Nathalie Weinstein had an interesting report in Thursday's Daily Journal of Commerce about a proposal from a group of Portland State University graduate students to raze two small mixed-use buildings near the Brewery Blocks for two larger mixed-use projects to create what they call a Pearl District gateway (pictured above).
The grad students spent their winter term developing a proposal for the site, consisting of two parcels between West Burnside and Northwest Davis streets and Northwest 13th and 14th avenues. The class was advised by members of the Oregon chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties.
The students propose demolishing the existing buildings on the site, which presently hold businesses like Everyday Music and Storables, and constructing two mixed-use buildings. One of the structures is proposed as 23 stories.
Equally noteworthy, perhaps, is the proposed occupancy: a combination of workforce housing, a chain store as the anchor tenant, a boutique hotel, and possibly even an art museum based around the collection of leading local art patron Jordan Schnitzer, who is president of the company that owns the two parcels, Harsch Investment Properties.
Tom Heinicke, one of the grad students from PSU, told Weinstein that height is essential for the development to be a gateway presence. “If and when the Burnside-Couch couplet comes along, we want to emphasize the height of the development because a fair amount of traffic will be coming past there,” he said.
Harsch senior vice president Steve Roselli told Weinstein there should be a more prominent gateway leading from downtown Portland into the Pearl District. “We’ve looked at redevelopment conceptually and have had a number of developers inquire about it,” he said. “When we started to get semi-serious about it, the market cooled off. But it’s a fantastic site for mixed use, and any number of things could work there.”
Roselli admitted that Harsch has no serious plans to redevelop the property anytime soon, but that now is the time to dream big. Getting PSU students to do that dreaming, and to get press like the DJC and myself to write about it, also helps market the idea.
“We have to get beyond the fact that nobody is building now,” Heinicke added. “It’s smart to develop something big rather than go halfway with it because things are tough. Three to five years from now, there will be a return to growth.”
There is an aspect of this proposal that feels a bit too uncomfortably close to the 2000s-decade boom. Do we really see a 23-story tower as a necessity for this site? Isn't that just a tad unrealistic? At the same time, if the city (or the nation) is ever going to climb out of the Great Recession, it will take developers looking to capitalize even when the current times don't necessarily call for it.
It's also a little difficult to imagine a pair of blocks immediately to the north of Burnside acting as a "gateway" to the Pearl. A true gateway would be along Burnside Street, which is the dividing line between Northwest and Southwest Portland. It's true that a couplet on the West Side making Couch and Burnside both one-way streets would change that configuration, but this is also the reason I have always been against the idea of a West-side couplet. Burnside occupies a special role in the city as the only street touching NW, SW, SE and NE Portland. It needs to retain its role as the border, as the unifying street in the city.
To my eyes, the most intriguing aspect of this entire proposal is not the architecture but the notion of having a new contemporary art museum in Portland based around Jordan Schnitzer's art collection.
In a 2007 story about Jordan Schnitzer, DK Row of The Oregonian summed up his large role in the local art world:
Think of the words "Schnitzer" and "art," and you likely think about Arlene Schnitzer, the patron who founded one of the city's first serious commercial galleries, the Fountain Gallery, as well as being the Portland Art Museum's most important booster and donor of the past two decades.
But for years, Arlene Schnitzer's son, Jordan, has been creating a Schnitzer legacy of his own.
Aside from serving as president of the family's business -- Harsch Investment Properties, founded by his father, Harold J. Schnitzer -- Jordan Schnitzer also has served prominently on the boards of several arts organizations, including the University of Oregon's museum. The school even renamed the museum after the Oregon alumnus in 2004.
Above all, Schnitzer, like his mother, has been collecting art, particularly prints. Right now, he has more than 5,000 prints. One of the most comprehensive collections of its kind in the country, Schnitzer's trove is deep enough to produce major retrospectives on several significant artists, including Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Bruce Nauman.
If there were a Schnitzer Collection, would the top few floors of a Pearl District mixed use building be the right place? Honestly, I'd accept a contemporary art museum in a Parkrose basement if it meant Portland were finally getting such a venue. Having it stem from Jordan Schnitzer would make sense, too. I think of a great museum like the Menil Collection in Houston as an indicator of what a space organized around Schnitzer's collection could be: small compared to a major art institution like the Portland Art Museum or the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, but all the more focused and thrilling because of it.
In that same Oregonian interview, DK Row also asked Schnitzer more point-blank about what might someday happen to his collection:
Q. You are still young and have a lot of collecting yet to do. But you must be thinking about the disposition of the collection and where it will end up.
A. Certainly I'm building a public collection. Again, I collect to share. As to who will eventually share in that partnership, I don't know. The intent is to have the collection stay here in the Northwest, which has been my home and my family's home for a hundred years.
Q. Have you talked to the Portland Art Museum about your collection?
A. Not in regards to the long term, ultimate home for the work. But I do know that I want it to be . . . (pauses). An analogy would be this: What if someone wrote a book and you bought all of the copies and stored it in a warehouse? I guess if I were the author I'd be depressed. I'd want that book out there, to be read. Someone might say: "You sold the copies, though." But what's the point of selling them if no one sees them? So in terms of my work, I want it to be in a public collection.
Q. What it sounds like to me is that the museum has not reached out enough to ensure that this collection stays here.
A. I think that John and Lucy Buchanan (the museum's former executive and development directors) knew that I wasn't going anywhere. If they had stayed in Portland, we'd have had some discussions by now. Brian Ferriso (the new director) has already come in and asked questions. He's talked a lot about the fact that he sees this collection as a public resource, as are other collections in the public.
Were such a move to happen to take his collection public in an institution of its own rather than at PAM, I'd rather see a new Jordan Schnitzer museum get an architectural space befitting the mastery of the artists in the collection: a building designed by a world class architect. Would Harsch Investment Properties be willing to go the extra step and hire a Brad Cloepfil, for example, or another world class architect with museum experience from out of town like Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhaas or Tadao Ando? Except for maybe Cloepfil, it seems doubtful. It also seems doubtful that this museum would actually happen anytime soon.
But given how organizations like the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art have shied away from their role as visual art exhibitor, or how others like the Portland Art Center have shut down altogether, it's enticing to imagine, however unrealistically, a true contemporary art museum in Portland. That would be a greater "gateway" for the city than virtually anything made of brick and mortar or steel and glass.