. What kind of use do we want there? What works? But it may also have been a mistake to put developers first and their designs second, as this RFP process did. What if we were to have some other kind of setup that favored both economics and design.
I also can't help but wonder if there necessarily should be one developer handling all of this big Bridgehead development. Why not parcel it out to a few different ones working in tandem? After all, too often these big developers tend to have one firm design a cluster of buildings in these big developments. It's an understandable from the developer's point of view, but in terms of the good of the city I'd much rather see a variety of different firms working here on a variety of building types.
One other bit of interesting news I picked up in Perlman's article. At the aforementioned Buckman Community Association meeting, Bruce Wood of Opus said his company is negotiating with a potential 8,000 square foot performing arts hall, and a 25,000 square foot museum. Who might they be? If there's a new museum planning to set up shop there, or an existing one planning to move, that ought to be significant news in and of itself. Portland really needs a major contemporary art museum. It's terrific having all these young arts organizations here like the Portland Art Center, Organism and Disjecta celebrating the huge influx of emerging artists to the city. But any major urban city worth its stripe has a contemporary art museum. That should be on Portland's big-item wish list along with a new concert hall, relocating the east bank freeway, and a robust network of streetcars.