BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last Friday, with clouds temporarily parted on a gorgeous early-spring afternoon, I set out by bicycle for my favorite ride, along the Springwater Corridor and Oak's Bottom Wildlife Refuge flanking the east side of the Willamette River. But before heading south into this lush stretch of greenery, I decided to explore the area where Trimet's new MAX and pedestrian bridge touches down. After all, be it Mayor Hales, developers or planning gurus, experts and leadership seem to agree this portion of the broader Central Eastside seems poised for change.
Although it still lacks a name, the new bridge is nearing completion. For more than a year we have watched its two sides growing towards each other in the middle, like two arms stretching out to shake hands. When it is done, there will be thousands of MAX passengers moving between suburban Milwaukie to the south and downtown to the west. There is also a streetcar line, completed last year, that terminates in this same stretch of blocks, south of OMSI. Rail lines, especially streetcars, have long acted as development tools, with zoning often allowing higher density mixed-use development at these transit nodes. How might this neighborhood look much different in coming years?
The Central Eastside is not trying to become another Pearl District or South Waterfront (the latter of which sits almost directly across the Willamette from this southern portion of the district). It has long been zoned and protected as an industrial sanctuary. The district includes more than 1,100 companies and 17,000 jobs, and remained robust during the Great Recession.
Even so, the Central Eastside has changed dramatically within the past decade, adding a host of new industries. According to a report by the city's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, today only 10 percent of the district is used for manufacturing purposes and another 16 percent by what is called wholesale, transportation and warehousing. These two industries would have made up almost all 100 percent a generation ago. But today knowledge-based companies and design firms comprise 16 percent of the district, retail eight percent, and 12 percent for entertainment and food service.
So far, local planners and leaders have so far remained firm that the Central Eastside should not be taken over by housing development. And recently a group of visiting Urban Land Institute fellows seconded this plan, arguing that the Central Eastside overall should remain a haven for what they called "makers and doers," allowing the continuing mix of industrial and other types of employment to remain without being crowded out by condo and apartment builders.
Yet the city breaks the Central Eastside into pieces, and the closer one looks, the more it feels like housing will eventually come to its edges.
The portion of the district called Central Core comprises the majority of the land; it's bordered by Third and 12th Avenues to the west and east, I-84 to the north and existing railroad tracks to the south. This will assuredly remain a non-residential area. But along the river, from Third Avenue heading west, is what's called (appropriately) the Third Avenue West corridor. Could this ever be planned and zoned differently? Closer to OMSI where the bridge touches down is an area called the Southern Triangle, and east of that an additional parcel (between SE Division and Powell, east of 12th) called the Clinton Triangle. That’s where I can mostly easily see big transformation happening, something that involves housing.
The east edge of the Central Eastside's Central Core, on busy Grand Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard, is already zoned to allow housing and mixed-use development. In recent years there has not been much housing built here, perhaps because the corridor is not a very inviting urban place: it's an island flanked by multi-lane streets on either side (Grand and MLK comprise Highway 99E). But the completion of a new east side streetcar line on these streets last year may have begun to act as a development catalyst as it did for the Pearl, and if so, the new MAX line crossing the river (with stops at OMSI and the intersection near 12th and Clinton) may only hasten that process.
When you couple the Grand/MLK corridor beside the Central Eastside with a potentially rezoned Southern Triangle around OMSI and the new bridgehead, suddenly there's the opportunity to add a lot more development. "Stakeholders have consistently expressed a desire for the new light rail station at OMSI to become a catalyst for the development of a more accessible and vibrant waterfront district," the city's Central Eastside report reads. On a map it's easy to see the OMSI/bridgehead area becoming an extension of the higher density, housing and mixed-use development sought along the Grand/MLK corridor. One would be within walking distance of the burgeoning Division Street strip of restaurants and shops to the east, the Central Eastside to the north and downtown to the west, with both the MAX and streetcar lines at one's doorstep.
"It's waterfront property with a spectacular new bridge with no freeway along the river," Mayor Hales said last fall in a talk at AIA/Portland. "A lot of Trimet’s staging areas are freed up for redevelopment. I think it could be a great place, especially since we’ve got great outbreaks of urbanism from there to 12th."
Riding my bike around this so-called Southern Triangle of the Central Eastside was a thought-provoking exercise to look at what's there and imagine an incoming urban neighborhood where people live and shop. After all, this cluster of blocks already seems busy.
To get a look at the bridge, for example, I found a slice of public riverfront at the end of Division Place beside Polaris of Portland, a showroom for motorcycles, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles. Around the corner at the end of Fourth Avenue are small businesses like Splendid Cycles, a purveyor of cargo bicycles. Further north, on Caruthers Street, is McCoy Millwork and the Portland Opera building, as well as the Rail Heritage Center. If the zoning were to be changed here, some of these businesses would likely move on. But for a cultural institution like Portland Opera, which occupies the waterfront former KPTV studios, or even the rail museum, the cityscape could grow up around them in a way that's beneficial.
Besides the already-occupied buildings here, there are also, as the mayor indicated, staging areas for the bridge that could be turned into developable land parcels. Specifically, there is an area where the bridge will touch down on both sides of Water Avenue north of Caruthers Street that's easy to imagine some day in the future being high-density development.
One can also imagine the so-called Clinton Triangle, east of the MLK/Grand viaduct but north of Powell Boulevard becoming developed. Darigold operates a creamery here, which is unlikely to go away in the immediate future. But given the centralized location within walking distance of Division Street's flourishing restaurants and shops and the new Clinton Street MAX stop, one could imagine this area becoming an exception to the city's rule of no housing or office zoning in the Central Eastside.
Meanwhile, questions about future zoning are coming up for discussion. The city is currently forming the Southeast Quadrant Plan, which will update the long range plan for the Central Eastside District of the Central City. According to the city's website, "The project will coordinate with planning for new streetcar and light rail alignments, exploring ways to leverage new investments with an emphasis on employment transit-oriented development (ETOD)." The SE Quadrant Plan will also contribute to the update of the Willamette Greenway Plan for the Central Reach of the Willamette River. Phase II of that process will be happening this spring and summer, with the public invited to join in a design charette and open house (dates to be determined). And in a few years, the Portland Development Commission's Central Eastside Urban Renewal Area will be up for renewal. First established in 1986, it includes some 690 acres.
This isn't to say the city should rush into developing high-density housing around OMSI or the Clinton/12th area right away, or in a manner that feels incongruent with what's already happening.
The area around lower Division near the new Clinton Street MAX stop, for example, has already blossomed with new businesses in and adjacent to the historic Ford Building without the infusion of riders coming to and from the stop. What's more, areas of town such as Northeast Broadway near the Rose Quarter and the adjacent Lloyd District are more ready for investment and development right now.
And it’s worth noting that the Central Eastside didn’t succumb to the boom-and-bust cycle of the Pearl and South Waterfront; rather than a lucrative playground for developers, it’s a place that zoning has allowed to consistently and steadily remain vibrant. This is no sprout of a new neighborhood; it’s a blooming place already. Yet two multi-decade trends will inevitably combine with the OMSI area's prominent close-in location to compel a high-density future: the city and state's land use planning, which curbs sprawl by growing up and in rather than out, and the process all cities are going through over the decades in reclaiming riverfront land for public use.
Today when walking or biking along the Eastbank Esplanade, the waterfront trail veers away from the banks for a few blocks in order to make room for industrial businesses like Ross Island Sand & Gravel and a series of private docks before joining up with the Springwater Corridor trail back along the Willamette south of the Ross Island Bridge.
Someday a person ought to be able to walk continuously along the river here, and it's not hard to imagine the market producing plenty of people looking to live and work here too, just like they do in the South Waterfront and the developing Zidell Yards across the river. Even so, letting most of the Central Eastside stay non-residential would only enhance the high-density neighborhoods around it, be it around OMSI or MLK/Grand. It’s the mix that makes any city thrive.