BY BRIAN LIBBY
Recently I received a call from architect Daniel Kaven of William Kaven Architecture, a firm that has over the years produced many winning designs for houses and multifamily housing projects in Portland and beyond. I've long been a fan, so I was excited by the potential of what he had to say.
Kaven has news of what seems poised to become a major new hotel in Old Town, with around 250 units, on the site of a surface parking lot between Fourth and Fifth Avenues and Couch and Davis Streets that has seen potential projects (like an Uwajimaya grocery store) come and go. Not only is his firm the architect, but its sister company, Kaven + Co, is the developer.
"This project is going to have a major conversation about the design going forward because of the complexity of the site and how important the site is," he said. "You see a lot of tourists down there. It’s the oldest part of Portland. I think in the eyes of a lot of people who come to town, that’s what they start to see as being Portland. I just want there to be a hotel that really feels like the living room of Portland."
Some of the first questions that I had Kaven can't yet answer, like who his partners are and when it will be built. There is a major hotel company signed on to the project, he says, but the identity has to remain hidden for now. "I can tell you it’s a really amazing hotel group that has been really successful in other cities and Portland is a great fit for them," he said. There is a firm desire to begin construction early next year, Kaven adds, but that depends on a code change increasing maximum building height that has been approved by City Council but not yet implemented because of a lack of staff. As a result, the project has not yet entered into Design Review, which means the design could still change somewhat significantly.
Even so, I decided to write about the project because the architect says he wants to begin a public conversation. This project would be a coup for William Kaven Architecture (named for the grandfather of principals Daniel Kaven and Trevor William Lewis), graduating to a substantially larger scale, and the architect seems eager to not only design something this large but also to act as a co-developer. He sees this as a role that more architects should take on.
"The big idea of the hotel is to bring an urban resort to Portland, a destination type of hotel that people come to specifically," not just because they're coming Portland," Kaven said in our phone conversation. "When you talk of some of the other hotels coming to the city, they’re not that kind of statement, of having an urban resort. I envision retreats being there and it being lush with an outdoor beer garden, a swimming pool, lots of plants. The landscaping element will be huge, integrating the outdoors into the pubic spaces. I want to be able to have weddings and celebrations, all encompassing this project, and then a really good mix of retail. I think that Chinatown corridor can become the coolest retail in the city. There’s already a couple of great things happening down there. The idea is to continue to cultivate that. That area, it’s already very much an entertainment type of destination, and I’d love to see that block become a destination late at night."
Indeed, the Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood has both great promise and big challenges. It's ideally located between downtown, the river and the Pearl District. Not only have institutions like the University of Oregon moved in, but so have an increasing number of creative and arts spots and restaurants. Projects like the Grove Hotel hostel on Burnside point to the possibility for this district to grow into even more of a destination, but Old Town can often still seem overpopulated with homeless and transients by day and by drunken revelers at night.
In terms of the architecture itself, Kaven explained: "It’s a post-tension concrete building that has this faceted curtain wall system on it. The plinth will be simple modern brick with steel apertures. Conceptually I see it as this monolithic form that’s retail and feels very grounded, and then a light glass structure on top of it. I’m never a fan of glass structures that hit the pedestrian access. Glass never in my mind makes for good pedestrian and retail experience. At the pedestrian level it’s good to feel grounded and have more of that urban material like brick or concrete."
A primary reason the hotel and its developer have not yet been officially announced, Kaven says, is because of the uncertainty about height limits.
"City Council adopted the 2035 West Quadrant Plan. It changes the height limit from 100 to 150 feet. My project is above the 100-foot mark, at 135. I may need to go to 150. But it is my understanding that the Planning Department doesn’t currently have a staff member to write the proposed design guidelines that have already been approved by City Council." He's hoping the zoning change might happen by the first of next year, but that is not at all certain. "This hotel project is an enormous boost to the micro economy. It’s a big job creator and has a significant economic impact. And construction financing happens in cycles, and the time is now to do this project."
Kaven believes the project can potentially exemplify the role architects can play as shapers of cities. "I feel increasingly the architect’s role has been skewed to be mainly focused on small, minute details of projects. Not big ideas. In my career I’m trying to advocate for architects to be visionaries of the environment," he added. "We can be very passive in our role to society. We have bankers and real estate agents creating and planning our cities. The architects are just given this role to shape that. I feel the new role of an architect is to do all of that: to really become much more engaged in the process of development. That’s where I feel the strong vision really is: starting from scratch with a site and envisioning all of the components that make it happen. It’s not just having a building code book sitting on your desk to learn fire egress and stuff like that. And I think some of that is happening. But it’s just a point of my career, to try and create that vision from scratch."