BY FRED LEESON
In traditional terms, the dramatic, bold and creative proposal for the long-vacant Burnside Bridgehead block can be described simply as an apartment tower sitting on a podium. But knowing it is Skylab Architecture design means there is absolutely nothing traditional about either major element. Jeff Kovel and a design team that seems allergic to 90-dgree corners hopes to build a 21-story building that will set a high standard for new inner-East Side projects.
Let’s start with the tower. It runs diagonally, angling - from northwest to southeast – across the block immediately north of the Burnside Bridge between Northeast 2nd and 3rd Avenues. The footprint of the tower is basically a parallelogram, but its sides pinch inward slightly on all four frontages to take better advantage of views up and down the Willamette River to the west and Cascade peaks to the east. The tower’s curtain wall of seemingly randomly-placed vertical glass and metal panels grows more glassine as the floors rise and metal panels decrease in number. A gently-angled parapet eliminates those boring 90-degree angles up top.
The geometric niceties of the tower are subtle compared with the bolder strokes of the five-story podium. Four levels will contain 200 parking spaces for apartment tenant and ground-floor space for retail use. The most dramatic element is a stair-stepped roof for the podium that reflects the 25-foot change in elevation on the site. Portions of the podium roof will provide outdoor meeting space for tenants and eco-roof plantings designed to mitigate storm-water runoff. The parking floors will be screened with perforated metal panels that will allow for natural ventilation. Purple lights near the garage edges will be activated by motion sensors, giving a muted “light show” effect as cars negotiate the parking floors at night.
After four public hearings, the Portland Design Commission gave strong unanimous approval to the Skylab design on December 21. “Overall, it’s a fantastic project,” said Gwen Millius, the commission’s chair. “All very thoughtful and creative,” added David Wark, another commissioner. “It is definitely going to mark this place in a very creative way.” Wark added, “Hopefully, it will start moving forward very soon.”
Therein lies the rub. As close as it is to downtown Portland and the busy Central Eastside Industrial Area, Block 67 as it is known, has sat vacant since 1984. A developer in the 1980s hoped to add additional floors to the old Bridgeport Hotel that once occupied a portion of the block. But that plan died of financial collapse and remnants of the old building and a newer steel frame that once poked above the old hotel were demolished. For years, the Portland Development Commission tried to market a four-block renewal project immediately north of the Burnside Bridge, but talk of offices and even big-box retail led to nothing at all.
The city’s redevelopment agency ultimately agreed with Portland-based Beam Development to tackle the four-block site one block at a time, instead. Beam already has renovated the former Convention Plaza building immediately north of Block 67, once planned to be demolished, into approximately 100,000 square feet of office space. Beam is working with Key Development Corporation of Walnut, California, on the apartment building being designed by Skylab.
Not all financial hurdles have been cleared yet for the Block 67 highrise. One key decision still pending is whether the structure will be a steel frame or a more expensive option of post-tensioned concrete. The shallower concrete floor plates would allow for 276 apartments in 16 floors above the podium and a total height of 206 feet. A steel frame would restrict the design to 13 stories above the podium, 222 apartments and a maximum height of 195 feet. Kovel believes the thinner concrete floors would be a more graceful fit with the glass and metal-panel window wall system. Design Commission members also preferred the post-tensioned option, but granted approval to either version.
Completion of the Skylab project likely would breathe new vitality into the inner East Side, as well as adding the first dramatic new building since the Rose Quarter and Oregon Convention Center projects. Wark said he thinks it will raise the bar for future East Side projects. “It’s just an incredibly exciting building,” said David Keltner, another Design Commission member. “This would be a great thing for the city.”