BY BRIAN LIBBY
Over the past 15 years we have watched the Pearl District rise to become a cultural and residential heart of the city center, with a one-time urban fabric of industrial warehouses and rail yards give way to condos, apartments and parks.
In the early days of the Pearl, when the focus was mostly on its southern edge - particularly the Brewery Blocks development - much of the architecture aped that architectural language, often favoring materials like brick. And the buildings were multistory yet not at the heights of, say, the point towers of Vancouver, British Columbia.
But as development has turned in recent years to the northern edge of the Pearl District, the buildings have been more glassy, slim and contemporary. That slowed for a few years during the Great Recession, but today the real estate economy has returned, with numerous tall apartment and condo buildings planned. None are taller than the 168-unit, 28-story condo tower breaking ground this summer, which is for now known as Block 15.
Situated between Tanner Springs Park and the Fields Park, the quarter-block tower will rise 340 feet, making it not only the Pearl's tallest building but one of the tallest in Portland, with only five buildings rising higher, all downtown: the Wells Fargo Center (Charles Luckman), US Bancorp Tower (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill), KOIN Center (ZGF), PacWest Center (Hugh Stubbins & Associates), Fox Tower (TVA Arhitects) and Standard Insurance Center (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill). Block 15 will be 15 feet higher than the South Waterfront's tallest building, the John Ross Tower (TVA Architects).
Recently I spoke with Boora principal John Meadows about Block 15.
PORTLAND ARCHITECTURE: What were some of the starting points in terms of zoning/height allowance that gave shape to the design? Is this site zoned to allow more height than other parts of the Pearl?
JOHN MEADOWS: A few years ago we did the Hoyt Master Plan, which proposed greater height and density on Hoyt’s undeveloped north property. The City then did a new North Pearl District Plan, which resulted in increased density for most of the North Pearl (9:1 floor area ratio) and a very innovative height limit, which had a provision for increased height limited by FAR and floor plate size. A small floor plate allowed height essentially limited by FAR. This was set as an incentive to build tall thin buildings rather than the more affordable slab-like buildings common in the Brewery Blocks.
While most like the idea of tall thin buildings with small floor plates, they are very expensive. The additional exterior envelope area, the increased structure costs, and the added elevators and stairs make these point towers extremely costly to build in Portland. Block 15 is Hoyt’s best site, located between two parks, and Hoyt wanted this site to be distinctive and high quality. Hoyt wanted this project to be a point tower that embodied the aspirations of the North Pearl Plan and to be a distinctive building in the marketplace. The initial program was to have a floor area between 8,000 and 8,500 square feet in area and be the tallest building possible given available FAR and other zoning requirements.
One particular issue with Block 15 is that its location south of The Fields Park allowed the increased height but required the new building to cast shadows on the park no greater than a building of the base FAR would (225 feet tall). Our final design has a tower floor plate of around 8,400 square feet and 28 stories tall.
Could you talk a little bit about the use and placement of balconies as an aesthetic or practical choice? In the rendering I've seen, they seem to emphasize the building's verticality, especially in the upper portion - almost making it look like two slimmer towers instead of one.
As one of our goals was to make the tallest thinnest building possible, we also explored ways to make it appear taller and thinner than it is and to create a special amenity for the units.
We created inset decks as outdoor rooms in all the tower units. These inset decks cut into the crystalline glass massing of the tower and essentially create the appearance of four smaller thinner connected glass volumes (one at each corner) and emphasizes the towers verticality. The placement of these cuts and their offsets as they move up the tower also serve to create a more sculptural massing for the tower.
These inset decks have a much more functional purpose, which is to provide all tower units with a more comfortable and useable outdoor living space. These inset decks provide protection from rain and wind year-round and a greater sense of comfort for people uncomfortable with tall buildings. The decks are also squarer than the typical long, thin, cantilevered decks, making them better living spaces for tables and chairs. By placing these inset decks next to rather than in front of the living rooms, these decks don’t block the views like most cantilever decks, which often occur in front of the living rooms.
Boora has designed at least two other major Pearl District towers, the Metropolitan and the Encore. What have you learned on those projects that might have influenced this design? What, if anything, is/was different about the process?
Boora designed the Metropolitan and the Encore and we have learned a great deal about the North Pearl and Hoyt’s aspirations and requirements.
Hoyt has tremendous experience designing and selling high-density residential units and they understand the market, what buyers want and need, and how to distinguish each building in the marketplace. They have taught us a great deal about everything from overall building planning down to details about the implications of door swings on function, sight lines, etc.
The Metropolitan was a design competition as Hoyt was seeking a new direction in design, quality, and density. As such we designed the building once for the competition without Hoyt and then designed it again with Hoyt after we were selected, to assure that it worked better.
The Encore was a more typical design process working with Hoyt from the start and we developed the program and the design direction together.
As Block 15 is the best site Hoyt has with a presence on two new parks and the streetcar, Hoyt wanted this project to reflect another new direction in design, density, and quality. The program to create a tall point tower and a luxury condominium better than any that exists in the city led Hoyt to do another design competition.
Boora designed this building based on Hoyt’s competition program and goals and we used our long-term experience with Hoyt and experience with the North Pearl Plan to create a new building unlike any they have built, and yet one that we think fits Hoyt’s needs, aspirations, and the market. We understood how important this project was to Hoyt and to the North Pearl District and we worked extremely hard to do our best work. I had an extremely strong team at Boora and I think we created what will be one of Portland’s best towers.
After Boora was selected to proceed with the project, we worked intimately with the Hoyt team to refine the competition design although the design remains fundamentally like that designed in the original competition and approved by the Design Commission.
Could you talk a little bit about the immediate context of the northern Pearl district with the Fremont Bridge and the Fields park? It has a different feel from the southern portions of the Pearl developed in prior years. How did that influence your design?
When we did the Hoyt Master Plan, prior to the North Pearl Plan, we understood how the North Pearl was and would be different than the south Pearl The south Pearl has less open space, more retail and services given its proximity to downtown, and the areas that are dense, like the Brewery Blocks tend to be full block slab-like buildings. The Brewery Blocks also tend to be darker in color – maybe in response to some of the older existing buildings. These buildings tend to be red, grey, green, etc. Our aspiration for the Hoyt Master Plan was to create a setting around The Fields Park that was more open, with greater views and light, and to create a district of buildings that might be lighter in color and more crystalline in character. We thought about the variety of light or white buildings around Pioneer Square and how they help unify that open space and brighten our otherwise grey winters.
We also imagined the buildings in the Hoyt Master Plan to be taller with smaller floor plates where possible to increase the potential for light and view. The City’s North Pearl Plan expanded our Hoyt Master Plan thinking to allow and encourage even taller thinner buildings in this district.
The design of Block 15 also took into account the unique setting with The Fields Park to the north and Tanner Springs to the south. The Fields Park provided long views to the north, which are essentially protected as the few development sites along the river, north of The Fields have a much lower height limit. Most buyers prefer southern exposure and views in Portland towers although Block 15 has the benefit of amazing views in every direction with the northern views being expansive and dramatic, essentially making all units ‘view’ units. This is an easier goal to achieve when there are only 2-5 units on a floor and most units are corner units.