BY FRED LEESON
In late December, construction equipment began returning to the gaping hole in downtown Portland that has sat empty for nearly five years between Southwest Morrison and Yamhill Streets between Park and Ninth Avenues.
Yes, work is finally resuming on what one might call the “Momma Bear” solution for what is intended to be developer Tom Moyer’s iconic vision for an iconic high-rise retail, office and residential tower in the heart of Portland. Back in 2007, just as Moyer was beginning to slip into the haze of dementia, his development team completed plans for a 33-story slender tower with offices, retail and condos.
Work stopped with the crash of the condo market, and in 2009 the Moyer team returned with the “Baby Bear” version – 26 stories with retail, offices and no condos. The cutback had to be painful for Robert Thompson and the design team at TVA Architects, who were rightfully proud of the sculptural, slender tower that they intended to be a new landmark on the city skyline. Yet even without the condos, leasing for the Baby Bear stalled and the big hole in the ground sat silent and vacant.
“It was kind of the poster child for the recession period,” Thompson said, when he returned to the Portland Design Commission recently with the Momma Bear version. “Obviously, it was heartbreaking for everyone when it came to a halt in 2009.” Most of the heartbreak is over; the third and presumably final version of Park Avenue West rises 30 stories. At 460 feet tall, it falls only 16 feet short of the original design. A slender spire approved as part of the project will push its tip just past 500 feet.
The exterior of Park Avenue West looks much like the two earlier versions – and is essentially identical to the 26-story "Baby Bear" design with four floors added below the canted roof that shrouds mechanical equipment. In the latest plan, 15 stories comprising 203 apartments will sit atop the bottom two floors of retail, and 13 stories of office space will sit above the apartments. In the first 2007 design, the condos took the highest floors and sat atop the officer space. With the collapse of the high-end condo market, office space pays a better premium for what Thompson called “the views and everything about being up high.” In all, it is a busy formula for a block that, at 100 feet by 200 feet, is only half the size of a normal downtown block.
Stoel Rives, the large Portland law firm, has leased nine of the 13 office floors in Park Avenue West, including the top two “penthouse” floors. The Stoel Rives lease and the hot Portland apartment market were key factors in reviving Park Avenue West, which is now scheduled to be completed in 2016. “We are bringing back 203 apartment units that will add to energy and activation of the project at night,” Thompson said.
The unusual height of the tower relates back to a grand scheme negotiated by Moyer many years ago. After another developer caused a controversy by proposing a multi-story parking garage on a surface parking lot now known as Director Park, Moyer bought the parking block. He said he would give the surface of that block to the city in return for the right to build parking below it, and to transfer the above-ground development rights to the block that will be home to Park Avenue West on the block immediately north. The City Council agreed.
Since then, the Portland Parks Bureau pursued an elaborate design process that led to development of Director Park. Though certainly less well-known than Pioneer Courthouse Square, the slender park with its hardscape surface and multiple public uses will grow in esteem as time goes on. Park Avenue West strives to create an attractive northern face to the park by fronting it with a glassy, 35-foot façade that includes the entry to the tower’s residential floors.
The tower’s two-story pedestal offers retail on both floors, and does its best to provide pedestrian engagement on all four sides. “Everything we’re trying to do is energize the ground plane,” Thompson told the Design Commission. The entrance to the upper-story offices will be off Southwest Ninth Avenue, and automobile access to the underground parking will be off Park Avenue.
An unusual attribute of the tower site is the presence of low-rise buildings – or no buildings – all the way to the Willamette River. Thompson noted that the slender building “fills a void in the skyline.” True – but it also offers an outstanding view for tenants with east-facing windows that likely will remain unblocked for decades.
The Momma Bear version sailed breezily through Design Commission deliberations Jeff Stuhr, a partner in Holst Architecture who was a commission member during the first go-round, wrote in to call the project “critical to the continued success of downtown.” The city’s Bureau of Development Services staff report that recommended approval spoke in glowing terms for a government report. At one point, it referred to 30 years of downtown planning and called the building “exactly what the Central City Plan describes” for the heart of downtown. Other laudatory staff comments referred to the building as an "elegant point tower," and said it "helps to define Portland’s skyline and can become a landmark in the skyline – it will be distinctive and exuberant.”