BY BRIAN LIBBY
Kevin Cavenaugh, the architect-trained developer who has spent much of the last decade embodying smart do-it-yourself place making in Portland, said something to me yesterday I've scarcely heard from any architect.
"I know as an architect I'm good but not great," he confessed as we stood outside The Ocean, a long-empty former tire center on NE Glisan he transformed into a quintet of tiny restaurant spaces. (Cavenaugh is not registered as an architect but has an architecture degree.) But by acting as a sort of enabler, renovating existing buildings on the cheap but in a way that attracts creative, passionate small businesses with a desire to experiment, he can create the kind of architecture that is noteworthy not for its elaborate forms or materials but instead for its ability to come a hot spot with high foot traffic, as he's done with past projects like the Box + One Lofts and The Rocket building.
The Ocean, which is having its grand opening this Saturday, is also very Portland, both in its aesthetic and in how it embraces the city's small-scale, shopkeeper economy. Its renovation includes some attractive wood trim and lots of glass, but the design essentially just retained the automobile bays and garage doors of the former tire-center building from which it was built . As a developer, Cavenaugh was smart and sustainably minded enough to re-use what was there in a way that directly helped attract and enable the kinds of businesses that located there.
The Ocean's mini outlets have indoor seating for 10-15 customers, smaller than most all brick-and-mortar restaurants but palatial compared to food carts, the biggest food phenomenon in Portland. The size is a kind of sweet spot in that can attract cart owners, many of whom find running carts a difficult business: overheated in summer, freezing and wet through the winter, with very small profit margins even when you're busy. Yet because the overhead is low, it's not as big of a leap to come to a built space of just 600 square feet per restaurant.
Cavenaugh told me there is a great enough demand for this size of micro-retail space that filling The Ocean was relatively easy. Yet it was also important in his mind to choose the right tenants. Slowburger, for example, stems from the popular burger served at Slow Bar, but it's also something more uncommon than the (admittedly very delicious) local Little Big Burger chain already branching out in multiple locations. Besides Slowburger, there is also Basa Basa, a Korean chicken wings restaurant from TV chef Caprial Pence, who previously headed the higher-end restaurant Caprial's Bistro before it closed during the recession. Pence's involvement is another example, besides Slowburger, of how Cavenaugh created a kind of theme within the restaurant theme: the chance for established chefs and food-drink proprietors to experiment with new concepts. There is also Uno Mas, a tacqueria, 24th & Meatballs for unctuous orbs of pork and beef (operated by Tabla Mediterranean restaurant owner Adam Berger), and cart-turned-restaurant The Pie Spot for both savory and sweet pies.
The building itself is also as colorful as the cuisine offerings. "As you approach Glisan Street, boisterous colors and sounds from a handful of tiny restaurants spill out of a building once owned by a Dodge dealership," wrote food critic Michael Russell in The Oregonian. "Rolling wooden garage doors, glossy picnic benches and bright marquees mark The Ocean mini-restaurant hub."
Cavenaugh certainly hasn't re-invented the wheel here. The Ocean doesn't look radically different from a strip mall or. But instead of a small parking lot in front, there are tables. Instead of cars moving out, it's people congregating. It's instant place making rooted in existing buildings, something realistic to replicate on a wide scale. It's also not too different from strings of new retail establishments in other parts of town, such as bike-friendly Williams Avenue on the border between North and Northeast Portland. In both cases, the heavy street traffic going by helps. The Ocean, at NE 24th and Glisan Street, isn't at as busy as Williams, but given its centralized location, it could soon be - both with The Ocean's direct help and as a result of increasing density amidst a returning real estate market.
"We want to change intersections," Cavenaugh says. "We know it’s a profitable financial model." It just is profitable, like the restaurants, on a small scale - so much so that banks and investors are hard to find. Cavenaugh and others have been exploring the creation of a private-equity fund for such businesses in the future. "There’s an innate inefficiency," to funding clusters of tiny businesses and developments, he says, "but over a 10 to 20 year period there’s a higher rate of return."
And while the economy certainly seems to have rebounded in the last four years, this kind of small-scale development seems a more realistic response than larger-scale buildings such as the half-block whoppers regularly built in South Waterfront and the Pearl District during the 2000s. Both in terms of scale and aesthetics, smaller and older may be better in multiple ways. That may not sound as exciting to architects, but it can still mean business and the opportunity to be creative as well as to create popular, high-traffic spaces.
"There is a breed of businesses and residents that prefer to be in old buildings, and in some cases will actually pay higher rent," says Liz Dunn of Dunn & Hobbes, the Seattle developer behind Melrose Market, a similar project to The Ocean. "The spaces are affordable because they’re small. The per square foot cost is healthy by any perspective. But the spaces are small. We couldn’t have done that in a new building. The character isn’t the same."
Dunn and Cavenaugh both believe there is an untapped demand for small retail spaces, something most new buildings ignore even they often are mixed-use with ground-floor retail that goes unleased. "I think there’s more understanding of this in Portland, but in Seattle you get more outside money wanting to develop at the half block or full block scale," Dunn says. "We attract more equity than Portland but they want to deploy money at scale, and they don’t care if it’s in a neighborhood where they have to tear down four buildings to do that."
Depending on how you measure it, sometimes a renovated one-story building can achieve greater density than a new multi-story one. Not only is it inherently more sustainable in terms of physical resources, but if done well it can attract more people than it ever houses.
"I’m not anti density at all," Dunn says. "It’s just a question of how you insert it into the city, in terms of outcomes. Density is a means to an end. It’s not an end of itself. You want to know the buildings are well used, which means that stuff like curating the right mix is more important than the total amount of space if your goal is many people using the building throughout the day, and leading connected lives without driving unless they want to. It’s about intensity of use versus density. We focus way too much on raw square footage and not on bodies per square foot per hour."
A key in both Dunn's and Cavenaugh's projects was the personal involvement. Larger development companies may have the greater pockets, but they have small touches that can help these small businesses succeed. "It’s not just giving them the keys and saying, 'I hope you’re successful,'" Cavenaugh explains. "It’s saying, 'The first 24 months are scary. I’m going to help you keep open.'"