BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last Friday in Atlantic Cities, I wrote about the Zidell Yards development and its master plan by ZGF Architects. "Despite its size, Zidell Yards seeks to be a macro development comprised of many different micro-sized parts," the story went, "an urban space of tranquil greenery, or a park disguised as a vibrant city."
As a follow-up, I'd like to share some of the interview text that didn't make it into the story, particularly from Gene Sandoval and Nolan Lienhart of ZGF Architects.
One of the first messages I heard from the duo was that Zidell Yards would be different from South Waterfront, both because of circumstances and because of intent.
"You’ll never have another time like the 90s and 2000s when, I believe, investment in single-family housing could fuel such a development with cheap loans," Sandoval explained. "This plan really accommodates development that is truly real and of the moment. It has the grit and authenticity that you might not find in a macro development where you build everything in a few years."
"The original plan here was mega blocks. We’re developing in smaller parcels now," Sandoval added. "It allows diversity in development. Bigger blocks mean taller buildings. Smaller means shorter and more affordable buildings, because you could have a different construction type, so you can invite a different type of business and use. There’s some blocks that are 200 by 70 feet. It’s very pragmatic. Given the economy, how many of the big developments can you do? It’s place making and space making, but also the practicality."
"If you do this kind of diversity in streets, in building types, you can invite a whole variety of people and businesses and demographics. If you want a successful neighborhood, you need that variety. That’s the dilemma the South Waterfront has, because of its homogeneous nature."
Sandoval also emphasized that, unlike the strong influence of Vancouver, British Columbia on the design for South Waterfront in the 2000s (lots of tall, thin buildings with wide bases extending to the sidewalk), the team would look further afield. "We’re actually global people, our team. Our precedents are beyond the United States," the architect explained. "The typology we wanted to use was not Vancouver. We used Rome a lot. We used Copenhagen. We looked at Hong Kong, and Venice because of the waterfront. These are thousand-year-old cities. Because authenticity was very important to us. Florence is very similar to Portland. It’s a city of bridges with a great public realm. Venice, not only is it a waterfront city, but it was an artisan city: a city about making. This place is really about making. The Zidell family wanted it to be rooted in their core business of making things. They want to continue that. With this authenticity comes several different traits they want to bring: materiality, making, real, steward, grit, thinking, grounded, craft, creating."
Of course it's easy to be optimistic with master planning: it's an opportunity to create best-case scenarios, free from the inevitable difficulties of real-world building. Some of the first buildings being discussed for the Zidell Yards are class-A office buildings. Is that really so gritty and crafty, having an insurance company or a financial management firm set up shop in a glass tower? The renderings produced so far also don't wow me aesthetically. But renderings, or at least the individual non buildings in them, are a nonfactor at this point: it's still all about the planning.
The Zidell Yards plan seems to be rooted in sound yet tangible ideas: the idea of embracing the Willamette River like few Portland neighborhoods have done before, truly getting the chance to touch the water. The continuing presence of the Zidell barge-building facility at the edge of the property beside the tram will also give the neighborhood some diversity and keep the otherwise all new collection of 21st century medical and condo buildings there feel a bit from feeling too sterile. And the street plan diverts from a traditional checkerboard street grid of 200 by 200-foot blocks in an interesting way. There's the chance for a little more sense of surprise and discovery as one rounds a corner. The property, as it touches the new light rail/pedestrian/bike bridge and the Collaborative Life Sciences building to its northern edge, also undergoes a fairly significant topography change from south to north.
"You really are creating three neighborhoods in a small development," Sandoval said. "There’s the flats to the south, the village underneath the bridge, and the hill, which will be about two stories. We think it’s going to be healthy."
The plan was based on a few key principles, he explained: "One was there’s no substitute for a place where people want to gather. We want to accommodate many different…in demographics, in construction, in height, in everything else. It’s very antithetical to the South Waterfront project. We thought by connecting all the dots we connect with the river and tell the story of what the river means for Portland. It’s one of the pearls we can string together."
"There’s been a lot of curiosity about the river. We’ve made such an investment in cleaning it up that maybe it’s a good time to have a conversation about what it means. Fundamental to this is the notion of how you foster environmental stewardship. Their site’s been through huge environmental mitigation. How can we have the site help this place? We thought maybe in the water. So we have a network of north south streets that connect to downtown and to the south, but also streets that connect you to the river. But there is a potential where this greenway path, rather than just running through the site, can start weaving into the urban site, so they great stitch together hand in hand. We think you can have a really incredible public realm with them coming together."
ZGF has also experimented with making streets facing the Ross Island Bridge (where there will be a park underneath) into universal streets shared by pedestrians and slow-moving cars. "We’re anticipating making it more like a plaza and less like a street," Nolan Lienhart explained. "The obvious precedent for this is Director Park. It seems like it’s working great. It’s clear it’s the domain of the pedestrian, and cars are allowed in it, not the other way around."
The park underneath the Ross Island Bridge is, as it should be, a major focal point for the buildings around it. "We said there’s a lot of merit to being well connected to the park. The building is enriching the park and vice versa," Lienhart added.
The park and the river connections can be simultaneously about providing a gathering place and acting as a treatment system for the river. Now that Portland has spent several years cleaning up the Willamette, it can be more of a place to truly interact.
"We wanted to make it a destination. We thought maybe you could put some barges on the river. It connects to the Zidells and gives people a chance to celebrate the water," Sandoval said. "We want to slope the site to the water and try to catch the water in the park and use the park as part of the overriding organizational elements. Not only is the ground plain doing that but we’re hoping that whether it’s the roofs, the courtyards and gardens, or the catch basins on the streets, the whole thing is a filtration system. The hope is to filter and make the river healthier in a very overt way rather than hiding it."