BY BRIAN LIBBY
As David Bee's new film makes clear, the banks of the Willamette River just south of downtown have seen a century-long transition from industrial development to public space and private real estate that is emblematic of cities all over the world. But that transition is a drama with many chapters, including an important one last week that puts the future Zidell Yards development at least temporarily in question.
Built By Zidell, which screens at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education this Wednesday evening, is ultimately about the Zidell family's legacy here from 1928, when patriarch Sam Zidell first leased three acres here, to June 2017, when the company he founded launched its last barge, with mixed-use development centered around public river access after an extensive riverside environmental remediation.
Sam Zidell immigrated from Kiev in 1907. His family, like the family of legendary abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, came to Portland to escape Jewish persecution. By 1928, the riverbank that had been extended here to create room for World War I shipyards had fallen into disuse, which Zidell soon put to use with a burgeoning scrap-metal business. After serving in World War II as a Navy Seabee in the Pacific, where he earned a purple heart and a citation for gallantry, Zidell grew his company by dismantling military ships.
For many years in Portland during the late 1940s and '50s, a succession of aircraft carriers, cruisers and Liberty ships (cargo vessels) could be seen making their way down the Willamette, broken down into scraps that could then be fed to nearby steel mills owned by the Schnitzer family and others. It must have given people pause to see these proud vessels coming downriver, never to be seen again, yet literally becoming the raw materials for countless automobiles and building frames as the country rebuilt and remade itself during these boom years.
Zidell was an entrepreneur who actively formed several new companies, some two dozen in fact, including Tube Forgings of America, but all relating to the use and re-use of metal. Yet it is the barge-building company, Zidell Marine, that became the core effort and what endured through the decades until 2017. That slipway down which hundreds of barges moved into the water after a christening champagne-bottle smash is envisioned to remain in the Zidells' master plan for the new Zidell Yards acreage here, as well as the facility's signature gantry crane, a rusty, utilitarian industrial tool that happens to be shaped like a classic triumphal arch or gateway seen historically in the architecture of a number of both western and eastern cultures. Seeing the company's longtime employees say goodbye to that last barge (and their jobs) at the final slipway launch is Built By Zidell's emotional crescendo.
Yet the step from scrap metal and barges is only about half the story in this film. Built By Zidell is also about how we get from rusty decommissioned ship scraps — dripping benzine, PDBs and other poisonous chemicals into the soil and into the river — to repaired and remediated river bank that exists today, its 16 acres of bankline covered in two feet of new soil and planted with 16,000 native shrubs and 300 trees.
In 1968 the Willamette Greenway Act foreshadowed the future that was coming to South Waterfront: one where environmental concerns would come to end unfettered pollution and redevelopment would follow. In 1994, facing the possibility of heavy regulation or lawsuits, the Zidells entered a voluntary cleanup program began with removal of contaminated soils from certain high-chemical-concentration hot spots of land along the river and in the river's underlying soil as well as some 2,200 pilings dating to the industrial days. But ultimately the project transitioned to a large-scale "sediment cap," a remediation in which multiple layers of sand and rock were, as guided by scientists, habitat specialists and landscape designers, used to create a natural barrier through which contaminants would for the most part not pass through. On top of those layers were several inches of soil to which the topsoil was added, an act of soil bio-engineering wherein the roots of those trees and plants become a kind of skeleton that holds the riverbank's new layers of soil together.
Watching Built By Zidell felt relevant in a couple of significant ways. First, it's worth noting that the whole legacy of the Zidell family in Portland—an employer that became one of the city's most successful postwar companies and as much as any was emblematic of its working waterfront, employing hundreds of people—started with an immigrant. The waves of people fleeing war-torn Europe and other parts of the world, as much as military might, made America the superpower it became in the 20th century. As the nation takes a dark turn today, vilifying and locking up immigrants by the thousands, locking children in cages, it's worth noting that so many of the people who built the business and cultural infrastructure of the city, from Pietro Belluschi to Rothko to the Schnitzers, came here through Ellis Island.
Second, the build-out of the Zidell Yards will provide the last major piece of an high-density urban puzzle and complete the waterfront greenway. Two years ago our city's first new bridge in a generation, Tilikum Crossing, along with its attendant MAX and Portland Streetcar lines, gave the surrounding South Waterfront district a much-needed connection to the east side. Because the district is a long, thin strip of land hemmed in by Interstate 5 to the west, it's particularly important. But on both sides of the bridge and the Zidell property, OHSU is expanding. Nearing completion late this summer will be the Knight Cancer Research Building, the first building resulting from the Knight Cancer Challenge, which raised a billion dollars (half of it from Nike co-founder Phil Knight, twenty percent from the State of Oregon and the rest from the community) to build a world-class cancer fighting facility at OHSU. What's more, there are already some handsome office buildings planned for a portion of the Zidell Yards.
But what's most exciting is still the public access to the river at the slipway and the potential renovation of the massive barge-building structure. Situated next to the Portland Aerial Tram, this slipway area, with chance to get up close to the water like virtually nowhere else in the central city and to walk here along the waterfront continuously from downtown, is what could really take South Waterfront from just a collection of condos and medical buildings to a true neighborhood that draws people who not already living or working here.
At the end of Built By Zidell, the filmmaker runs some of the renderings of the future Zidell Yards that were conjured in the master plan, and as I looked at the images of the riverfront and its surrounding future buildings, I was reminded that this is first and foremost a series of real estate transactions. The reason barges will no longer be built here is that the land is too valuable now not to build condos, apartments and offices upon, particularly given the city's urban growth boundary and growing population, leading to greater density and necessitating the redevelopment of formerly industrial enclaves such as South Waterfront and the Pearl District. If the Zidells play their cards right, they could make a lot of money. But in the film, the Zidell family members speak about their desire to do right by the land and their community. They seem to have a mix of pride at what Sam Zidell built, pragmatism at the changing nature of urban waterfronts, and a sense of responsibility to repair the land their businesses contaminated. In a time when out-of-town real estate money has increasingly become a major presence, its focus on making money for investors, there's something to be said about local owners who engage in long-term holds on the land. The Zidells surely want to make a buck like anyone, but after more than a century, they have real roots here.
But the situation keeps on changing. Last week in a surprise turn of events, ZRZ Realty terminated its development agreement with the City of Portland. "Unfortunately, given the costs of developing on the site and the city’s priorities on how it intends to use urban renewal funds, we are not currently able to move forward on this development," company president Jay Zidell said in a press release.
Certainly development is bound to continue at some point in the future. I mean, it's not as if Zidell is going to re-start its barge building. But negotiations with the City of Portland seemed to be difficult when the development agreement was initially being hammered out, and evidently that's continuing. Through Prosper Portland, the administration of the North Macadam Urban Renewal Area comes with funding possibilities but a series of goals that must in theory be met: a significantly large commercial and housing development with a greenway and parks system, improved infrastructure and public uses with attendant riverfront improvements, as well as economic development. It can be tough to negotiate who pays for what sometimes. And while I'm usually inclined to take the side that isn't working from a profit motive, it's worth noting that this isn't the first time that Prosper Portland has failed to come to a long term redevelopment agreement with a developer that neither side will walk away from. The destruction of Centennial Mills is just one example.
Jay Zidell, president of the company, told the Portland Tribune's Joseph Gallivan that the dispute comes down to who pays for public infrastructure. Apparently at an earlier stage the city was willing to pay half, but that, according to Zidell, is no longer the case. I'm sure the City of Portland has a side to the story too. Honestly I don't know what the norm or the best practices are. Somehow the city and developers came to similar agreements in South Waterfront and the Pearl, and I wonder if the city paid for half the infrastructure in those scenarios. Given the economic development that will come from these 33 acres of the Zidell Yards and the property taxes that will be paid, you'd think it would be worth the city's while to pay half. On the other hand, there is so much money to be made in the decades ahead from this development that when Jay Zidell speaks about wanting a certain return on investment for themselves and their investors, it's hard not to see how that return wouldn't still come even if the company paid for more than half of the infrastructure. It would just mean that the return on investment would come slightly later, not that it wouldn't come.
I also wonder if the Zidells are looking at the possibility of a recession coming. Whether through ridiculous trade wars or through eradicating reasonable post-Great Recession constraints on real estate lending laws, it seems increasingly clear that another bust could be on its way. It takes a long time to plan, design and build buildings, so you'd think a Zidell Yards development plan could transcend the boom-and-bust cycle our leadership has created. Yet just a few yards south of the Zidell offices and its shuttered barge building are the condos of South Waterfront's first phase, where the economic fall was harsh.
Even so, what Built By Zidell hopefully demonstrates is that the family is tied to this land for the long haul, and after spending 20 years and some $30 million cleaning it up, you'd certainly think it would amount to something. It may be a few more years now before that promise is fulfilled, but this 33-acre stretch along the Willamette will be there when they're ready.