Developers agree to renew Old Town Chinatown, but not how to do it
POSTED: Monday, March 12, 2012 at 03:02 PM PT
Daily Journal of Commerce BY: Lindsey O'Brien
Redevelopment of Portland’s oldest neighborhood has been a piecemeal effort for years, but project by project, the face of Old Town Chinatown is continuing to morph. Now the question is whether a united vision is possible for the area.
Developers soon will have access to a new survey of several hundred buildings on 43 blocks in the neighborhood, and some say it will be a useful tool for planning future projects. But the survey has reignited conversations about the challenges of redeveloping an area with a diverse cultural past, a blighted reputation, and strict regulations because of its historic status.
“That area is definitely not finished,” said Anne Naito-Campbell of Bill Naito Co., which has invested in the development of Old Town Chinatown for more than 50 years. “The city and developers have done block-by-block improvements, but hopefully this study will help us come up with new ideas.”
Development has been bolstered by the Portland Development Commission’s Downtown Waterfront urban renewal area, but money is dwindling.
“There’s probably PDC resources to do one more sort of large play (in Old Town Chinatown),” said Lew Bowers, director of PDC’s Central City team. “You need to prioritize, get around one project and say ‘yep, this is it.’ ”
Without the aid of the PDC, some stakeholders, including developer David Gold, are calling for property owners and developers to become more involved in projects that will help the community make progress.
University of Oregon graduate students are producing the in-depth development study, which will be presented March 21. The uses, condition, height, ground-floor activity, history and several other metrics will be documented for each building.
“A lot of people are watching,” said Howard Davis, a UO architecture professor. “When you’re trying to move forward with so many projects, the more information you have, the better.”
The new development study inspired Naito-Campbell, daughter of late real estate mogul Bill Naito, to spearhead a public discussion. Last week, 14 influential developers, architects, city officials and other Old Town Chinatown stakeholders laid out some of the difficulties and opportunities in the district.
The conversation, moderated by Peter Englander of the Portland Development Commission, revealed that the appropriate size and massing of new development in the district remains a divisive topic – some prioritize the district’s historic scale, while others want increased height limits.
“People continue to debate it because there’s no resolution from the city council,” said developer Art DeMuro. “My position is that (Old Town Chinatown’s) strength lies in its historic identity as Portland’s oldest commercial center, and that identity is defined by its collection of cast-iron architecture, its scale as a turn-of-the-century commercial hub, and its location on the riverfront.”
DeMuro’s company Venerable Properties last year purchased a parking lot in a prime location between the Burnside Bridge and the Skidmore Fountain Building. Though he says his plans for Block 11 are in the earliest stages, DeMuro emphasizes that future construction will involve “compatible infill.”
“My experience in historic redevelopment is that the greatest success in revitalization occurs when unique identity can be reinforced and strengthened,” he said.
But Gold contends that height limits – 75 feet for some blocks in the neighborhood – are preventing development.
“If you can only build a three-story building, you’re not going to get a surface parking lot owner to develop it,” he said at the panel discussion. “I’ve said to people at the PDC, ‘You’ve got to help me because I cannot go to my deathbed owning a full block of surface parking in Portland – it’ll kill me.”
Gold for years tried to bring Seattle-based Asian grocer Uwajimaya to the district; however, the effort ultimately fizzled, and now he is converting the former Grove Hotel into an international youth hostel with ground-floor retail.
While Gold has a vision for development of the surface parking he owns in Old Town, he said they bring in too much money to warrant a project subject to 100-foot height limits.
“I’m all in favor of appropriate sizing for the buildings in Old Town Chinatown in the historic district, but you can’t set up policy that basically stymies all development on a small lot; the city needs to come up with other incentives,” he said at the meeting.
Several ongoing planning efforts and university collaborations may produce new ideas for the district. The UO architecture students in the fall will collaborate with Tokyo’s Meiji University to analyze several Old Town Chinatown development scenarios, including the possible addition of a Japanese-style gate into the cityscape.
“They will be hypothetical projects, but looking at them could help move the conversation about height restrictions forward,” Davis said. “I don’t know if there’s a way to keep both sides happy, but I like to imagine there is.”