A new city, block by block
Sure, the Pearl and South Waterfront get the ink. But small projects are reshaping neighborhoods, too.
Thursday, February 01, 2007
By Erin Hoover Barnett
Condo towers from the Pearl to South Waterfront dominate the skyline and the headlines. But it's the smaller projects -- the West Burnside check-cashing place that's now a coffeehouse, the old sign shop turned sushi and pizza cafes on Southeast 28th -- that change the feel of neighborhoods one block at a time.
A strong economy, low interest rates and pressure for infill laid the foundation for a development boom in Portland -- rising from 5,600 commercial and residential projects launched in 2002 to 6,600 in 2006.
But it's the mojo from a critical mass of creative and sustainability-minded natives and transplants in close-in Portland that's making for unique results: Can't hide that downspout? Turn it into a rain-powered water feature, decided developer Daniel Deutsch on his latest rehab, a North manufacturing building.
"Portland is being driven by the young energy that is here," says Ben Stutz, a baby boomer attorney-turned-developer. "That's what makes Portland different. That's what makes Portland exciting."
And opportunity breeds opportunity.
Take Ron Sykes and Abe Killings. They grew up in Northeast and now are transforming a once-blighted corner on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard into a striking brick building where a restaurant/wine bar is poised to open. Rowhouses will follow.
But development can bring friction, too. Neighbors cringe when it seems developers are more interested in making money than building quality or when a developer's grand vision doesn't mesh with local sensibilities. Or when there's just too much change too fast.
"I get calls from elderly folks who are really worried about (all) the development," says Willie Brown, interim executive director of the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods. "There's no outreach, even next door. So people do get afraid."
What changes the dynamic, says Brown, is not just communication but listening to neighbors.
Longtime King neighborhood resident Daina Hamer got to participate in a Portland Development Commission vision process for her area. Then she served on a panel that chose Killings and Sykes' project for MLK, a block from her home.
She says Sykes and Killings have sought out and remained accessible to neighbors. The result: Neighbors feel ownership in the project.
"We're all very excited," Hamer says. "Everybody just can hardly wait." Aaron Blake and Christina Davis Project: 304-310 S.E. 28th Ave. Rehabbed an industrial shop into two restaurants and a small culinary school. Status: Completed 2006 Another project: Restored storefronts at North Albina and Blandena, now housing Albina Press coffeehouse and Mississippi Health Center Story: Alternative music pulses and wood-oven flames dance as the staff at Ken's Artisan Pizza prep dough and set tables before opening. Next door at Masu East, serene electronica floats in the air as the sushi chefs shell shrimp into glistening pink piles.
All around is that feeling of sophisticated coziness becoming a trademark of close-in new Portland hangouts. Yet tied up in the new is the old -- just as husband-and-wife developers Blake and Davis intended.
The couple preserved several original windows with the metal dividers -- called mullions and transoms (who knew?) -- from the concrete tilt-up building and left the edges that frame the windows ragged. The concrete floor is original, and so are the huge beams supporting the ceiling.
Where they made additions, they did so for warmth and to connect with the outside, such as the new picture windows in front that slide open on nice evenings. They also stretched to use eco-conscious materials -- from sustainably harvested hardwoods to water-conserving dual-flush toilets.
Davis, 43, is schooled in international studies and skilled at textile design and running a business. Blake, 34, is the son of the late sociologist Gerald Blake with Portland State University's urban planning school. Both are native Oregonians. Blake grew up around talk of livability, density and mixed-use development. Now he's part of the generation turning the theories into reality.
"Growing up in Portland in the '80s, there was really nothing going on that was stimulating," says Blake, an architect by training. "The energy right now in this city is palpable." Abraham Killings and Ron Sykes Rob Tucker and Mazen Abualhaija Project: King's Crossing, 3500 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. at Fremont Street. Status: Terroir Restaurant (dishes from $4 to $12) opens in commercial space in May. Financial institutions are eyeing remaining space. Construction starts on Grand Avenue rowhouses, priced at $280,000 to $340,000, this month. Story: An empty whiskey bottle lies on the edge of the northeast corner lot at MLK and Fremont. But for the first time in many years, the bottle is out of place.
Beneath it is freshly poured bark dust. Surrounding it are newly planted shrubs. And stretching far above it is a gleaming three-story brick building, its stately facade softened with awnings in the front, trellises in the back.
From the wreckage of the crime-ridden and then long-vacant King Food Mart has emerged a new gateway to the King neighborhood, the vision of two men who grew up nearby and returned to help restore the area's vitality.
Killings and Sykes remember the thriving Union Avenue (now MLK) of the 1970s with stores from Fred Meyer to Lampus Furniture. Killings, 52, filled up on chili dogs at the drive-in. Sykes, 42, bought kites at the 88-Cent Store to fly at Peninsula Park.
But as Killings and Sykes matured, the boulevard declined.
Killings served as a military policeman, then earned a PSU business degree. He rose to become Nike's director for global distribution services. Sykes headed to Yale. Then a Notre Dame law degree led to work at a Chicago firm.
Their paths crossed back in Portland. In 2000, they formed First Oregon Development.
"We recognized the fundamental benefits and offerings of inner North and Northeast Portland," Killings says. "Had you not seen it in its glory, it might be hard for people to imagine."
The site of the old King Food Mart -- its parking lot known for drug dealing, underage drinking and gang scuffles -- was a signature chance to set the tone for a revived MLK.
The Portland Development Commission, with neighborhood input, chose Killings and Sykes to make it happen. The duo brought in Rob Tucker and Mazen Abualhaija of Public Private Partnerships Inc. to iron out the complicated financing.
The building's welcoming scale and the care in giving it a commercial face on MLK and a neighborhood feel on Grand won points with residents. A small landscaped parking lot ensures convenience and preserves side-street parking. And the rowhouses on Grand will feature garages at the rear, maintaining the street's porch-forward look.
Says Sykes, "It looks like it lived up to all of our and the neighbors' expectations." Ben Stutz and Jeff Mincheff Project: West Burnside and Trinity Place; renovated the Cambridge Apartments, Trinity Place and Trinity Plaza Status: Completed 2004 Another project: Restored the Empress Hotel at West Burnside and 16th Avenue from apartments into The Empress condominiums, www.empresscondos.com
Story: Atop high stools at Coffeehouse Northwest, Stutz and Mincheff bask in the warmth they created.
When they bought the West Burnside and Trinity Place building and its neighbors in 2003, the ground floor was a check-cashing business with a big orange-lettered plastic sign. A few doors down, the Matador tavern was encased in deep-red stucco.
Mincheff, 41, points to the coffeehouse's transom windows. Once covered by a gray facade, they now filter early afternoon sun.
Workers ripped off the wallboard, exposing vintage brick. They removed the drop ceiling and uncovered hardwood floors beneath layers of linoleum. High-end 1920s replica lighting lends a quality feel. The developers brought the same treatment to the apartments above and next door.
"We try to stay true to the original luster and grandeur," says Stutz, 50. "When we're done with our properties, we like to say, 'Wow. This place looks really nice.' "
"Nice" can be a matter of opinion. Matador bartender Ellyn Groves, 27, says regulars preferred the cavelike feel that the old stucco afforded and that kept the place cool. So now the new windows are covered with drapes.
"In general, we absolutely hate the front," says Groves over a rollicking Thin Lizzy tune. "It was so original, so pretty -- a midcentury bar in America that you don't find anywhere. Now it looks like any street, any bar, anyplace in America."
Yet at the new coffee shop, Aaron Zieske looks up with a smile from "War and Peace."
Zieske, 26, rented a nearby apartment in October. Coffeehouse Northwest's exposed brick, big windows and worn floors beckoned.
"It's cozy, welcoming," says Zieske over Bing Crosby and Peggy Lee.
Even the check-cashing business -- though none too pleased -- got with the program. The shop moved a few doors down, and the big plastic sign is gone. Its small replacement is hand-painted on wood. Daniel Deutsch and Josh Oliver Project: 125 N.E. Killingsworth, a dilapidated house becomes a three-story building with Center Gyrotonic, an exercise studio, on the ground floor. Status: Completed 2005 Next project: Renovating a manufacturing building at 1618 N. Vancouver Blvd. Story: Deutsch sits on his dark-blue couch, gray light streaming through high windows, concert grand piano defining one corner.
"Music to me was not a creative endeavor," says the classically trained pianist turned developer. "I funnel creativity into design."
Deutsch, 31, is the grandson of a Los Angeles manufacturing magnate whose father later ran the business. High school at Interlochen Arts Academy led to music at Reed College. But he left and took PSU business classes. By 2001, bachelor's degree and an inheritance in hand, he unfurled in the young creative culture blossoming in Portland. He took on Oliver, skilled in carpentry and drafting, as a business partner.
"Daniel wanted to live somewhere, and he said, 'Hey, wanna remodel a house?' And I said, 'Sure,' " recalls Oliver, 27, who splits his time between projects with Deutsch and aerial acrobatics on the circus circuit.
A funky house at Northeast Killingsworth and Mallory, tortured with too many additions, became their first project in 2001.
"Fundamentally, Josh and I's philosophy is pretty simple," says Deutsch. "We like to fix broken things."
Four years later, their cedar-sided contemporary lodge emerged. The building brims with custom details.
Deutsch lives on the top floor with its high-ceilings and a cozy loft with lighting programmed to change color. The kitchen -- raised with tiny lights beneath -- appears to float. The floors are reclaimed fir. The fixtures are oil-rubbed bronze, the stove hood copper.
On the middle floor are Deutsch and Oliver's offices and, in the back, a guest apartment with less spendy but equally elegant bamboo floors and brushed-nickel fixtures.
On the ground floor, Center Gyrotonic -- an exercise discipline based on spherical movements -- boasts large windows and an open feel. The daylight basement serves for now as a hangout complete with miniature sconcelike lava lamps, a movie projector and legless shag chairs from Overstock.com.
Deutsch views the building as complementary to the grand old homes to the north. He's pleased that a developer is building five nice townhouses across the street where a larger, less-attractive project could have gone.
"The one thing I hope I've done," Deutsch says, "is to coax people to do nicer renovations in the area when the time comes."
Erin Hoover Barnett: 503-294-5011; email@example.com