BY BRIAN LIBBY
As demolition begins this month on the Portland GasCo building, earning ire from preservationists, another century-old structure along the Willamette may be facing the wrecking ball: Centennial Mills.
In the August issue of the NW Examiner, Allan Classen reported that Mayor Charlie Hales now favors demolishing the entire structure. Hales’ aide, Jillian Detweiler, delivered that message last month to the Pearl District Neighborhood Association, which has long advocated that at least some of the structures from what was initially an 11-building development be preserved. Detweiler cited a $16 million shortfall between the $20 million in River District Urban Renewal Area funds and the $36 million requested to restore the site by Harsch Investment Properties, the firm chosen by the Portland Development Commission as developer two years ago.
Past mayors, in trying to preserve Centennial Mills, had simply “kicked the can down the road” Detweiler was quoted as saying in Classen's article. By calling for demolition of these historic early 20th century industrial buildings to be leveled, she added, Hales was showing responsibility.
Demolition crews have already been busy since March tearing down much of the multi-building complex, leaving all but two of the larger structures. Since 2000, the Portland Development Commission has controlled Centennial Mills, and some have criticized how little the agency did over the past 15 years to limit deterioration. When I toured the property late last year for a CityLab article on efforts to save the major buildings there, large portions of water-damaged upstairs floors were marked with spray paint to warn of potential cave-ins. Raccoon tracks abounded, and visitors had to wear face masks.
When I interviewed Harsch's Jordan Schnitzer back then for the CityLab article, he argued that neglect in the past 14 years (since PDC's takeover) had done more damage to Centennial Mills than the previous 90 or so years had. So in a certain respect, Hales may simply be acknowledging reality there.
Recently I spoke by phone with Schnitzer, who expressed his flexibility but also took the city to task for backtracking.
"After roughly 18 months of planning, I presented the mayor seven different plans of potential redevelopment on the Centennial Mills site, ranging from doing nothing to a $200 million redevelopment," Schnitzer explained. "He asked me what I thought. I said, 'You know Mr. Mayor, growing up in Portland, there wasn’t much happening down in the Northwest waterfront area, except industry. Now there’s no shortage of apartments, office, retail. What there’s a shortage of is open space.’ I said, ‘I think we should preserve whatever buildings we can preserve, but the rest should be public space.’ At the time he said it should be a balance of private and public space. So that’s what we presented to the PDC almost a year ago in October."
Schnitzer believes part of the problem is the Portland Police Bureau's horse stables, the Mounted Patrol Unit, adjacent to the Centennial Mills complex. Since the initial agreement to develop the site, " I think the city has found itself in a quandary about the MPU," the developer and philanthropist explained. "They should have known how much it would cost to move it. But in the RFP for Centennial Mills that we responded to almost four years ago, it clearly stated it would be gone, and that we should approach it that way. We did everything PDC asked us to. Now that the city has decided the MPU may stay, it totally screws up the plans that we’ve come up with."
Yet Schnitzer says he can roll with the changes. "Now the mayor is going back to what my initial recommendation was, which was maximize the open space. In terms of being supportive of this new approach, absolutely."
"The latest idea," Schnitzer added, "is to form a steering committee I’d be part of along with a distinguished broad-based group of community leaders, to determine the best use and open space. Whether any of the buildings can be preserved as time goes on that gets to be more costly and therefore less likely. Who knows what it may come up with? Maybe some buildings will still be preserved. Maybe they’ll be preserved differently. Maybe not."
"I think it’s a shame whenever historic buildings are not preserved," Schnitzer concluded, "but there’s always a balance between cost and legacy. And I’m not in a position to control all the city budgets. If I were, maybe we’d preserve a few more."
It's one thing if there is a wide gap between the $20 million the city has on offer and the $36 million Schnitzer says is necessary. But couldn't $20 million still go a long way toward preserving some or at least a building or two at Centennial Mills?
All that said, the city and Mayor Hales are facing a crisis with several historic and architecturally significant structures needing attention and funds at the same time, such as the Portland Building and Veterans Memorial Coliseum. It's true that not all old buildings can be preserved, either because of deterioration, or a lack of funds, or both. Centennial Mills, or what's left of it, is certainly in bad shape.
It's a bit surprising how willing Harsch seems to be to go along with demolishing everything, even if the company had always advocated for some open space to be included. When I interviewed Schnitzer last year for the CityLab article, he spoke ambitiously of bringing in world-class design talent like Frank Gehry and Maya Lin to contribute, and the possibility of adding new buildings or even a pedestrian bridge over Naito Parkway to connect the Mills with the Pearl District. He also seemed to indicate that if necessary, the Schnitzer family might be willing to dip into its family fortune to contribute to a good solution. All the while, there did exist this gap between what the city was offering and what Harsch said was needed. But straight from Gehry and Lin to a pile of rubble and no complaints?
Maybe something Portland Development Commission project manager Bruce Wood told me last December for the CityLab article was telling. "It's run like a family enterprise, and they have a different metric," Wood, who worked at Harsch in the early 1990s, said of the company. "It's about art and legacy. Jordan is very charismatic, and he's at his very best when he's involved in civic causes because he loves that stuff. And this project needs something like that, because if you look at the numbers … it would never happen. This project is that complicated. It needs somebody who's going to put a little more into it."
Perhaps Harsch felt like ultimately the city was trying to squeeze the company to spend a little more than was prudent or fair without remaining committed as a strong, unflinching public partner. Or maybe the circumstances simply changed, or it became apparent that even $20 million wouldn't save a single building. Perhaps this sad Centennial Mills story says something about the relative lack of private-sector wealth and philanthropy in Portland. I think in larger, more affluent cities, it's possible more would step forward to save a historic structure.
No matter who is most directly to blame for a potential Centennial Mills demolition, it's clear that to let the entire complex succumb to the wrecking ball is not just an opportunity lost or a grim but prudent acknowledgement of financial realities. It's a failure of leadership: not simply on the part of the current mayor or the public-private partnership that came about to save the Mills most recently, but the succession of people who got in the way. For the past 15 years, Centennial Mills has been city-owned and waiting to be renovated. Had we started back then, much of the architecture could have been saved, and today we would have a successful mixed-use complex that celebrated and embodied Portland's heritage. It's true that in 2008 PDC awarded a contract to California-based LAB Holding to renovate and transform Centennial Mills, and that the recession seems to have doomed that effort. But the reality is still that our own inaction and our deference to a horse paddock occupying prime riverfront land slowly destroyed the complex.
No one is yet saying that the entirety of Centennial Mills will be destroyed. Maybe this mayoral call for outright demolition is just part of an ongoing behind-the-scenes negotiation over a new public-private partnership. But at the very least, after numerous past announcements that progress was being made, Centennial Mills' future is looking bleaker than ever before. And if this grim scenario plays out, it won't be a matter of kicking the can down the road: it will be a matter of obliterating the can. And that's not a legacy anyone should want.