BY BRIAN LIBBY
For the past 28 years, downtown Portland and surrounding close-in districts like the Central Eastside have been zoned and planned based on the city's 1988 Central City Plan. But next year, a new document will be completed that will guide us over the next 18 years: the Central City 2035 Plan.
CC2035, as it's commonly known, will be "the primary guiding policy document for the Central City with goals, policies and tools designed to make the Portland’s urban core more vibrant, innovative, sustainable and resilient," the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability website explains. The Plan is part of the larger state-mandated Comprehensive Plan currently being finalized.
At the same time, portions of the central city are changing rapidly, especially what's become known as the Innovation Quadrant: the land on both sides of the Willamette including Portland State University downtown, OHSU in South Waterfront, as well as OMSI on the east side and the small Portland Community College outpost nearby. Particularly on the two sides of Tilikum Crossing at the southern edge of the central city, planners are trying to create a cohesive whole that adds jobs and density. And while housing has never before been allowed in the Central Eastside, an exception is being made for the 20-plus acres owned by OMSI, which is set to be redeveloped in the years ahead. Then you have the announcement by the James Beard Public Market that it will locate on OMSI's property. And you have the impact of the Green Loop intended to bring added green space to this portion of the city.
To learn more about all of the above, I recently sat down with a group from the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability including senior planner Troy Doss, who heads the Central City Team; senior planner and urban design strategist Mark Raggett; and supervising planner Sallie Edmunds, who oversees river and environmental-oriented issues.
"It’s the policy framework for our planning," Edmunds said of Central City 2035. "In order to get to where we are, we’ve done a number of other processes. We did quadrant-based processes. We did a bonus study. We’ve done scenic inventory, natural resource inventories. All of that came together in this draft plan that we have." CC2035 is expected to be voted on by City Council next spring.
CC2035 is also based on six overriding goals: (1) To celebrate civic and cultural live; (2) to foster creativity, innovation and productivity; (3) to enhance the Willamette for people and wildlife; (4) to design streets to be great places; (5) to develop the Green Loop; and (6) to increase the resilience of the central city.
Our conversation first turned to the Innovation Quadrant, which in many ways is an effort to link the east side and its core businesses (and perhaps residences) across Tilikum to the extended OHSU campus in South Waterfront.
“We started by looking at OMSI and the [new MAX line’s] Clinton Station area,” Doss explained. “We had these two big opportunity sites. There was a weird mix of zoning that was under-performing. OMSI’s station has not only light rail and streetcar but also lots of buses, so it’s a real nexus. The idea was to build a plan there consistent with adjacent neighborhoods, but also to try to capitalize on the investment in light rail. OMSI had done some conceptual master plans with ZGF in years past. That set up a basis for how to use their 17 acres of land. They’ve been collecting a little bit over time. Most of it is vacant or surface parking, so they have a lot of potential. They’re a cash poor institution. The land is their endowment.”
I then asked Doss about the possibility of introducing housing to the Central Eastside or, more specifically, this OMSI property and the Innovation Quadrant at the southern edge of the district.
"There’s industrial land [in the Central Eastside] that we don’t want to negatively impact, but we’ve put about $120 million investment of public money in South Waterfront, mostly for residential. We didn’t know if this [OMSI property and designated Innovation Quadrant space on the east side] needed to be the same as on the west side of the river. We weren’t convinced at first it was housing that should go there. We have a lot of capacity, and there’s been a tremendous residential growth in the last decade: almost 10,000 units added to the Central City. We also got pushback from the Central Eastside Industrial Council about housing’s impact. So there’s a conditional use we allowed: the ability to apply for a permit to do housing on the OMSI properties. They have to show they won’t have an impact on industrial operations or freight mobility. The Planning Commission and City Council were persuaded to allow them to keep that housing for OMSI property only. As they do this master plan with Snohetta, they’re starting to lay out the site and what the opportunities are. They’ll be looking at how or should housing should be incorporated as part of this plan."
"There’s a lot of question about how OMSI comes together," Doss added. "If it’s viewed as a long-term endowment, you probably want to hold onto the land. That probably means commercial and leased residential. Having that 24-hour activity isn’t a bad thing. Also, there are four signature institutions in the Innovation Quadrant: PSU, OHSU, PCC and OMSI. They’re looking at what role their land base, beyond their roles in education, could play in an Innovation Quadrant. It could be research and development. It could be highrise offices to support the Innovation Quadrant. It could be educational facilities. It could be some housing that supports workers in the area."
Doss acknowledged that the notion of an Innovation Quadrant is not new, having first started with head planner Gil Kelley in about 2003. "The phrase coined by Gil was ‘science and technology corridor.’ Although there’s a there there in terms of potential, it’s never really gelled," Doss said. "It existed in many ways as a funding tool for transportation. But more recently, when we started the Southeast Quadrant plan, we thought the Central Eastside had a tremendous amount of growth potential for research and development. We have a large manufacturing sector for biotech, and there’s the people who service those industries. So we thought there’s a lot of potential across the river from South Waterfront where there’s a billion dollars going into cancer research. Being able to keep people in close contact with OHSU is valuable. Biotech folks started coming to us and saying there’s a really good corridor along the MAX Orange line. The fact that a lot of it is industrial turns out to be an asset. They are lower cost districts where you can put expansion industries related to OHSU along the rail corridor. It’s a pretty powerful opportunity."
"A lot of the people in the public say, ‘Don’t turn it into the Pearl.' But the Pearl turned out exactly as we intended. In the Central Eastside, though, we intend the exact opposite," Doss added. "So far we’re seeing huge job growth. Since the recession we’ve seen 2,000 jobs created. It grew during the recession when everything else was retracting. It’s right across from downtown and connected by a good rail system now. We’ve done most of the basics already. A lot of venture capitalists have come to Portland and said, ‘You’ve got all the tools you need now.' The zoning is in place. The transit is in place. There’s support at the city and regional level to increase jobs at this location. There’s two urban renewal areas on both sides of the Tilikum crossing. Now we need institutions to come together to figure out where they can identify opportunities and collaborate. We want to be supportive and let it grow organically, but have some understanding there’s going to be some return on investment."
Mark Raggett also talked about Central City 2035 as a chance to better embrace the riverfront. In generations past, the edge of the Willamette was all about industrial infrastructure. But then they built the Marquam Bridge, and the east bank of the I-5 freeway right along the river. "The idea of embracing the river has been difficult over time," Raggett said. "We’ve held ourselves back from the river in a number of ways. Tilikum is sort of the southern bookend to the central city, a place where we can more embrace the river with development. You can think, ‘I can walk across this pretty easily. I can just look right across and walk over it.’
But it's not all about just the southern portion of the central city, the South Watefront and the OMSI property. "We’re hopeful the USPS site and the Broadway Bridge can do a similar thing," Raggett said with respect to the north edge of the central city. "There’s some big opportunities there."
Indeed, as I wrote about a few months ago in a Portland Tribune column, when one looks at the Broadway Bridge there seems to be opportunity on both sides to engage in high-density city building. On the west side, there is the USPS site that Raggett mentioned, along with Centennial Mills. On the east side there is the Blanchard site owned by Portland Public Schools that seems destined to eventually be vacated and redeveloped. There is the untapped potential of the Rose Quarter, where the two arenas are surrounded by hideous and vitality-sucking parking garages. Then there is the burgeoning Lloyd District and the Convention Center that is soon to see a new headquarters hotel there, and even the Oregon Department of Transportation is kicking in with a re-configuration of I-5 that adds a lane in each direction but caps a portion of the freeway and adds a pedestrian bridge.
"This north Broadway piece has a lot," Raggett said. "The arenas are going to stay. The opportunities are on the Broadway side or the transit side. What’s the public realm opportunity at the Rose Quarter Transit Center? And then right across the [streetcar] loop connection is the ODOT interchange plan. The good news is ODOT is moving forward. Columbia Crossing fell away, so this has bumped up on their list of priority projects. A piece of that, which is exciting, is this pedestrian bike bridge. It’s now part of their plan. The new interchange does have a partial cap, with capacity to expand. And some more street re-alignment is happening on the north side of Blanchard. It’s a very interesting interchange design."
Though the notion of re-configuring and capping I-5 at the Rose Quarter to be more human-scaled while working better for motorists got me thinking about the elephant in the room as it relates to the east side of the central city: the Marquam Bridge and the freeway's route along the riverfront on the eastside. In a city that largely modeled itself on the teachings of Jane Jacobs, it's a big dose of her nemesis: Robert Moses.
"The thing is, even if we expend a lot of these efforts looking at that area without the Marquam Bridge or the east bank of I-5, we have no power or ability," Doss explained. "It’s a state-owned facility funded by the federal government. Without those two partners wanting to take care of it we can't do anything. They think it’s just cute [to remove this highway infrastructure]. Unless we come up with $15 billion to do it on our own, we’re kind of stuck with what we’ve got. On the flipside, without the eastbank freeway we probably wouldn’t see the same things going on in the Central Eastside. It would have been seen as Pearl East. And there are people out there who would love to push that agenda. For us, it has allowed for a tremendous amount of economic development growth in that district."
We then turned to talking about open space in the central city, and its relative lack on the east side.
"We’re hoping with the Green Loop it can reconfigure some of the street space," Raggett said. "It can offer places for people to gather, sit for lunch, maybe take a walk."
"Clearly the area has a deficit. The Eastbank Esplanade is great. And you have amenities like Washington Monroe. But you don’t have anything in the Central Eastside district itself. We looked at best cases of open spaces underneath infrastructure [like the I-5 overpasses]. We’d like to pursue that at some point. We also want to work with partners like OMSI to build in recreational amenity. Is it pocket parks? Is it something else? We don’t know yet. The district is more employment than residential, but employment areas are starting to skyrocket. If you were to acquire some land, could you do a public park type thing? But we think the green loop presents the best opportunity for recreation; it could be the glue connecting a series of opportunities for open space."
I then asked the group about height. Downtown's tallest buildings, the Wells Fargo tower and the US Bancorp tower ("Big Pink") were built in the '70s and '80s, respectively. Could that change?
"On the west side, we use height as one of our tools to signal it’s the downtown," Raggett said. "Depending on who you are we’re regulating too much or not enough. We use it along the Bus Mall to support major public investments. We’re saying, ‘There’s a major investment where we expect thousands of people every day. Those should be the biggest buildings, along Fifth and Sixth’. I think your Wells Fargo tower and Big Pink preceded that thinking, but that idea of a spine of tall buildings is something we’re continuing today."
But, Raggett added, "Just allowing a lot of height and FAR doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get a big building. The Wells Fargo and Big Pink punch through our limit of 460 feet. We’ve actually had that for a while. It existed all downtown until 1980. So we brought the ability to get much taller buildings on the south Bus Mall post completion of the light rail line in 2010. We also in the Lloyd allowed taller. The Loyd has lots and lots of FAR. We just haven’t seen it realized. We allowed 460 for decades. Fox Tower is 400. Park Avenue West is a little more. The message we have is we think this is the place for big buildings. But it doesn’t mean we’re going to get every single one of those built out."
And, Raggett cautioned, "We are sensitive to things like historic districts, where we’re lowering heights. And you will notice in our proposed heights where there are proposed cuts, to allow troughs across our height limits so you can see Mt. Hood. In South Waterfront views are preserved from Terwilliger."
"There’s a fundamental misunderstanding about what height means," Doss said. "We’ve heard from some stakeholders, a small but vocal group, that you don’t need tall buildings to have high density. But you can pack a lot of people into a floor area. The way a building develops is you don’t throw 12:1 FAR on a 40,000-square-foot block. There are efficiencies you need to get. If it’s residential, it has to be a smaller floor plate and that FAR drives you up. It’s true of office development as well. There are all these things that make buildings go taller."