BY BRIAN LIBBY
For the past 18 years, I have lived in an apartment in Southeast Portland bordering the Central Eastside Industrial District. As a result, I have often found myself walking amongst its warehouses and zigzagging my bicycle around its busy forklifts. While many of the Central Eastside's buildings are unremarkable from the outside—largely windowless and made from utilitarian materials—I've long enjoyed getting small glimpses through warehouses' doors that reveal beehives of human and industrial activity inside.
When I arrived at the warehouse at SE Ninth and Salmon a few weeks ago, the circa-1918 former Hesse-Ersted Ironworks (occupied for the last several decades by Custom Stamping), there was no hive of activity inside: just one ponytailed man, Sam Beebe of Ecotrust, the Portland nonprofit that is turning this massive building into a food distribution hub, The Redd On Salmon Street. But the glimpse I got was more than a glimpse. Inside, taking it all in, the building's cavernous, wide-open volumes made my jaw hang open.
A century ago, the Central Eastside was a very different place. There were no tech companies designing apps, no boutique manufacturers at work on wooden iPhone cases, no advertising agencies and hip restaurants. But even then, in addition to the heavy industry and manufacturing, there were food distribution warehouses. The Redd seeks to become something like those companies, but also something new. Inspired by the research from Ecotrust food-systems expert Amanda Oborne, the Redd functions as a central warehouse where small and midsize farmers, ranchers, and other producers can stash their products in cold storage (about 2,000 square feet of cold storage)—until they’re ready to be distributed, thus providing small Oregon farms, ranches and fishermen (or fisherwomen) a chance to make the jump from the industrial food economy to something more organic and local.
"The folks in the middle are having a difficult time," Beebe says of the agricultural businesses The Redd seeks to enable and serve. "Imagine you’re the Jones family ranch, a multi generational ranch with 800 cows. You would like to go towards grass-fed beef, but finding the buyers and making the transition? That’s tough. Those agriculture folks in the middle trying to step up to healthier production, to change from hardcore industrial agriculture, they just don’t have the money. One thing to fix is access in the city for distribution, cold storage, value-added processing. So we said, 'We’ll put this block to work for that.'"
"Of course they want to do it," Beebe added. "The fishermen would love to catch fewer fish if they can sell it at a higher price. A farmer, to see his wheat being used in a school cafeteria in his home state? Of course you would want that."
The $23 million, 800,000-square-foot development actually includes not only this massive Hesse-Ersted building, but also the former Intrepid Tile & Marble building across the street, on SE Seventh Avenue, which will mostly be used for large-scale refrigeration. The initial plan had been to build a second building on the block containing the Hesse-Ersted building, but now that they're renovating the building across the street instead, it will allow the renovated ironworks building to stand alone on the site (along with a few cars in the parking lot).
This is of course not the first time that Ecotrust has built a significant building. The Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center, better known as the Ecotrust building, was the first historic redevelopment in the US to receive a gold-level LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) designation from the U.S. Green Building Council when it completed a 2001 Holst Architecture-designed renovation of the circa-1895 J. McCraken Company building. 15 years later, it remains an important landmark of the Pearl District, especially since the old brick building is surrounded by 21st-century condos.
The Hesse-Ersted Ironworks building (which initially had a twin building next door until it was destroyed by arson in the 1950s) doesn't have as much beautiful texture to offer as the Ecotrust building's exposed brick and wood rafters. But thanks to a colorful exterior paint job, which was done as part of an art installation for the 2014 XOXO Festival and kept when the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art held its annual Time-Based Art Festival there last year, the building stands out amongst the other industrial buildings. More importantly, the wide-open volumes it offers are breathtaking. Standing inside, I could look from Salmon Street all the way across the building to Taylor, as if two football fields could have unfolded across the 200x200-foot block.
This wide-open view will be hemmed in a little when a renovation by Opsis Architecture begins in. "It doesn’t make financial sense to keep it one floor," Beebe explains. "So we’ll add a mezzanine—an interior second floor—but basically keep the core, with an atrium." That seems reasonable. One will still be able to get a sense of the vastness of the 1918 original building, but the mezzanine will also help create a sense of The Redd as a hive of activity.
"The food-hub concept has been spreading across the country—there are about 350 of these kinds of distribution centers already—but the Redd offers a new twist, operating as a for-profit business that rents out retail, office, and production-kitchen space to support the behind-the-scenes storage and operations," writes Hannah Wallace in Fast Company, profiling The Redd as part of its World Changing Ideas series
Besides the massive interior volume, one of my favorite things about The Redd is the gigantic stamping machine that Ecotrust left inside after Custom Stamping moved out. It used to exert 900 tons of pressure in order to bend and shape metal, and today, sitting there inert, it seems like some kind of medieval torture device. But it's also oddly beautiful, and a nice reminder amidst The Redd's renovation of the building's industrial past. Besides, Beebe says it would have cost $20,000 to move it.
For over a decade we've been talking about how the Central Eastside is changing. Zoning may have kept out the residential development that would have made this district more like the Pearl and South Waterfront. Today there may be lots of tech and creative companies located in the Central Eastside, but there are still lots of industrial businesses. During the Great Recession, for example, the City of Portland found that increasing an allowance for non-industrial companies to locate there kept the district busy, with growth happening even when it wasn't in other central-city neighborhoods. At the same time, the city found this didn't cause a lot of displacement with regard to traditional industrial businesses. The Redd is in many ways a throwback to those original Central Eastside inhabitants, and the many produce companies that used to locate here. Yet it's also very 21st-century Portland: rooted in an economy based on healthy food and living, and on empowering local businesses. Like our farmer's markets, it's also a way to break down rural-urban barriers, not just economically but culturally. And at a time when a horrific amount of historic architecture is being torn down across the city, it fully embraces the old building that has stood there for nearly a century.
If anything, I wish Ecotrust could do a lot more on the renovation front. Can't they take over Centennial Mills from its ham-fisted, demolition-minded overlord, the Portland Development Commission? Can't they make another food hub out of the United Workmen Temple, instead of letting Onder Development and Arthur Mutal reduce our collective history to rubble? If only. Cities are always changing, and unfortunately not always for the better, especially when it comes to preserving our historic architectural fabric. That's all the more reason to be thankful for The Redd twice over, once for their renovation of this former ironworks and once for growing our organic-food and small-purveyor economy.