BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last Monday (July 27), Portland Development Commission chair Scott Andrews and Mayor Sam Adams posted an open letter to PDC's Centennial Mills website. In the wake of the city's contract with Los Angeles developer LAB Holding to redevelop the site broken and each side accusing the other, Centennial Mills needs a new champion.
"We are looking for public service-minded investors to take on a wonderfully iconic but challenging project in a public and private joint venture," the letter begins. "The site, which was purchased by the Portland Development Commission in 2000, represents one of the last vestiges of early 20th-century riverfront industry in Portland. This authentic collection of concrete and wood-frame buildings, mills and warehouses, docks and wharf structures—4.75 acres in total—presents a special opportunity for Portland to celebrate its industrial and economic heritage. However... the poor condition of the Centennial Mills facility presents numerous challenges for redevelopment. That is why we are making this direct appeal. Formal site development plans aren’t necessary; the first step is simply to initiate a conversation about your interest in the site."
The letter goes on to describe "globally-competitive companies" such as Vestas, Standard Insurance, ZGF Architects, Ziba Design, Wieden+Kennedy, Shop Igniter and Urban Airship, that collectively demonstrate "the competitive advantage that a downtown Portland headquarters provides in attracting creative talent and in leveraging Portland’s reputation as a leading center of innovation."
There are a few different ways to interpret the erosion of the original PDC-LAB Holding deal from 2008, which the developer won over a handful of other proposals. First there is the economy. 2008 was precisely the time in which our 2000s economic boom gave way to the Great Recession. The parameters of what makes a viable deal have changed. Second, PDC changed the structure of the agreement in April, requiring the developer lease at least 50 percent of the property to tenants in “traded sectors” and newly identified industry clusters. This was a departure from the conglomeration of restaurants and retail establishments LAB Holding proposed in the competition stage. What's more, LAB Holding justifiably complained that the change from PDC was simply dictated to them without any back-and-forth conversation. This may be typical of PDC and an indication of its own institutional barriers against successful economic development. Too often PDC seems to say to developers, "Do it our way, or you're out," singing the song of public-private partnership but not at all making it an equal dialogue.
But lest we blame PDC for the failed deal, they also note that LAB never lined up tenants or capital for their idea. What's more, I'm skeptical of a development plan that was centered around just one area: food. LAB's development was to include restaurants, cooking school facilities, and markets, all devoted to cuisine. Whether it's here or in the Rose Quarter, where a district devoted to sports is being planned, I think cities are better off not defining these developments so rigidly. Real places don't need themes. That's the thinking that goes into buiding malls and casinos.
"Either way, it's for the best," wrote The Oregonian's Anna Griffin in a July 19 column. "Portland needs new jobs more than new entertainment options, and the glossy renderings LAB architects produced look more like a Disneyland recreation than actual historic preservation."
Griffin also recently toured the facility, writing: "A walk through the century-old mill, actually an interconnected 11-building complex on Naito Parkway between the Broadway and Fremont bridges, tells the story of modern American manufacturing. Back when it opened, clipper ships docked at the plant, and men turned Eastern Oregon grain into flour for the world using little more than their own muscle. The mill survived the Great Depression and boomed in the 1940s and '50s, when conveyor belts and electronic monitoring systems gradually replaced gravity and sheer manpower."
"In the 1970s and '80s," Griffin continues, "grain processing began shifting overseas, where building codes and public health requirements were looser, and to U.S. factories that were easier for trucks to reach. The city bought the mill in 2000 for $7.7 million; the final owners left behind machinery, files, office equipment, old bills and more grain than you could eat in a lifetime. Much of that remains, ghostly, grainy hints of the days when American ingenuity ruled the world and Portland was known as an industrial hub rather than a cultural hotspot. It's no wonder Mayor Tom Potter and his City Council colleagues agreed to reconsider city plans for the mill in 2004, despite prescient warnings about the potential cost and logistical difficulties of any renovation. This is a branch of our history that we've almost lost entirely."
Although adding jobs is a widely agreed-upon priority in the city right now given the still-moribound economy and high unemployment rates, not everyone is happy about PDC's shifting goals at Centennial Mills. In a letter to PDC, Patricia Gardner of the The Pearl District Neighborhood Association writes, "Our primary concern with the 'redirection' of Centennial Mills is that this project will end up another Albers Mills: a building fully of office users and zero public life," she wrote. The PDC call for new investors, she added, "is exceedingly troubling in this regard. None of the businesses you name, while all terrific Portland businesses, have crated the type of public spaces that the community is expecting in this site."
Whereas before the recession the thinking was that Centennial Mills should become a resource for attracting visitors to the River District, the Development Commission seems to clearly believe now that not only are jobs more important than additional retail (for which there is already a glut of space), but that private-sector growth is more important in these times than public space. It's in one sense a pragmatic, logical conclusion. Yet it also would, as Gardner notes, take away a major opportunity for people in the Pearl and River Districts to connect in a physical, palpable way with the Willamette River.
After Tom McCall Waterfront Park reaches its northern terminus at the Steel Bridge, downtown and the west side lose the ability to interact with and reach the waterside. For all the development that has happened in the Pearl over the past decade, the district is only now beginning to fill out its northern and eastern edges at the Fremont Bridge and the Willamette. For years designers and developers (particularly from Hoyt Street Properties, which owns the parcels nearest Centennial Mills along Naito Parkway and the river) have been anticipating a path leading from the boardwalks of Jamison Square and Tanner Springs, through the to-be-built Fields Park open space, and over Naito Parkway to Centennial Mills. The northern Pearl at this northeast edge where the bridge meets the river is more isolated from the central city, without many storefront retail opportunities. Centennial Mills could have been a place for the still burgeoning Pearl's residents to go shopping or to stretch their legs at the waterside.
Regardless of whether one believes offices and company headquarters should be half, all or none of Centennial Mills, there is the broader question of investment. If LAB Holding isn't going to develop the site, who is? Developers from Seattle and Baltimore vied for the Mills contract back in 2008, but again, that was a very different economic climate. Are there local or regional developers willing to renovate this old, dilapidated structure and gamble that its relative isolation can be overcome by the character of the mills themselves and the riverfront location?
Numerous moribound developments in other cities have seen new investment come from outside American shores. In Toledo, Ohio, the New York Times recently reported that the long moribound Marina District along the Maumee River was being revived by investments from two Chinese developers, who plan to turn the former industrial area into a riverfront residential, office, retail and entertainment district. The Times also reported on an infusion of development dollars resurrecting the CityCenterDC project in Washington, which was able to move forward because of a recent $620 million equity investment by the real estate arm of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The $700 million complex under construction in the heart of Washington is envisioned as a modern-day Rockefeller Center, with a public plaza and a park.
These two developments not only are going forward with foreign investment, but also, notably, are a mix of uses. It begs the question with Centennial Mills: does it have to be just a corporate headquarters or just retail? Just buildings and not a plaza or park? Wouldn't mixed use, the mantra that has shaped most of central Portland, be the right....well, mix?
If one development fizzles due largely to economics and another one seeks to prosper in its place, all amidst a still shaky economy, you wouldn't expect it to get bigger. Yet a stumbling block for Centennial Mills may also be the continuing presence of the Portland Police Bureau's horse paddock next door. It takes up a sizable portion of the 4.75-acre site. What if the bureau were to remove these equine storage sheds and open up this riverfront space more fully? Perhaps then Centennial Mills could more easily become a large enough presence in its own right to attract not just a few residents across Naito Parkway but a real destination for workers, shoppers and those at leisure. Griffin understandably argues that the time has come to downsize our expectations for this site. "The time is coming for an unhappy, unavoidable compromise," she writes, "for something that provides public access to the river and preserves the memory of the mill but is far less ambitious or design-heavy than Portlanders expect." Yet having more real estate to make something might help the district more easily reach critical mass.
Regardless, let's just be sure that while changing the plan with Centennial Mills toward more of an office setting is understandable, we can't sacrifice too much of the architecture itself. Indeed, these buildings are difficult structural challenges, but they are also a resource. With an adjacent northern Pearl District full of new construction, these historic buildings are all the more essential as an injection of the past. However difficult the current economic conditions, in the long term, a city that respects and continually reimagines its built past will prosper. And given that even the greenest new construction still uses exponentially more resources, carbon and embodied energy than renovated old buildings, Centennial Mills must be part of our future if Portland is to be the sustainable capitol it seeks.