BY BRIAN LIBBY
Recently I wrote a CityLab article called "Portland's Next Density Spurt," looking at the Burnside Bridgehead, that cluster of blocks at the east end of the Burnside Bridge including the Yard, Slate and Fair-Haired Dumbbell buildings that, along with developments in the Lloyd District, seems to represent the migration of taller, more high-density buildings to the east side. At the same time, however, these projects stand in contrast to the Central Eastside, the area immediately across the Willamette River from downtown, both in terms of zoning (no residential buildings are allowed here) and with regard to the I-5 freeway taking up almost all of the riverfront.
As often happens with these articles, one interviews a bunch of people and, as a result, only a small fraction of their comments make it into the story. With that in mind, I'm going to post here some of the interviews I did for the story, beginning with Bill Neburka and Carrie Strickland of Works Progress Architecture.
This is a building that deserves more attention than my CityLab article was able to provide. It's not a departure from what WPA has done in the past, for its visual language particularly on the east and west facades — a series of apertures framing floor to ceiling windows in varying shapes — is reminiscent of what the firm has done with past recent projects. Even so, Slate looks dazzling, especially when you see it from the riverside or from up Burnside or Couch. And the east and west facades, which resemble a stacked series of boxes, give way to an elegantly simple glass facade on the north and south sides. It's a beautiful building but also a multifaceted one.
Works Progress also knows this area better than any other firm, largely as part of an ongoing collaboration with Beam Development. In 2002, the firm oversaw restoration of a circa-1920s former furniture warehouse as the Eastbank Commerce Center at the east edge of the Morrison Bridge. With Portland's hottest restaurant of that time (Clarklewis) on the ground floor, the building almost immediately helped kick-start the Central Eastside as a destination for creative companies and fellow restaurants. The ensuing years brought more renovations, like the Olympic Mills Commerce Center, and in more recent years Works has seen ground-up new buildings like Framework, the just-completed 811 Stark, and Slate. The firm was also involved in the Burnside Framework plan created with Will Bruder Architects in 2010.
Slate from NE Couch and Grand (Joshua Jay Elliott)
Talking with Neburka and Strickland, it's clear that they are not big fans of Yard, the building next door to Slate. It starts with orientation. Both Yard and Slate are long, thin buildings, but Yard's long side faces the river while Slate follows a perpendicular orientation, which its architects feel was a better move, because it doesn't appear as monolithic. "If that building was turned 90 degrees so the short end faced the city," Neburka said of Yard, "you’d get a totally different impression of what that building’s about." They also take pride in Slate being better integrated and open to the traditional street grid there. But to be fair, Yard had to be built on top of the Big Pipe project, and by having its long side face the river there are a lot more apartments with panoramic views.
Burnside Bridgehead may be different from the Central Eastside in that it includes residential and its buildings go taller, but really the two areasare companion pieces, enabling Central Eastside workers to live near where they work. What's more, as Neburka described in our interview, there are lessons to learn in what has made the Central Eastside successful: namely the adaptability of its buildings and a more truly mixed-use that goes beyond just ground-floor retail paired with either commercial or residential.
"The question was how you evolve the work done with Eastbank Commerce Center and Olympic Mills Commerce Center," Neburka said. "That was part of that master planning exercise: an organic idea of how the city could grow. You break it down and it’s an entrepreneurial idea of urban growth. You take one site or two sites if you can and let it rip." With Slate, "we had the residential-oriented developer, UDP, and then Beam, which has investment and commercial space, and put them together. Our building was about those types of spaces being equal. The floors in Slate are no different in height or in construction from the commercial to the residential. It’s just how the plumbing works out. Beam was pushing for more commercial, UDP for more residential. But we saw it as a synthesis. The space could be lived in and worked in. It was that loft idea of how space works. We’re interested in this nature of unprogrammed space that highly adaptable. That’s the essence of the Central Eastside: longevity through adaptability. It went from heavy industry to light industry to tech space. When you swing all the way over to just apartments, it feels limited."
"It’s how you do residential in an area demanding respect for its industrial roots," Strickland added. "Being part of that Burnside Bridgehead Framework with Will Bruder, what came out was re-introducing the city grid and permeability to the block structures. Planning Slate, there’s an obvious east-west permeability from MLK down to Third. But there’s also north-south through having a lobby connection."
"Our big idea in the master plan was re-instituting the Sandborn Maps on those lots," Neburka added. "We said, 'There used to be a Sandborn tax map structure. All you need to do is put it back, and begin to create secondary public infrastructure of those blocks. It was really this idea of mixing, and that’s what’s a big component of the Central Eastside."
The idea of mixing uses even goes beyond individual buildings, he argues. "We used to walk from our old office on Water Avenue over here to get a burrito. Walking on Second Avenue with car and bike and pedestrian traffic, it's like Mark Edlen’s whole thing about the streets in the Netherlands, where there is this free zone. This is already it," Neburka says. "It’s organic and by default. There’s something cool about that. That’s the essence of the district: it’s about possibility. It could be anything. it’s like the ultimate idea of recycling. When you change your mind about how you want to live, these buildings respond to it. If the model changes, the Pearl will always be the Pearl. It can’t be anything else."
Slate from NE Davis and MLK (Joshua Jay Elliott)
Works is, well, working on numerous other projects for this area, such as 151 SE Alder for Harsh Investment Properties and 550 SE MLK for UDP and Beam, the co-developers of Slate. But while having glassy buildings in the Central Eastside might bring to mind comparisons to the Pearl District, the architects believe it's not necessarily apt.
"When you start thinking about what the Pearl became, it’s a mixed-use residential neighborhood. It’s a very horizontal striation of mixed use. You have ground floor retail and you have residential. What’s cool about how the Bridgehead is developing is it isn’t that traditional version," Strickland said. "Slate is mixed use, but it’s not the normal way of doing it. We ended up with six stories of residential and four of commercial, which is different from a mixed-use neighborhood."
I asked the architects how much of a challenge it is to pull of an unconventional type of mixed-use project in terms of convincing banks to finance it. This is often a hidden aspect of architecture that the public doesn't quite realize, particularly with multifamily housing and commercial buildings: the prescriptive nature of the loan. "We’re finding how unique it is on a financial model," Neburka said of Slate. "People do not like to lend for that kind of building. They don’t want to lend for a building you can’t describe in one sentence. We wondered: do you split it into two buildings, with two elevators? It was a financial model. We get interested in the underlying math of how these buildings go together, and the code of how they work: what are the dynamics and the limitations? If you can’t surmount those, it’s a real short experiment."
There's no denying that there is a natural tension at Burnside Bridgehead. Yard has garnered hostility, perhaps partly for its dark, angular, monolithic composition, but maybe also because the public is taking time to accept that much height in that place. Then there is the notion of gentrification that these buildings represent. Neburka and Strickland seem to agree that part of the story with this new neighborhood is one of Portland's growing pains. But it's a future they embrace.
"I think we’re also interested in how Portland can become a denser city. The chassis is built foe a dense transit-oriented city, and a lot of our planning code runs counter to that. A lot of the backlash has to do with affordable housing. We’re interested in a more vertical city. We’re not from Portland and look at it from outsiders’ eyes. How people move vertically is interesting."