BY FRED LEESON
After decades of stagnation, it is pleasing on several fronts to find that the North Williams/Vancouver Avenue corridor now rates as a Portland “hot spot” for developers. The temperature has been rising slowly for close to a decade, and is now reaching a steady boil in the vicinity of Fremont and Williams Avenue.
The recently-opened New Seasons grocery store will now be flanked immediately to the south by a six-story, mixed use building called the Cook Street Apartments with ground-floor retail and 206 apartments above. The U-shaped building, designed by LRS Architects and located at 115 North Ivy Street, was approved on October 24 by the Portland Design Commission after nearly three months of public review.
At the same meeting, the commission also took a first look at early plans for a nearby complex called the Backbridge Lofts, on a vacant parcel at the corner of Williams and Fremont. Designed by PATH Architecture, the Backbridge complex would add another 175 apartments. A zone change for the Backbridge has been appealed to the Land Use Board of Appeals, so its progress might be slowed.
The zoning appeal is one sign that these changes are not necessarily well-received in the neighborhood. Several residents wrote in or testified objecting to the Cook Street project, contending that it was too big, too dense and a poor fit for what is mostly a neighborhood of small, single-family homes. To the eyes of many residents, these taller buildings look like they belong downtown or in the Pearl, not in the Eliot neighborhood. The new building will sit on a portion of the old Continental Baking site and its adjacent Wonder Bread day-old store.
Opposition to change may be bolstered by the fact that new development in the Williams/Vancouver corridor was close to non-existent for nearly 40 years, stemming from racial tensions, poverty, crime and drug-related difficulties. While there are genuine issues involving gentrification, demographic changes and social equity in the corridor, these debates do not alter nor stem the development changes afoot. The pressures surely stem in part from a generational change, in which younger residents for reasons economic and otherwise are favoring apartment living over the burdens and potential benefits of home ownership. That and the fact that the Williams-Vancouver corridor is zoned differently that comparable Portland streets, allowing taller buildings thanks to a partial industrial designation.
The Cook Street Apartments may well represent a beacon for these changes, given its use of shimmering green metal panels that are intended to offer the eye slightly different coloring depending on time of day, sunlight and sky color. “It’s a chameleon type of panel,” said Greg Mitchell, an associate at LRS Architects. “In the sunlight they really come alive.” The shimmering panels, to be applied to floors two through six, will be balanced by mocha-colored fiber cement panels in recessed portions of the façade and as fields for the windows.
The interior courtyard of the U-shaped structure will allow ramps to 142 parking spaces below grade and parking for 48 ground-level vehicles. Provision has been made to park 230 bicycles. Most of the courtyard will be covered by a green mesh rain screen. Small public plazas will be located at building entrances on the corners of Cook Street and Williams and Vancouver.
The architects made several tweaks to the design as a result of public hearings, but were unable to comply with one suggestion. The commission inquired as to whether two electrical transformers could be placed underground instead of on concrete pads at the surface. Transformers are placed underground downtown and in the Lloyd Center vicinity. Answers from Pacific Power & Light indicated that the underground vaults would be far more expensive to install and would delay construction for at least a year.
But given the pace of development in the corridor, the question remains at what point putting electrical infrastructure underground makes sense. “The most expensive solution is the most desired,” acknowledged Sheila Holden, a PP&L representative. She said that decision cannot be made by the power company alone, but jointly with developers and city officials. “We would host a meeting if there can be a meeting,” she said, but all parties would need to be at the table.
Transformers will remain on surface pads at the new building. “In reality, it’s part of the furniture delivering service to buildings,” Holden said. “It’s a square box. It can be camouflaged or ‘greened up’ to be more attractive to the eye.”
Some developers are willing to pay the utility company to move power lines to the other side of a steet to get them out of the way of a new building. “We don’t always know until the last minute who’s going to do what and where,” Holden said. “Nobody wants lines in front of their houses, but nobody wants to put them underground.” It is a dance that is likely to continue in the foreseeable future in the Williams/Vancouver corridor.