BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last week, just a few blocks from where demolition crews have been busy dismantling the majority of Centennial Mills, a trio of interested parties—the Pearl District Neighborhood Association's Patricia Gardner, developer and philanthropist Jordan Schnitzer, and historian Chet Orloff—hosted a public forum to explore how this historic development might still be saved.
Gardner began by walking the audience through the past 15-plus years of fits and starts: "In 2000 the city bought the site. It was a working flour mill all the way through the ‘90s. The city wanted to tear it down and build a park. We went through a public involvement process as part of the Pearl District Development plan. It talked about a different vision: not tearing it all down, and having some sort of public, civic use to that site along with park land. We started lobbying the city hard to keep the buildings. In 2005 they decided to keep them. That took a lot of effort. They voted to move forward with a framework plan and come up with a different vision that involved keeping some parts of the site for historical purposes. A developer was chosen with public input, LAB Holding. The recession hit, PDC kind of changed the rules on them, and that deal fell apart. Another RFP went out, and Harsch Investments was chosen. And that deal fell apart."
Now, Gardner explained, Centennial Mills faces the threat of total demolition, especially after Mayor Charlie Hales withdrew his support for investing in redevelopment.
Chet Orloff, who teaches at Portland State University but has a long history including as head of the Oregon Historical Society and much more, provided a fascinating brief run-through of Centennial Mills' historical importance.
"Oregon's rich topsoil was deposited by volcanoes thousands of years ago, and it produces this great soft wheat," Orloff explained. "There began a trading system based first on furs and gold and silver, heading across the Pacific to China and on to Europe. At some point in the 1860s, as the story goes, some trader took it home, ground it up, and made it into noodles, and discovered that Oregon soft white wheat made great noodles. It sounds silly, but I think there’s a lot of truth to it. Within the next 10 years, China became the major market for Oregon wheat. Today it’s still the major export, wheat, and China is still the biggest importer. It began before statehood and continues to this day. Wheat would be brought down to the Columbia waterfront and shipped by sternwheelers, loaded into 100-pound sacks and brought down to the docks of Portland."
"By the 1880s, there were three wealthy cities in the US: New York first, Philadelphia second, and Portland third," Orloff added. "We were the third wealthiest city in the nation based on the wheat trade. We were able to build buildings like the Pioneer Courthouse and the Portland Hotel in the 1890s. It led to an elegant collection of historic buildings downtown and along the park blocks, most of which were funded through the wheat trade."
Orloff also quoted from a previous City Council resolution, written in the early 2000s after the Pearl District Neighborhood Association and it supporters convinced the city not to demolish Centennial Mills, Resolution 36320, which recognized the development “as a symbol of Portland’s rich history, and a valuable artifact of the industrial working waterfront.”
Next came Jordan Schnitzer, who may be best known as an art collector and philanthropist but whose company, Harsch, operates 23 million square feet of real estate up and down the west coast. Schnitzer recalled first being approached by the now-late developer Art DeMuro over a decade ago to compete for the renovation commission that ultimately went to LAB Holding. When that deal fell through, Harsch and DeMuro's Venerable Properties won the job, and then after DeMuro passed away Harsch agreed to continue on.
"Art and I talked about how you want to make a profit, but the bigger intent was doing what was right for the site and community," Schnitzer recalled. "For any of us that are lucky enough to touch the land, there’s an obligation to do what’s right."
The developer also expressed a motivation to share a series of development options that had been offered to the city, even if they were no longer relevant with the expiration of the Harsch-PDC contract, because throughout the process PDC had prevented them from sharing these plans with the public, he said.
Ultimately the deal fell through, Schnitzer explained, because of a gap between what PDC and the city were willing to devote to the project and what it seemed to need. Yet as one examines the plans, it seems clear that PDC has viable options beside demolition.
"First of all, we asked what it would cost to clear the site. PDC projected $16 million. We realized if you cleared the site, dealt with the environmental issues, that was $18 million," Schnitzer explained. "We then started looking at various levels of development from a little bit to the max. Usually as a developer, the more you build, in theory, the more profitable it is. This was the exact opposite. Because of the lack of parking, no public buses or public transportation near it, the worse it got. The biggest build-out was $207milion with a highrise tower. My god, you needed $82 million in public investment. You needed more parking, more infrastructure. It didn’t work."
After that, Schnitzer was approached by members of his consultant team, including architect Tim Eddy of Hennebery Eddy and urban designer/artist Tad Savinar, who sought more modest approaches. But Schnitzer also felt a pedestrian bridge over Naito Parkway and the adjacent railroad tracks was essential. "One plan had us basically restore the flour mill and nothing else, put in the greenway, put in the dock and the bridge," Schnitzer explained. "Right now it’s just not very easy to access the site, physically and attitudinally. We wanted people to be able to move from The Fields Park to this. We talked to Maya Lin about doing a bridge. Why the dock? I said, 'There’s no place on this side of the river where you can get to the water.' So the bridge and dock felt critical."
"That first proposal took $27 million," Schnitzer continued. "The next one restored the feed and flour mill buildings. The third one put in two apartment projects, 60 or 70 units apiece, restored the mills and put an events center in there, and some retail and office. We put in floating docks and places for boats to come up."
"I showed [Mayor] Charlie [Hales] all of this. I said, 'When you look at this site compared to some years ago, there’s no shortage of housing. There’s no shortage of office. But what we’re always short of is open space and public space. Less development is better here than more.' I said, 'We’ve got some major ideas. Let’s coordinate this with Fields Park, because everything’s going to be built around it.' I said, 'Charlie, my favorite plan is basically this plan, the middle plan, where we restore the two best buildings to honor the spirit of what was here.' Schnitzer then described the mayor as favoring a plan with apartments. We were called eventually to PDC for a meeting. We talked about what we thought the preferred option was for the mayor. We were never called back."
The city basically seems to have in the ballpark of $20 million for Centennial Mills and realizes that this is not enough to restore the complex, even if only the two mill buildings and little else would be preserved. With the surrounding urban renewal area eventually losing funding in the next few years, that further complicates investment. The city's partnership with a private developer ought to create enough capital to take action to repair at least the two flour mill buildings, but there is still a gap. However, one of the points of calling this public forum was to encourage the audience (which happened to be a packed house) to make their voice heard, to the mayor, City Council, and beyond. In the grand scheme of things, it wouldn't take a miracle for the city to find additional dollars. And even if that takes additional time, Gardner and others at the meeting encouraged supporters also to lobby the city and PDC not to fully demolish the site.
It's understandable that there may be reluctance to commit money when we can't accomplish all of our goals. And it's understandable that some of the complex had to be demolished given its disrepair. But hopefully there is still opportunity to save some of what's left, particularly the two flour mill buildings. Anything would be better than a full-scale leveling of the site. At the very least, one would think the two flour mill buildings could be preserved as ruins, and the rest made into a park. Schnitzer is right that a pedestrian bridge ultimately ought to happen, especially since it has been part of the long-range plan for the Pearl District ever since the 2001 Portland River District Park System urban design framework study by Peter Walker and Partners Landscape Architecture. But if necessary, I can't help but think we should be willing to temporarily abandon the bridge and the dock ideas if that's what it takes to devote all existing available resources to saving the two flour mill buildings. Those two structures are what absolutely positively have to stay.