BY BRIAN LIBBY
As I write this on the eve of Thanksgiving, Portland's built environment is transforming at a rate that has rarely been matched in the city's history. And depending on your take, the result could occupy either sides of the old Dickens line that begins A Tale of Two Cities:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us..."
On one hand, the economy - at least as it relates to design and construction - has awakened from the depths of the Great Recession, which itself came about largely because of a mortgage crisis relating to the industry's boom of the past decade. The American Institute of Architects' Architecture Billing Index is at a level comparable to pre-recession highs, and has been since about 2011.
Here in Portland, we can see evidence of a building boom all around us. In the central city, be it downtown or the Pearl District or the Lloyd District, construction cranes dominate the skyline. And more than perhaps any time in the city's history, moneyed development interests from out of town have swooped in to participate in the boom. Some of the biggest projects in the city, like the upcoming Oregon Square or the recently completed Hassalo on Eighth in the Lloyd District or some of the most massive Pearl apartment buildings, are developed not by familiar local developers like Gerding Edlen but by real estate investment trusts and development companies from places like Texas and San Diego.
Many local architecture firms are benefitting from this boom not just in a way that keeps them busy but allows a leap up in scale. Skylab Architecture, for instance, is seeing construction of Yard, a massive tower at the east end of the Burnside Bridge after spending the past decade on smaller-scale projects. There are countless other examples. So too are talented firms like Works Partnership Architecture and Lever Architecture seeing a new scale of commission and running with the opportunity.
The boom is also helping to enable creation of new cultural landmarks, like the Pacific Northwest College of Art's new home in the renovated early-20th Century 511 Broadway federal building in an award-winning design by Portland's most acclaimed firm, Allied Works, or an expansion to the Portland Japanese Garden by one of the world's most highly-regarded architects, Kengo Kuma.
And there are exciting projects slated for the near future, many of them related to Portland's becoming a food & drink Mecca, such as the James Beard Public Market, now in a fundraising stage after a compelling design was produced by internationally-renowned firm Snøhetta, or the Pine Street Market, a food hall downtown at 2nd and Pine that's set to open early next year, renovating a turn-of-the-20th Century building along the way.
New parts of the city are burgeoning as well. Remember how South Waterfront seemed like a dead zone during the recession, or a near ghost-town? Much has now been made of how the district is taking off again, with the Zidell Yards bringing new office and residential projects and the Tilikum Crossing providing this land-locked strip between I-5 and the river to become better connected with the rest of the city. Other former industrial areas like a stretch of blocks around the Conway property in Northwest Portland are also transitioning to new walkable neighborhoods, and the Lloyd District is becoming a residential neighborhood practically for the first time in its history. And while gentrification is indeed a concern as renters in particular are becoming displaced from neighborhoods they have long called home, it's noteworthy to see how former neighborhoods that had for decades been full of vacant lots (thanks to institutional racism and redlining practices) such as the Williams-Vancouver corridor of North/Northeast Portland see a new generation of not just restaurants and bars, but new office buildings and apartments.
We are also seeing explosions in smaller-scale building, with accessory dwelling units and tiny houses being built at an unprecedented rate, and more expected next year as county taxes on these properties come down. An ADU designed by Waechter Architecture even won the top AIA/Portland Design Award this year, which is unprecedented for a granny flat.
Yet there is much to be concerned about as a Portland architect, builder or just as a citizen.
After the last boom and bust cycle, many suburban developers found it was more advantageous or feasible to stop building subdivision at the edge of the metro area and start tearing down old Portland homes for bigger ones. We have now seen a similar drama play out with any number of beautiful old historic homes. In some cases, community action and the willingness to buy out money-grubbing demolisher-developers has given great houses a reprieve. In other cases, the wrecking ball has come and the weasels have made their profit, as 3,000-square-foot houses in saccharine faux-historic styles have been shoehorned into lots intended for houses half that size.
More than ever, or at least in decades, people are also being left behind. City Council recently declared an affordable-housing emergency and it only takes a drive or bike ride around town to see there are a lot of people on the street or lined up for shelter meals. Even those who do benefit from affordable housing are finding it exists largely on the margins, where there are few sidewalks or walkable amenities and buses don't come nearly as often as needed.
We should be concerned about affordability solely on the basis of taking care of our neediest citizens. But as it happens, affordability also directly impacts and enables the kind of cultural explosion that the city has enjoyed in this "Portlandia" period, full of artists and creative minds who have migrated here because it doesn't take every fiber of their being just to pay the rent, and because the city stands for something as a less sprawled out and chain-dominated place with more progressive values than most places. If only upper-income people can live here, it brings about just the kind of end-of-the-party prognostications being made about Portland even by far-away media like The Guardian, which asked recently, "Is hip Portland over?"
Even as development capital flows, or perhaps because of it, we are also seeing a number of architectural landmarks threatened and even demolished.
The past few days, for example, have seen the local building with perhaps the most intense grassroots following, the Portland GasCo, demolished by its owner, Northwest Natural, for no really good reason. Although the company is busy with a decades-long cleanup of the land it contaminated along the river in Northwest Portland, the land underneath the GasCo was not contaminated. And no one can find evidence of any other structure NW Natural needed to build on that site. All the preservationists asked was for the building to be left as a ruin, but even that didn't seem to be seriously considered by the company.
Another industrial near-ruin, Centennial Mills, is already seeing a majority of its structure demolished, and efforts to preserve the largest structures in a public-private partnership between developer Harsch and the city seem unlikely to now come to fruition, as Mayor Charlie Hales has called for demolition and the two parties can't come to an agreement on how to restore the buildings. An insane insistence on keeping the Portland Police Bureau's horse paddock on this prime riverfront site also seems to doom the project.
Even as the economy booms, the City of Portland seems constantly put in a financially difficult position, nearly unable to do the right thing. A shocking amount of local streets still remain unpaved in 2015, especially as one travels further out from city center, yet a City Council effort earlier this year succeeded less in making progress than in prompting recall petitions for two members of Council - although in some cases that may have said more about personality than about the need for street paving or how to pay for it.
That same question of money has also plagued two of the city's most important architectural and cultural landmarks, the Portland Building and Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
City Council ultimately approved by unanimous vote a nearly $200 million renovation for the Portland Building, but only after some valid questioning of whether we should spend that much on a building so poorly constructed and (because of its lack of natural light) so unpleasant to work in. The opportunity to improve the natural light situation and the potentially greater cost of building a new building from scratch convinced Council to restore the Portland Building instead, and that was the right call.
But Council has neglected to vote on a restoration package for the Coliseum. Because it fulfills an important venue-size niche, the Coliseum continues to break even despite its disrepair. The City's own study, published earlier this year, shows the building would turn a profit even at the lowest-recommended levels of restoration. But Council has mistakenly focused on return-on-investment figures instead of the more relevant economic-activity data, so a potential centerpiece of a burgeoning high-density district has been allowed to continue deteriorating when it could instead help bring jobs and benefit the local economy.
Historic preservation in Portland also got a jolt this year from new warnings about what could become one of the biggest earthquakes in American history sometime over the next 50 years, thanks to the Cascadia Subduction Zone colliding with the North American tectonic plate. Experts have told us that while many of the more contemporary steel-framed local buildings would probably survive, the city's unreinforced masonry buildings would crumble. That means the clock is ticking on the opportunity and need to secure our most architecturally and culturally significant masonry buildings, such as the many old structures downtown and along the waterfront, or in our collection of public schools. Portland may as a West Coast city of the still-young United States may lack the centuries of architectural history possessed by cities in Europe and Asia. But that's all the more reason we have to protect what we do have. And it's not just because we want to have pretty old buildings around this. It's a long-since-proven fact that great design has a direct impact on local economies. People vote with their feet, and they want to be in not just walkable places but places with compelling architectural and urban fabrics.
What does all this change add up to? On the most basic level, Portland is becoming a bigger city with more big-city problems. As the city begins adding what could be up to 700,000 new residents over the next 20 years, there is already terrible traffic not just at rush hour, but most of the day, despite our laudable investments in new MAX and Portland Streetcar lines (which should be expanded even more). We're green-lighting tall towers and shamefully approving removals of old buildings from historic resource inventories to make way for more development still, even as we fail to properly house our citizens or protect our urban fabric or account for some of the nation's worst-ever income inequality.
Perhaps most importantly of all, Portland seems to be risking losing its essence, its soul. This has never been a city of great wealth, and in many ways we have benefitted from that. Portland is a city known not so much for its trophy buildings or its celebrities, but instead for its urban fabric of small blocks and parks, and for its culture of collaboration. It's a city known for its individualism and quirkiness: we want to keep weird. But those are qualities of an outlier, and Portland's days as an outlier city may be ending.
We can be great, though, even if we're not a small outlier. But we have to continue being Portland and continue being Oregon. Ours is the only state in the union requiring all of its cities and towns to have growth management plans - usually in the form of urban growth boundaries. It protects our forests and farmland, and also creates a more vital urban experience. That's a path we started down more than 40 years ago with the passage of Senate Bill 100, but it's one that has seemed harder to negotiate as Portland densifies so rapidly. Even if you're progressive and believe in density, it can be a rude awakening when, say, a five-story condo is built next to your single-family house.
But we have to stay the course on density, and deal with its corresponding cost-of-living increases (as the land becomes scarcer) by committing ourselves all the more to building affordable housing. As we do that, though, we have to do it with a larger holistic plan in mind. We should not, for example, frivolously and spitefully tear down Memorial Coliseum for affordable housing, as Commissioner Steve Novick proposed in October (the proposal was voted down), without any regard for how to master plan the broader Rose Quarter. Instead we need to go back to basics and stick to solid plans for managing growth, as the Planning and Sustainability bureau has pursued with its forward-thinking growth maps. To be the kind of city we want to be, one that's egalitarian and humane but also stands for something culturally and historically, we very much need the Coliseum and affordable housing. But we need to both the right way, within a broader plan that connects housing to shops and schools, parks and transit and values our cultural venues as centerpieces of districts. To get there, we need leadership that's smart but also leadership that is generous, collaborative and culturally aware, not soulless and cynical.
And that, to me, is what Portland is about. We're certainly no utopia: we have the same inequality as most places and we're not as diverse, to our detriment. We lack the wealth and capital of larger cities to make big sweeping moves, like removing a waterside viaduct in Seattle or extending the High Line and building parks out of piers in New York. But we retain a pioneering spirit and, despite the increasing doubts, are still a place of quirky, do-it-yourself creation. We have to keep Portland affordable, but we have to also retain some of the physical qualities that make this a place where people want to spend time. It's not just about what you build, but how you do it and for whom.