BY BRIAN LIBBY
In its short life, Portland’s South Waterfront has had a tumultuous history. And recently there seems to be somewhat of a collective desire to re-evaluate where the neighborhood stands and gauge its successes and failures. Is it an exemplary high-density, transit-connected, pedestrian-oriented 21st century neighborhood, or is it a cautionary tale? Or both?
The long-range planning behind South Waterfront was rooted in statewide land-use planning goals to curb suburban sprawl not only with urban growth boundaries but also, by extension, re-claiming heretofore industrial and other under-utilized parcels of land. It’s the same playbook that helped give rise to the formerly industrial Pearl District’s lofts and condos. Like the Pearl, South Waterfront especially took off in the 2000s thanks to the robust and booming real estate market. Besides the reasons these new neighborhoods fit into broader density schemes, it was a time when condo towers were shooting up not just to provide housing but as part of a rampantly speculative market in which people bought property to turn around and sell for a profit. South Waterfront wasn’t as well located as the Pearl, being downriver from the urban core and pinned in by I-5 against the river, but it also had a core occupant besides the condo owners and a few retailers: OHSU in its burgeoning riverside campus, connected to its main Marquam Hill campus by the Portland Aerial Tram.
Then came the recession beginning in 2008, the price of the which for South Waterfront was not just the foreclosures but the lost momentum: the dwindled sense that this could be a vibrant urban place. More so than the Pearl, the South Waterfront was a kind of idea that had to be sold.
Maybe some residents who came in the early 2000s never left: they bought their condos to live in, with the promise of a river view and a close relationship with the water, as well as an easy streetcar ride to downtown and, thus, a potentially carless Portland lifestyle. South Waterfront was never literally a ghost town. Yet for a few years post-’08, it felt a lot quieter on the streets of SoWa than its backers would have liked, and as a result the district felt all the more isolated from the rest of the city. After all, for all its closeness to downtown and its myriad mass transit options (the tram, the freeway, a new MAX line and coming-soon bridge), South Waterfront is not only pinned between the freeway and the river but isolated even from Riverplace and other buildings to the north because of the vacant Zidell Yards parcel.
Now, though, South Waterfront is starting to feel busier, better connected in myriad ways, and more vibrant.
Part of that comes from the recession having given way to a booming real estate market again. Most of the condo buildings are close to full now, and new projects, including affordable housing and apartments, have joined the mix. There are more retail establishments open for business, and a greater mix of people. And with the land to the north starting to get built—first the Collaborative Life Sciences Center, but soon the Tilikum Crossing bridge and the Zidell Yards itself, there is an increasing sense that South Waterfront is not simply an urban island between the freeway and the river but part of one continuous strip of urbanity that includes John’s Landing to the south as well as Riverplace and ultimately downtown to the north.
In other words, it’s not just that there are building cranes in South Waterfront, or that much more building is planned to the north, but that the neighborhood that began here during the 2000s has now had at least a few years to grow into itself, which is bearing fruit.
This maturation of South Waterfront was the topic of a radio discussion I participated in earlier this week on OPB’s Think Out Loud program. First host Dave Miller talked with the owner of Bambuza Vietnamese Kitchen (where the show was broadcast), a business that came to South Waterfront early, clawed through some slow times, and now is thriving.
After I was interviewed about the history of the land predating south waterfront as well as the architecture and urban planning that comprise its current form, residents like writer and poet Floyd Skloot talked about the enjoyment living beside the river. “Our desire was to come as close as we could to living in nature while living downtown,” Skloot said. “We wanted the light, we wanted the view, and we wanted the sense that there was nothing really between us and what we could see outside our window. We have an unimpeded view of Ross Island and the river, and we do feel like we have succeeded. We’ve seen 60 distinct bird species outside our window, and we’re attuned to the river itself, both as recreation and as habitat.”
The neighborhood also feels increasingly home to a diverse array of people, if not racially than at least in terms of age and other factors like economics. As the interviews with OPB went on, I caught sight of a Montessori school class playing in the park across the street. There is a senior housing tower, the Mirabella, and the Gray’s Landing affordable housing.
All that said, little of this conversation has really been about architecture, and yet that is where the South Waterfront has in some ways represented a departure from much of the rest of the city. It’s a neighborhood of tall towers, unmistakable as one comes around the corner on I-5 north. Portland in the past has gone by the Stumptown moniker not just for the trees that were cut down to build the city, but also for our tendency to build shorter, squattier buildings. The SoWa towers, though, were allowed to go taller than residential buildings nearly anywhere else in the city, but more slender, in the “point tower” style associated with cities like Vancouver, British Columbia. That decision irked residents of the West Hills and nearby neighborhoods like Lair Hill, concerned about lost views. But it has brought a greater density than probably would have been possible with four or five-story buildings.
There is no one tower in South Waterfront that I really love. Some, like Atwater Place by THA Architecture or the John Ross by TVA Architects, can perhaps be characterized as handsome. But others are mediocre at best. What might have made the cluster of buildings look better together, however, would be a little more variation in height. They all feel like they’re about the same level of verticality. As one architect characterized it to me off-record, it’s almost like hairs in a flat-top haircut. A more elegant solution might have been to step down to the river, with taller buildings closer to I-5 and smaller ones at the riverside. But South Waterfront was in some ways a leap of faith for the developers and elected officials who gave it birth, and it’s easy to see the financial reasons why that reduction of capacity didn’t happen.
Although Skloot’s point about residents being able to get a close-up relationship with the river is valid, I do wonder if there could have been more of a public presence along the riverfront. It’s not just that the South Waterfront Greenway has taken several years longer than initially expected to come to fruition (it’s under construction now). Retail is scattered throughout the district, without much of a there there. I wonder if the waterfront could have become a focal point for more ground-level retail, with restaurants and outdoor tables beside the water.
OHSU gives a presence of more than just residential and retail buildings in South Waterfront, but I would also like to see some kind of public building either here or in the newer Zidell Yards parcel in the years ahead: a museum, for example, or an arts center. The best urban places include a wide variety: of building sizes, styles and types, and of activities happening there. South Waterfront is likely on its way to becoming that, but it still needs more diversity, in every sense of the word.
As I said in the Think Out Loud discussion, the great cities, be it Paris or Amsterdam, Melbourne or Kyoto, are repositories of generations building upon the accomplishments of the past. They have a patina to them, and a sort of controlled chaos at times. South Waterfront still has that new-car smell, one might say. But it’s in the earliest stages of its life. And while it can feel pinned in or like an island at times, the district’s bounty of transit options—including not only streetcar and light rail but the new bridge over the Willamette as well as the pedestrian bridge over the freeway—make South Waterfront into a crossroads, at once in the middle of the city even as it’s slightly removed from it.
What’s more, while SoWa may always feel like a place of the early 2000s, with most all its buildings coming from that era, the Zidell Yards will add another chapter, one we’re already seeing with buildings like The Emery, an alternative to the tall towers where ground-level businesses are thriving. And the Zidells have talked a lot about not just the buildings that might go there but the spaces in between, such as potential public areas like the space under the Ross Island Bridge and perhaps even a place at the riverside or in the river to get one’s feet wet.
After all, we already dove into this effort more than a decade ago. South Waterfront still can feel a little alien at times compared to the rest of the city, but it’s starting to feel like a place with energy, and a place that can ride out the ups and downs of history.