Union Way (photo by Jeremy Bittermann)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
When developer Tom Cody of Project PDX and architect Thomas Robinson of Lever Architecture led a late-afternoon tour of their new Union Way shopping alley in Portland’s West End last week, only about four of the nine shops were open for business but traffic was already steady through this arcade-like space. That’s a testament not only to the subtle beauty of Union Way’s light-filled, wood-festooned design, renovated from the former Red Cap Garage building, or to the array of tiny but eclectic fashion and food boutiques inside, but also to the idea behind the project: that by giving back to the public realm, you create an asset for both.
“It never ceases to amaze me how the most fundamental rules of real estate continue to be the most relevant,” Cody said as we toured the project. “Essentially the Red Cap Garage is this long, deep, narrow building. It’s 47 feet wide and about 135 feet deep. The problem that you have is that only 47 feet has street frontage. So this space deep in here begins to be dark. The question becomes: how do you monetize that? How do you make that valuable? How do you make that interesting?” The answer was to add a new street.”
By creating a path through these two buildings, Union Way provides not just a shortcut from Stark to Burnside, but between two neighborhoods: the Pearl and the West End, between Northwest and Southwest Portland.
The alley of small shops feels like it’s outdoors because it’s open at both ends of the project but actually has a roof lined with skylights. But the construction wasn’t just a matter of cutting a new spine down the building to get openings on both Stark Street and Burnside, although that would have been ingenious enough. The Red Cap building only fronted Stark, not Burnside. Cody also had to buy another small building, which also formerly housed a club, Aura, and continue the alley through there in a way that still felt like one continuous space.
“The value is created by the intervention of this space, this covered outdoor thoroughfare, to move people from one neighborhood, the West End, to another neighborhood: the Pearl,” he continued. “By virtue of doing that, you now gain exposure for all of the merchants that live here. The more merchants you have, the more interesting that shopping experience becomes. So rather than do two that just fronted here [Stark] and two that just fronted there [Burnside], which was an option, we said, ‘No, lets try to do something different and more interesting than that by putting this street in here and then doing many small tenants.’ Our smallest tenant is 187 square feet, and our largest is 1,500.”
The project takes its inspiration from small shop-lined alleys and passageways of old in cities like Paris and Tokyo. “Many of those spaces were during the industrial era where cities were chaotic, dangerous and dirty,” Cody said. “The passages and were a respite from that. They were an oasis. Throughout history there have been different interpretations of it. This is ours.”
Although Union Way is firmly rooted in concept, execution was critical. Lever Architecture’s design with its 12 skylights makes the interior nearly as bright as outside, but equally noteworthy is the lining of its walls with a blonde-hued poplar. Like much Scandinavian architecture or recent local examples like Allied Works’ Sokol Blosser tasting room, Thomas Robinson’s design creates a kind of modernist sauna that feels at once geometrically pristine and uncomplicatedly natural. The original ceiling beams and rafters of the original Red Cap Garage building were left exposed and only sandblasted, not painted, complimenting the new poplar cladding without trying to be the same.
Union Way (photo by Jeremy Bittermann)
“It’s balancing the old and the new,” Robinson said. “I think that’s more of a European approach: balancing modern in a way that feels okay in the context of these older buildings. We spent a lot of time going, ‘What should we do with this structure?’ Paint it? Integrate it with the new structure?’ In the end, we just basically power-washed these beams.”
Overall, “There’s really specific architectural moves we made,” the architect added. “One is the surfaces: the concrete [floor] is sandblasted, with the idea being the continuation of the sidewalk. And we wanted to make the doorway disappear.” A small folding fence is pulled across at night. “The wood is another. It’s a hybrid poplar grown right outside Boardman. We had it custom milled to our specifications. It warms up the space. The other thing is the daylight. There were three covered-up skylights between the two buildings, and we now have twelve that run the full length. If you look at the Parisian passages, they have those things. They have a very specific idea about the floor. They have a kind of craft to the facades. And they have huge amounts of daylight.”
Before founding Lever, Robinson worked in the offices of Swiss masters Herzog & De Meuron as well as under Brad Cloepfil at Allied Works. During the Union Way tour I asked him to refresh my memory as to when he arrived at Allied, because there was a small resemblance in my mind between this project and Cloepfil’s landmark Wieden + Kennedy headquarters design a few blocks away. It turned out that Robinson arrived at Allied after W+K’s completion, but I suggested to him anyway the resemblance: that each seems to carve its architectural space out of an existing historic structure, making an intervention that reveals a palate of concrete and natural wood bathed in natural light. Robinson said that that one of the fundamental experiences of W+K’s design was the look of natural light hitting wood, and that there was a similar intent as Union Way’s 12 skylights penetrated deep into the building’s interior. It’s a blurring of indoor and outdoor space, or the feeling of a blur when you’re actually entirely indoors.
It’s also noteworthy that zoning would have allowed the single-story building to be torn down and a multi-story structure built in its place. But Cody said that the buildings’ owner, when approached about a sale, preferred a renovation. And when the Union Way developer explored the option of having office or residential space above, the special architectural experience was lost, and thus potentially his clientele with it. “It became dilutive,” is the developer put it. Retaining the existing buildings and their character was key as well to luring high-end retail tenants. “These kinds of merchants, I don’t think they’d go into a new building, honestly,” Cody added. They want something that has a character and an authenticity and a historical relevance that I wish could be created anew. But it just can’t.”
And in today’s market, at least this end of it, it’s not enough to have high-end goods for sale. It’s about the urban setting and the architectural experience. “I think retail has become polarized,” Cody said as our tour concluded. “Either it’s a non-experiential, commodity-based endeavor, whether it’s online or it’s big-box shopping, or it is an atmospheric, experiential endeavor that is done at a human scale and amongst others and adds value to your life, and it’s something you simply can’t get online. And so this is that. Conceptually, there’s the one big gesture that is the most impactful: the strength of a linear connection between two neighborhoods, two streets. That’s the underpinning, the cornerstone of Union Way. That gets amplified by other things: design, merchandising and whatnot. At every step we tried to make decisions that would affirm and exaggerate that urban gesture.”