BY BRIAN LIBBY
Between the Ross Island Bridge and the Marquam Bridge downtown, between the condo towers of South Waterfront and the shops of Riverplace, there is a 30-acre riverfront parcel poised to become not only Portland's newest neighborhood, but one of the major redevelopments in the United States.
This chunk of land belongs to the Zidell family, which owns the Zidell Marine Corporation, operater of a barge-building facility adjacent to the Portland Aerial Tram's lower terminus in South Waterfront, as well as ZRZ Realty, which is developing the property. The Zidells chose to sit out the real-estate boom of the mid-2000s that saw towers rise with great velocity only to fall into receivership. Now, though the boom times have not returned, the real estate market has resumed enough stability that, coupled with the construction of a new pedestrian and light rail bridge and OHSU's massive new Collaborative Life Sciences building on the northern edge of the Zidell property, the family decided to move forward.
"We’ve always known we would redevelop. It wasn’t a matter of if," explains Matt French, managing director of ZRZ Realty and a nephew of company president Jay Zidell; French is overseeing redevelopment of what's being called the Zidell Yards. "It’s really a confluence of this stuff that’s been developed around us. We have the density, we have the transit, and we have a site that’s now undergoing restoration. About two years ago we decided that now’s the time."
The Zidells were already working with ZGF Architects on a new apartment project just across Moody Street from the aerial tram, called The Emery (named after Jay Zidell's father, Emery Zidell). Happy with that working relationship, they hired ZGF to create a master plan. Along the way, the company began quietly meeting with people all over town, from small creative companies to corporations, government offices to community groups. Most importantly, they hired acclaimed landscape architect Peter Walker, designer of Jamison Square in the Pearl District and numerous other projects around the world, to focus on creating compelling public space.
"The future of America is in these walkable urban places," says Dennis Allen, director of planning and development for ZRZ Realty, which has help develop numerous mixed-use and transit projects in Los Angeles. "They don’t have to be always around a central business district. It’s a bout placemaking. We think that this site has the opportunity to magnify that. We think it can really be the next great place in Portland."
As the Zidell Yards parcel was laid out, a decision was made to divert from Portland's traditional square, 200x200-foot blocks. Instead, the blocks collectively show a gentle curve in parallel to the bend of the river, and in order to allow greater variety of building scales and types. "There’s meant to be an element of discovery and surprise: wanting to see what’s around the corner or down an alley," French explains.
South Waterfront, conceived in a boom time, features mostly tall, half-block-sized towers. French and Allen say there will probably be greater diversity in the Zidell Yards, with the highest density coming on the northern edge adjacent to the new bridge and the Collaborative Life Sciences building. "It’s important to create buildings that have diverse shapes and sizes and architecture," French adds. "It gives the neighborhood more depth and scale, when you have both big buildings and more human scale buildings."
More than density and just housing, though, the developers seem interested in attracting offices and other commercial occupants. As Randy Gragg reports in this month's Portland Monthly, for example, the Zidell-ZRZ team is talking with M Financial about relocating there.
"One of the things we’ve found getting out and talking to people is people are working differently now. Their employees are demanding different things and they’re having to build different types of places to retain them," French says. "So we’ve been spending time thinking about what will cater to that next generation of workforce."
What may be most exciting about the development of the Zidell Yards is the opportunity for Portland to be re-introduced to the Ross Island Bridge, and for people to experience the bridge like never before. Have you ever been to Cathedral Park in North Portland, standing under the support columns of the majestic St. Johns Bridge and looking out at the water? The columns of the Ross Island Bridge, though it's never been beloved for its beauty like the St. Johns, are remarkably similar: lacking the gothic curve with a more rigid, rectangular form, yet standing tall to create a kind of unintended architectural space: a grandly scaled procession to the waterfront, enhanced by the construction of the South Waterfront Greenway, which extends through the Zidell property.
"The intersection of the Ross Island Bridge and the greenway is a chance to create something special and build a destination there," French adds.
And on a practical level, the Ross Island Bridge is much, much quieter when heard from below. As I stood along the Willamette yesterday with French, Allen and Zidell, the noise from above was nothing compared to what one hears underneath the Marquam Bridge along the Eastbank Esplanade. That means this stretch of Riverside underneath the bridge really does have the opportunity to be a place where people want to congregate and hang out.
The developers have special plans for this riverside portion of the property at the southern edge of the bridge. As we talked inside a construction trailer on the Zidell Yards lot yesterday, almost every inch of the the synthetic wood paneling was covered in pictures of different cities the team visited around the world (Copenhagen, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, two in Germany) with engaging waterfronts that let people not just overlook from above, but actually get into or at least at the foot of the water. That could mean a small beach, or a large swimming pool of enclosed riverwater, as was done for the Copenhagen Harbour Bath.
"The concept here is a great public space," Allen says. "It could be an amphitheater, baths or something else. It’s not just about being on the bank looking out at the river, but how do you get down to it? Many of the cities we visited are cold-water cities but they do a better job of getting people down to the water."
French estimates that there is room in the Zidell Yards for as many as 25 to 30 buildings. Given that size, as well as a real estate market only modestly growing today, it will take many years to build it out. As a result, the team has explored the possibility of activating vacant space with a variety of temporary options such as food carts and art installations. They're also aware of how the Pearl and South Waterfront have attracted few institutional and cultural tenants such as schools and arts spaces, which they hope to change. And the plan is to continue building sustainable, LEED-rated architecture, continuing the exemplary performance in that regard of the South Waterfront. Just building in these close-in former industrial areas, though, is the most sustainable move of all, helping to avoid sprawl.
One caveat to the story of Zidell opening up its property for development is that their barge-building facility here will stay. In fact, a new barge is set to be launched this November. So while the overwhelming majority of buildings and spaces here are shiny-new, the area will, blessedly, retain the presence of blue-collar industry. We are somewhere in the middle of a multi-generational shift in which industry's domination of big city riverfronts transitions to let the public reclaim these scenic places. Yet it needn't be a complete one-for-the-other switch. The best cities and urban spaces reveal a mix of different types of activity on the land. To have the rusty patina of the Zidell barge building facility set against the glassy new architecture here is to see a century's narrative playing out.
As Gragg's article noted, this master planning stage is the easy part: the chance to daydream about what a neighborhood could be rather than a guarantee of what it will become. After all, South Waterfront turned out somewhat differently than was originally promoted. But as we walked the Zidell Yards property in the shadow of the Ross Island Bridge, with construction cranes overhead working on the bridge, the MAX line, and the Collaborative Life Sciences project, one couldn't miss the tangible indicators that this stretch of the Willamette is suddenly entering a second phase after the years of South Waterfront's infancy.
The South Waterfront was always a kind of to-be-continued story until it went from being an island of urbanity between the river and the freeway to being part of a continuous strip of city along the Willamette - a kind of appendage to downtown. The Zidell Yards are the missing link in this puzzle, and while it may be a decade or more before this is all fulfilled, standing on this 30-acre swatch of riverside, I felt like I could see the future.