BY FRED LEESON
Certain locations in Portland speak directly to specific architectural eras. Most Portlanders won’t remember the public demonstrations and police arrests that greeted developer Phil Morford’s row houses in the early 1980s in Northwest Portland. Without a memory of the stately homes they replaced, the row houses seem totally benign to a contemporary viewer.
At least for now, no one can drive past the condo towers of the South Waterfront district without thinking of the condo boom and ensuing bust of the late 1990s and early 21st Century.
Portland’s lower East Burnside neighborhood may well represent the next “signature” era of Portland design. The proportions are different and the materials likely cheaper. But the aesthetic is clearly emerging.
“It’s a newly developing area,” said Christine Caruso, a city planner, as she introduced a new project to the Portland Design Commission on April 21. She singled out the chunky B Side 6, the Noble Rot building and the Jupiter Hotel as examples. “It’s a really vibrant area with a lot of different things going on.”
The latest going on is a half-block apartment and ground-floor retail project designed by Vallaster Corl Architects, to be erected for a Lake Oswego developer at 521 and 532 NE Davis Street, which is a half block facing on NE Sixth Ave. between Davis and Couch. Like an earlier Vallaester Corl design on SW Jefferson Street across town, the Sixth & Couch Apartments look much like two buildings, with a five-story façade facing Couch and a four stories facing on Sixth.
Overall, plans call for 11 ground-floor retail spaces and 70 apartments above, mostly studios and one-bedrooms. On-site parking will be available for 23 cars, and an indoor storage room for 70 bicycles also will include facilities for minor bike repairs and cleaning. A rooftop deck for tenants on the shorter wing is to include a fire pit, benches and planters. The project will be the first to add new retail space on Couch, which is now part of the recently finished Burnside-Couch one-way couplet between the Burnside Bridge and 14th Avenue.
The design shows heavy doses of metal panels on the Couch façade, tempered on Sixth with treated softwood panels sold under the brand name Accoya. Schuyler Smith of Vallaster Corl said Accoya has been used extensively in Europe and New Zealand, but is just being introduced in the United States. The Accoya to be used here is sustainably-grown pine, treated with a non-toxic vinegar-like acid that presumably makes it resistant to rot and mold. It will be used on the lower wing along with light-colored metal panels.
On the taller wing, the vertical metal panels are charcoal, playing off against silverish horizontal panels. In an effort to create a playful rhythm, none of the darker columns extends completely from ground-level to the parapet. The storefront system – appropriately, no doubt – is aluminum.
The metal panels will join a growing collection of metal on new, lower East Burnside buildings. The one-story Trio Club at 909 E Burnside, which will replace the circa-1960 Googie-style former Denny’s restaurant also includes metal panels as a key façade element.
On the Couch apartments, Design Commission members wondered how well the Accoya wood will stand up to graffiti and to the inevitable nicks and scratches at the ground floor. Andrew Jansky, one commission member, said the sample provided was so soft he could dent it with a fingernail. In response to those concerns, Smith and Ryan Austin, who represented Vallaster Corl at the hearing, agreed to replace the Accoya with fiber cement panels at the pedestrian level of the Davis Street frontage, which contains a loading zone and an emergency exit stair tower.
Other comments from the commission were favorable. Commission Chair Gwen Millius, encouraged the design team to make the retail spaces flexible so that two or three could be combined for a single occupant.
Otherwise, it seems like a high-quality project with good materials, well-thought out,” said Commission Member David Wark. The commission approved the plan with a 6-0 vote.
There was no public testimony in favor or in opposition to the project. Two early 20th-Century apartment buildings that stand in the way are in the final stages of demolition.
Fred Leeson is a Portland journalist and president of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation/Architectural Heritage Center.