BY BRIAN LIBBY
Nearly a decade ago, as some of the city's most prominent developers were making the case for a new South Waterfront district, I remember asking one, Homer Williams of Williams & Dame (who co-developed both South Waterfront and most of the former Hoyt Street Yards that became the northern Pearl District) what and where the next big opportunity would be.
His answer: the approximately 20 acres owned by the Con-way trucking company near Northwest 23rd Avenue and Vaughn Street. After all, Williams reckoned, the area was very centrally located and easily accessible. It's adjacent to Interstate 405 as well as the NW 23rd shopping district and historic neighborhood.
As Angela Webber reported in Friday's Daily Journal of Commerce, representatives from GBD Architects and Spencer Consultants presented their updated plans on behalf of Con-way to the city's Design Commission last week. The multiuse development, they say, will include housing, office and retail spaces. Con-way is not planning to develop buildings itself, Webber explains, but to forge agreements with individual developers for different projects on the site. The GBD/Spencer team estimated that the district will include up to 1,500 residential units as well as 368,000 square feet of office space and 144,000 square feet of retail space - totalling some 1.9 million square feet of new development.
The fact that GBD was presenting the plans leads back to the firm's designing Con-way's offices here in 2001. If GBD were to continue as architect of all or some of this new multi-block development, it would seem to indicate that developer Gerding Edlen, which developed the Con-way offices and hired GBD, might also become involved if they aren't already. That the Con-way representatives told the Design Commission that the project is exploring an ambitious district-wide shared energy program and plans to pursue LEED for New Development certification may also point to Gerding's presence.
Con-way headquarters (image courtesy Gerding Edlen)
Although the Con-way site is, as Williams noted all those years ago, ideally situated for high density, pedestrian oriented, mixed use development, there are some concerns about its impact on local infrastructure as well as the possibility building a low-density grocery store before any mixed-use development.
Webber reports that the first project on the Con-way site, "and the only one officially announced," will be renovation of an existing warehouse building into a 40,000-square-foot grocery store. "The project will need a special consideration in the master plan, because it will be a low-density, one-story project in an area projected to be denser," Webber writes. In the Design Commission hearings, she adds, GBD's Phil Beyl said the grocery store building would eventually be torn down and replaced with a higher-density project. "But Northwest District Association member John Bradley said, 'I doubt that the grocery store will ever be torn down.' Beyl in fact admitted that the grocery store would likely remain in the area for 20 years, after design commissioner David Wark asked what would motivate a grocer to leave a successful area."
Even without the erroneous claim that it would be a temporary grocery store, it's too bad that we have an admirable seeming high-density, mixed-use urban development beginning with a project that seems more typical of low-rise development outside the central city. It's nice to save and re-use a warehouse, but does that supercede the other values and goals for high-density development? Beyl, in Webber's story, is also quoted as saying the grocery store would be "catalytic" for the development. Maybe that's true, but I would have thought that the location itself and the type of high density urban environment being created - as well as the central heating and cooling plant being discussed by the architects - would have achieved the same goal of market attractiveness. In fact, one might argue that for all the convenience and attractiveness of a grocery store as anchor retail tenant for the emerging neighborhood, doing a low-rise building here undermines the integrity of the other high density plans.
Another issue here is parking. The local neighborhood group, the Northwest District Association, is reportedly concerned that the grocery store could be approved without requiring new underground parking. Webber reports that surface parking lots currently used by some 1,000 Con-way employees would provide the land for the mixed-use development.
There is also the attendant issue of traffic and what it will do to an already choked 23rd & Vaughn intersection that gives way to Highway 30, Interstate 405 and the Fremont Bridge.
And many of the acreage in question in this portion of heretofore industrial Northwest Portland is comprised of super-blocks rather than the 200x200-foot ones that are the norm in the rest of the city. At least in the rendering run by the DJC, the master plan does not seem to return any of these blocks, now that they'd no longer be industrial, back into regularly sized blocks. That said, the renderings at least seem to create pedestrian passageways and would have the buildings themselves designed accordingly.
Whatever quibbles there may be, honestly it's great to see that attention is being paid and even modest progress in developing this under-utilized group of blocks, because one wants it to be a sign of progress for a local development community that has been largely inactive for years now, dating to the housing bust of 2008. Even if all we have here is a single story grocery store, the master planning process indicates that Con-way and its development partners are looking to make a move when the market comes back. (And master planning itself is a good sign, rather than piecemeal development.)
A recent New York Times op-ed by the Brookings Institute's Christoper Leinberger recently noted that long term trends in the economic recovery favor such pedestrian friendly places.
"In the late 1990s, high-end outer suburbs contained most of the expensive housing in the United States," Leinberger writes. "Today, the most expensive housing is in the high-density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods of the center city and inner suburbs... Simply put, there has been a profound structural shift — a reversal of what took place in the 1950s, when drivable suburbs boomed and flourished as center cities emptied and withered. The shift is durable and lasting because of a major demographic event: the convergence of the two largest generations in American history, the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and the millennials (born between 1979 and 1996), which today represent half of the total population. Many boomers are now empty nesters and approaching retirement. Generally this means that they will downsize their housing in the near future. Boomers want to live in a walkable urban downtown, a suburban town center or a small town, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors. The millennials are just now beginning to emerge from the nest — at least those who can afford to live on their own. This coming-of-age cohort also favors urban downtowns and suburban town centers — for lifestyle reasons and the convenience of not having to own cars. Over all, only 12 percent of future homebuyers want the drivable suburban-fringe houses that are in such oversupply."
Maybe we're not out of the economic cold, but this would seem to indicate somebody is going to build a campfire.
It's only too bad that, given how clusters of empty blocks this centrally located come along rarely, that the master plan doesn't seem to include the possibility of public space, such as a school or a park. A new Lincoln High School has been suggested for this area, for example. A school, community center or other communal asset would help make this development an essential part of the city by having an essential sense of place. It would help put a there there, so to speak: a focal point where the iconic bridge meets a neighborhood of historic homes and retail strips to the south, and undustrial sanctuary to the north. At this point, though, even just a bunch of apartments and shops sounds like a nice start - a nice spark.