Before the wrecking ball, a remodel
Portland Business Journal - March 9, 2007
by Wendy Culverwell, Business Journal staff writer
Sometime in the next eight to 13 years, the four buildings that together once housed Goldsmith Furnishings will be razed and their little corner of Old Town/Chinatown will be rebuilt.
The owners, David Gold and Howard Davis, are renovating the Goldsmith block now and reinventing it for a new generation of users -- creative businesses with an appetite for cheap rent and a great near-downtown location.
Although the buildings likely will be gone in the future, Gold and Davis are taking advantage of what they have while they have it.
The low-budget renovation includes a fresh paint job and new entrances to improve the appearance of the complex -- which is actually four buildings linked by ramps and a common legal boundary. The complex is about 78,000 square feet.
Gold and Davis enlisted Portland's Hennebery Eddy Architects to complete the update. The duo gave simple marching orders: Minimize expense, maximize space, don't trigger a costly seismic update with elaborate renovations.
Thirteen studios are in construction, and nine have been completed. Most have been leased or reserved, with tenants including an architect, an artist, a gallery and a clothing designer. The rent: $1 a square foot.
Lower floors are spaces-in-progress, reflecting the budget-conscious ethos of the redevelopment.
Davis envisions a restaurant in an empty bay fronting Northwest Fourth Avenue. It won't be easy. Fourth, with its adult book store across the street, remains an edgy counterpart to Northwest Fifth, where art galleries are taking root. The would-be restaurant space has a drop ceiling, which Davis said he wanted to remove to let more light into the interior.
But the drop ceiling proved a challenge -- it was too well built to remove on the cheap. So he is leaving it untouched.
Gold and Davis bought the Goldsmith block, which includes both the Goldsmith buildings and a full-block parking lot across the street, from the Goldsmith family, paying $7 million in 2004.
The furniture store relocated; Gold and Davis mortgaged the purchase based on revenue from the parking lot. The building itself generated no money in the beginning.
Today, the few small businesses leasing studios means the building is producing revenue -- not much but enough to cover expenses, Davis said.
Davis said he and his partner, both longtime Portland real estate investors, took a long-term view of the Goldsmith block from the outset.
They like the prospects for Old Town/Chinatown, the district separated from downtown by Burnside street and from the Pearl District by the North Park Blocks. They're gambling that a property so close to both downtown and the Pearl District will come into high demand, in eight to 13 years.
When that happens, they'll demolish the buildings and create a multiuse project along the lines of the Brewery Blocks in the Pearl District.
"I feel this same kind of energy. Things are definitely changing," Davis said.
The best interim use, they felt, would be ground-level retail, with creative studios above. The idea originated from Gold's experience in St. Johns, where he turned the Cathedral Park warehouse into inexpensive, small studios for creative workers. Doing the same thing in Old Town/Chinatown answers a common complaint -- that St. Johns is too far from downtown, Davis said.
David Wark, the Hennebery Eddy architect who worked on the Goldsmith block, said it was an unusual challenge to blend four buildings, each with a different number of floors and none perfectly aligned. The previous owners merged the buildings into a combination furniture store and warehouse, with an inward focus. It is, he said, a typical example of how neighboring buildings are sometimes blended.
"It's not exactly pedestrian friendly," he deadpanned.
After volunteering to help out the nearby Portland Art Center, he said he was intrigued to take on the entire facility.
"As an urban exercise, how do you reactivate?" he asked.
Goldsmith block posed plethora of issues
Work on the Goldsmith block turned out to be a tall order, said Hennebery Eddy architect David Wark.
The four buildings were uneven in both elevation and height. Floors that didn't match up were linked by steep ramps better suited to skateboarders than ordinary pedestrians or people with disabilities.
The exteriors over the decades were patched and covered up. The overall effect was off-putting. Working closely with the city, the team replaced the skatepark-style ramps with gently sloping ones that rise an inch for every linear foot and meet handicap accessibility requirements. There are more and better exits, to meet fire codes, and a new bathroom.
The metal fire escape affixed on the Northwest Fifth Avenue side was inspected and repaired. It is an essential part of the building, for escape purposes. The studios that face the escape have glass windows by their doors. In an emergency, workers in neighboring units can break the windows to access the escape.
Outside, the entrances will sport simple awnings made from sheets of steel, folded origami-style. The designers selected colors directly from the elaborate Chinese gate at nearby Burnside, which is visible from the building.
The exterior is getting a respectable makeover as well -- not elaborate, but sufficient for an interim renovation.
Windows blocked since the 1950s are being revealed and in an artsy nod to the increasingly artsy neighborhood, a decommissioned elevator shaft is being remade into a three-dimensional exhibit space.
The entire building is being swathed in white paint and gray accents.
"Our approach was to unify the building," Wark said.
Painting started last fall and resumes when the wet season abates, Davis said.