BY HEIDI BERTMAN
In an article from Tuesday's Oregonian (January 11), Fred Leeson writes about a high-density residential building in Portland’s Alphabet District that is important as an example of the continually shifting balance of the neighborhood's historic and architectural character with each new renovation or development.
The detailed sensitivity of pedestrians to their environment in Portland impacts quality of residential and business life in our neighborhoods enough that the design potential for a site such as this ought to be well understood by all the key players. That may not yet be the case.
The proposed project, developed by David Sackhoff of Arbor Custom, would replace an existing 17-unit apartment building at 2124 NW Flanders from 1895 with a new building 28 apartments. It's a matter of adding density, something the city desires, but in a way that threatens an old building which already contributes to density. The developer's approach is not based on urban planning, of course, but on the profit motive. Dan Anderson, a member of the Northwest District Association group, put it another way, saying the developer wants to put "10 pounds in a 5-pound bag."
As Leeson notes, the project "has relaunched a debate about the character of new buildings in Northwest Portland's Alphabet Historic District. While some residents compared the initial design to a prison or a freeway motel...Sackhoff complains that nothing will satisfy them."
Sackhoff may be on to something later in the piece, however, when Leeson quotes him telling the Historic Landmarks Commission, "I didn't think you guys wanted a replica building. That isn't architecture. Architecture moves forward." The implication is that a neo-historicist skin on a box, even if it is the suggested and/or proposed design, isn't the approach that will help the neighborhood retain its character or move into the future of appropriate infill development.
It's worth noting that the proposed building has some things in common with another one that Otak, the architecture and engineering firm hired by Sackhoff, designed a number of years ago for a site on SW Park Place. That design, completed in partnership with CIDA, was condos skinned in a neo-historic style in order to fit in with the surrounding neighborhood. There were issues in the SW Park Place design that, ultimately, related to density and profitability, and dogged that project as it went through the review process. It was always either just at or over the height restrictions and was built as close to the property lines as possible; the roof forms were revised in order to mask the massing of the top floor, which created design challenges for those units.
The building as initially proposed for the NW Flanders site also pushes the lot limits on all sides and is up to the height restriction in order to achieve the density desired by Sackhoff and his team; it is, in effect, a rectangular prism decorated with style references that are intended to tie-in with the neighborhood.
The designers have achieved density but at the expense of important aspects to that street, much less the units themselves (a number are below street level). There is a rhythm of hard walls at the property line and open spaces of yards and drives directly adjacent to the sidewalk throughout the neighborhood. Residential units are most typically accessed through a central or pivotal entry scaled to complement the massing of the building, not off to the side as shown in the rendering. These elements, massing, program, and entry, create variability in the kind of light that reaches the street, afford differing levels of privacy to apartments and are the essence of the residential character of the Alphabet District regardless of period or style. The massing on that particular block face would be strained by the addition of the proposed building; it doesn't have a clearly recognizable front entrance and brings building wall and unit windows right up to the sidewalk.
It's curious that there is such interest in developing that kind of density for that exact site, regardless of zoning. The proposed design certainly doesn't bow to history in its massing, doesn't consider the street section or building entry, and doesn't enhance neighborhood pedestrian space.
A more adventurous approach to massing, one that allows breathing room for the lowest units and the exterior, but which challenges the height restrictions, could achieve a better result.
Sackhoff and Arbor Custom Homes may wish to be involved in urban infill development. However, their pro-forma and largely suburban project experience may preclude a successful design for this kind of site.
An approach to avoid the light-blocking, edge-to-edge type of form proposed would require challenging some aspects of the site requirements but could improve it as well as its immediate surroundings. This would first require that both the Historic Landmarks Commission as well as the developer challenge their preconceived notions of what they can and should do for that site.
Heidi Bertman received her Master's of Architecture from the U of O in 1998 and worked with opsis architecture before moving to ZGF in 2004 where she is currently a designer.