BY BRIAN LIBBY
Whether designed by a prestigious, award-winning firm or a mediocre one with cookie-cutter tendencies, most mixed-use condos and apartments routinely take a similar boxy form determined as much by lenders’ stipulations as design solutions.
Before they provide capital for this kind of building project, banks have a checklist: things like net-to-gross square footage, and the percentage of the building’s skin in relation to the interior. It results in boxes built out to the limit of the available land, with units on the sides and corridors down the middle.
This may maximize potential profit and help guarantee the loan gets repaid, but it creates a ubiquity stretching across different architects’ plans and, worse yet, creates units devoid of natural light as one moves further away from the exterior windows deeper inside. You’d be surprised how many Portland condo owners are living in units that resemble bowling lanes.
“In the typical approach, you minimize the length of the main hallway and you make the building as deep as you can on either side of it. There are nuances on finishes and that kind of thing. But if you look at the majority of new multi-family housing in Portland, that’s the model,” says THA Architecture principal David Keltner. It’s not to say good architecture can’t be done within these constraints. THA’s own Cyan apartments and Atwater Place condos are two good examples. But for each one of those, there may be countless other projects across the city that are not only bland shoeboxes, but ubiquitous ones.
Now, though, a series of condos currently rising on Division Street, developed by Urban Development Partners and (in two cases) designed by THA (the other is by Works Partnership Architecture), are demonstrating the benefits of greater design flexibility. Funding is coming via a real estate investment trust rather than conventional funding, so there is not the same set of restrictions on the design itself, as long as the cost remains comparable.
“These guys have to hit the same cost per square foot, but they can design them any way they want. And that has had a big impact on the architecture,” explains Keltner.
THA’s mixed-use residences at 3330 and 3339 SE Division, right amidst the area already teeming with a wave of new restaurants, feature small units under 600 square feet but with a better distribution of light.
“The problem with the shoebox is that the bedrooms and bathrooms get buried. If you relax a bit on skin area metric and make up the cost in other ways we can actually make units that will have light and air from two sides,” the architect adds. “With one of the projects we took the basic shoebox configuration and made these big cuts into the plan, so the bedrooms and bathrooms have windows. With the other project the architect rotated the units ninety degrees and arrayed them around an internal courtyard. “Urban Development Partners have an interest in giving back to the urban edge: some cool outdoor space, or interesting way through their site.”
There has been ample recent controversy about new apartment/condo buildings in Portland neighborhoods and the amount of on-site parking they have or don’t have. These projects come with some parking, but not a spot for every potential tenant. And to do so would be a mistake, creating a suburban-style building out of touch with its centrally located urban site.
The projects that have been garnering outcries from neighborhood residents are the ones that try and fit many more units without parking onto a site. Not too far from where these projects developed by Urban Development Partners are going up is another project by a different developer with more than 80 units and no parking. That’s the kind of project that can cross the threshold into difficulties for the neighborhood. Its progress was recently halted by the City of Portland on a technicality involving its entrance, despite already reaching four stories in height. But it's parking that local officials, at Mayor Hales' behest, are concerned about. "The right thing to do in this case—-sort of the land-use version of the Hippocratic Oath—-is do no more harm," Hales told Willamette Week's Aaron Mesh in a story published earlier today.
But smaller projects without parking should not be made to include lots of parking, nor should there ever be a one-to-one ratio of residences to parking spots in these buildings. To do so would be to transform a vibrant, pedestrian and transit-oriented neighborhood into Gresham.
“If you were to provide a parking space for every car going into these, you’d significantly increase the cost of being able to rent,” Keltner adds. “You’d basically be building structures that are good for nothing but parking.”
Meanwhile, after some five years of recession, the real estate economy is clearly picking up steam. Many of the top firms in Portland who were designing lots mixed-use buildings and residences before the downturn, such as THA, Works Partnership, Lever Architecture, Vallaster Corl and Holst Architecture, seem to be busy today with a host of projects. Places like Division Street may never be the same, but they’re changing for the better, with transit-oriented developments along major arterials such as this being built -- with some noteworthy aforementioned exceptions -- quite thoughtfully.
Whether it’s the banking industry or NIMBY neighbors, there are plenty of pratfalls for developers and architects looking to produce high-quality designs emphasizing natural light and a transit/pedestrian-oriented lifestyle. But with the right marriage of designer and client, projects as these are showing the way forward.