Vestas headquarters (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
For more than four years now, the economy and architects' role in it has seemed to be partially recovered from the lowest depths of 2007 and 2008's catastrophes, yet unable to reach anything close to full throttle.
Indicators such as the American Institute of Architects' Architecture Billing Index show a succession of peaks and valleys, inching above the magic number of 50 (meaning economic expansion) only to slide back down again. In 2012, for example, the ABI began at a healthy 51.3, rose in ensuing months up to nearly 55, then fell in the summertime down to 45.8, and finished this year at 53.2. But that's a substantial improvement over a few years prior. Between January 2008 and September 2010, the index never surpassed positive territory at 50.
The real estate market also seems to have good tea leaves to read from. According to the Realty Times, the Portland real estate market is seeing both pending and closed sales at their highest levels since 2006. Inventory at year's end has dropped to 3.8 months of supply, with pending sales up by 15.9 percent. The average home price grew by 10 percent.
As we look back on the past year in architecture, progress seems to be adding up. A look around the city shows a number of projects underway from housing to offices to institutional projects. But besides economics, how else is the city changing? What are today's projects and proposals likely to mean for Portland in the future?
This morning while driving on Grand Avenue, I took notice of the east side's new streetcar loop, and began to think of the changes it could bring to Grand and the parallel MLK boulevard, as well as Northeast Broadway beside the Broadway Bridge and the Rose Quarter. In the past, streetcar lines in Portland have acted as a development tool. Will the boarded-up buildings and surface parking lots along MLK and Grand give way to new high-density architecture? That will be especially important near the Rose Quarter, where the two arenas are isolated by asphalt and bad urban planning. As this area becomes more walkable, though, and the Portland Development Commission takes over redevelopment of the Rose Quarter garages and lots, the Rose Quarter could finally begin to become the east side center that it has always been destined to be.
Further south, there is even more transit building that could transform the city on both sides of the river. The new bridge being built over the Willamette for MAX trains and pedestrians is already prompting development on the west side. A new Collaborative Life Sciences building for OHSU and other Oregon universities is under construction, and the Zidell Marine Company's owners say they are finally ready to develop their massive 30-acre riverfront parcel between South Waterfront and Riverplace, which will allow one continuous strip of urbanity along the west side of the river and will give Portland an entirely new district, the Zidell Yards, complete with a new park under the Ross Island Bridge.
MAX bridge under construction (photo by Brian Libby)
But the new bridge could bring even more change to the east side of the river. Today the area where the bridge will touch down is mostly industrial, with the Ross Island Sand & Gravel company's facilities just to the south and the Central Eastside Industrial District to the north, as well as the Portland Opera and OMSI nearby. But it's easy to imagine that the land near the bridge, which also touches busy Division Street, will eventually be re-zoned to become a mixed-use waterfront neighborhood with residential, retail and office space just like that being built in South Waterfront and the Zidell Yards.
Of course we can't talk about transit without mentioning the ongoing embarrassment that is the Columbia River Crossing bridge project. It was a once-in-generations opportunity to build something great, something expressive of Portland's aspirations and rising prominence in the world. Instead we've settled for a flat slab of banal Anywheresville highway. This stretch of highway needs a local bridge to Vancouver, not to replace an existing span. Think of it this way: if the Marquam Bridge carrying I-5 drivers over the Willamette were downtown Portland's only bridge, would the right move be to build a local bridge like the Hawthorne or Burnside Bridge to go with it, or to tear down the Marquam and Replace it?
And speaking of the Marquam, one of the quieter happenings in 2012 yet one that could have far reaching effects is the revisiting of a long-simmering idea to bury a portion of I-5 in the Central Eastside in order to reclaim about a mile of riverfront. It's just a study, and there are most definitely no imminent plans to start digging anytime soon. Yet prying the freeway from the riverfront is exciting to think about.
Though it would admittedly come at a very large cost for such a large infrastructure project, probably too high for Portland to currently afford without lots of federal help, burying the freeway would transform the east-side riverfront of Portland in a way that would, over time, make for an entirely different city.
Maybe it's good that for decades now the presence of the freeway has helped protect the Central Eastside as an industrial district and prevented the kind of boom-and-bust cycle that happened in the Pearl District and South Waterfront. The character of this warehouse district is entirely different than the west side, grittier and smaller-scale, and to its benefit. Today the industrial activity happens alongside a burgeoning array of restaurants and creative-industry businesses.
But taking the towering, loud freeway away from the riverfront and opening it up to development would be a game changer that would pay for itself economically and culturally many times over. It would transform a massive chunk at the very center of the city.
Housing and Parking
Speaking of housing, one of the biggest success stories of the local building industry in 2012 has been the return of the high-density housing market, particularly rental apartments. On Division Street alone there have been at least a half-dozen projects in various stages of completion this year.
But here and in other historic neighborhoods, there has been a growing outcry over apartment buildings being built without onsite parking. Residents fear that the up-for-grabs street parking they've heretofore enjoyed will be over-utilized by other residents. Nevermind that no street parking is guaranteed, or that this smacks of the worst kind of NIMNY-ism. After four years of city-wide yearning for the building industry to return, the city actually seems to be considering the creation of a moratorium on apartment projects without onsite parking. Not only is this an unequivocal embarrassment to Portland's efforts to become a progressive, pedestrian and transit-friendly city, but a moratorium also isn't necessary and isn't going to solve the problem. The solution lies in getting more specific about density.
Take a look at the string of projects along Division. Most of them saw developers make good-neighbor agreements with the surrounding neighborhoods and, more importantly, were of a density that added cars to the neighborhood but not so many as to render street parking unavailable. Only one project was so dense as to surpass the tipping point and create a real parking problem. What we need is not a moratorium on apartments without parking - they are inherent to any self-respecting city. What we need is a maximum density per project when the apartment lacks parking. There is a huge difference between, say, a three-story project without parking and a five-story project in terms of what they do to parking in any two or three-block radius. What we need is not a heavy-handed move that hinders smart development, I'd argue, but a nuanced move that articulates sustainable density from unsustainable.
Sustainability and Renovations
When I think of 2012's most significant architecture stories, they all seem to have to do with sustainability and/or renovations in one form or another.
For the first time this year, for instance, three different projects by Portland firms made it onto the prestigious AIA Committee on the Environment's Top 10 Green Projects List: THA Architecture's Mercy Corps headquarters in Portland's Old Town, Opsis Architecture's Hood River Middle School Music and Science Building, and Hennebery Eddy's Portland Community College Newberg Center.
Then there were two huge public building projects, one that seems destined to remain unbuilt and another that is nearing the end of construction.
The Oregon Sustainability Center, combining offices for the city, Portland State University and other public and private sector organizations, was to have been the first multi-tenant building in the world designed to stringent Living Building Challenge standards. But while an 11th-hour deal with Interface Engineering almost seemed to save the project after it couldn't get necessary state backing, ultimately the deal fell apart. With Sam Adams leaving office, it's unclear if not doubtful that the new mayor, Charlie Hales, will try to rekindle the project.
Green-Wyatt federal building under construction (photo by Brian Libby)
Meanwhile, the re-construction of the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt federal building downtown is turning out to be a fascinating and compelling addition to Portland's skyline. The project is expected to achieve a 55-60 percent reduction in energy use compared to a normal code-designed building as well as a 65 percent reduction in potable water consumption. After stripping down to its frame the original 1970s building, a design by James Cutler and SERA Architects reclads it in glass with a west-facing facade covered in a patterned array of metal screens. The roof is tilted at an angle to optimize solar panels orientation; the visual effect seems whimsical, it it's form rooted in function.
The Wyatt project is just one of many renovations that seemed to, collectively, overshadow new construction in 2012. There are also renovations planned but yet to begin, such as the 511 Broadway building's renovation by Allied Works for the Pacific Northwest College of Art, which will help transform the North Park Blocks into PNCA's campus. Then there is Memorial Coliseum, long a personal crusade, which was set for a City Council vote on its restoration a few weeks ago only to see the vote set aside until the new year because of trouble with the Portland Winterhawks, who are contributing some $10 million to the Coliseum renovation but were recently subjected to a series of financially-damaging penalties by the Western Hockey League. By the time City Council takes up the vote again in 2013, it will have a new makeup, with Mayor Charlie Hales and new Council member Steve Novick replacing Sam Adams and Randy Leonard, respectively.
Big and small business
On the private-sector side, the biggest story may have been the opening of the American headquarters for Danish wind-turbine manufacturer Vestas. For developer Gerding Edlen, a Pearl District stalwart behind the Brewery Blocks and the Wieden + Kennedy headquarters, the team of GBD Architects and Ankrom Moisan transformed the circa 1927 Meier & Frank Depot Building into a headquarters for Vestas teeming with natural light thanks to a large central atrium. The Vestas building is designed to meet Platinum-level LEED strictures and is 68 percent more energy efficient than a building designed to code.
Yet if I were to explain Portland to an out-of-town visitor, talk would inevitably turn from these big individual building or transit projects to the ongoing culture of food carts and out city's burgeoning identity as a population that likes to eat out. One of my favorite small projects of the year was developer-designer Kevin Cavenaugh's The Ocean, which renovated a former tire center on a slow stretch of NE Glisan near 24th and Sandy into a handful of micro-sized restaurant spaces offering everything from meatballs and pie to fish tacos and Asian hot wings. But I'm also intrigued by new efforts around town to create food-cart pods with some unified sense of design, however modest. Part of food carts' charm is their individuality, but designers could help make them work and look better as collective spaces.
Looking ahead to 2013 and beyond, hopefully a more robust economy will help put more architects back to work. But one also hopes the last decade has also taught us to build more intelligently, at a scale that makes sense and is built for the sake of its users.