NEIGHBORHOOD OF THE FUTURE
The company's Northwest Portland property is the perfect blank palette for a 21st-century twist -
Sunday, March 25, 2007RANDY GRAGG
Between the Pearl District and the Northwest District lies the perfect blank piece of land to create a new 21st-century model for the working-class neighborhood.
That's because at the center of the land sit 1,000 members of the 21st-century working class.
Let's name the neighborhood right now: Con-way.
That's the owner of the land, the employer of the workers and the company that can make it all happen.
Trucking enthusiasts and longtime Portlanders know Con-way is all that may soon be left of the dwindling Consolidated Freightways, the trucking company started by Portlander Leland James in 1929. The history of mergers and spinoffs is tangled, but the bottom line is that the truck-building Consolidated Freightways has mostly been off-shored to Mexico while the transportation and logistics company Con-way thrives.
Recently named one of Forbes magazine's most-admired companies, the $4-billion company is based in San Mateo, Calif. But the entire company's technological nerve center sits at Northwest Thurman and 21st Avenue, surrounded by 15 acres of mostly empty land mainly used for parking.
"We have this property," says J. Craig Boretz, Con-way's vice president of corporate development. "We don't need it for our business. It's become valuable. We'd like to redevelop it, but in a way that will be a good experience for our employees."
Con-way's goal is to attract the best employees, Boretz says.
"Let's face it, transportation isn't as sexy as Nike or Intel," he says. "So we want to be here, in the heart of Northwest, surrounded by amenities and good places to live."
Simple as that may sound, it's actually a tall order.
Con-way's land is zoned for mixed-use buildings -- retail with either commercial or housing on top -- the same as the Pearl District next door. But Con-way's land has lower height and bulk limits and fewer available bonuses to go above and beyond them.
One of the only bonuses the city offers, in fact, is to build smaller -- for buildings with 10,000 and 20,000-square-foot footprints. That's a lovely idea: an attempt to social engineer this land, a la Christopher Alexander-style "pattern language," with small-grain apartment buildings like those in the Northwest District. The only problem is, the economics don't work. Current construction prices make building small more expensive, plus whoever develops this land will have to pay for way more than just the buildings.
The Northwest District Plan, for instance, calls for a neighborhood park and a community center on the land. The only mass transportation to the site is one bus line. And then there's parking. Most of Con-way's employees drive. The company leases parts of its vast surface parking lots to such nearby employers as Good Samaritan Hospital. So, even with improved mass transit, Con-way needs parking for at least 1,000 cars. That's $25,000 for every parking stall -- $35,000 if it goes, as it should, underground -- so, $25 million to $35 million for starters.
Though Con-way's average wage is, Boretz estimates, "somewhere north of $50,000," that doesn't buy much in today's inner-city housing market. Land and construction prices have skyrocketed to the point where even middle-class urban housing has to be subsidized, cheaply built or tiny.
Boretz hired an initial design team: John Spencer (a private planning consultant), Gerding/Edlen Development and GBD Architects. They studied several housing types like townhouses and courtyard apartments. They pondered a potential streetcar extension linking Con-way to other transit-starved areas nearby like the north Pearl District and Montgomery Park. Under current zoning, only 1,500 to 2,000 units of housing are possible.
But the real opportunity -- if not the necessity -- is to look at this land for what it is: a blank slate.
What would this future neighborhood look like with no rules but two basic goals: 1) to produce as much energy as it consumes; and 2) offer housing options and amenities affordable to all of Con-way's workers, whether a vice president or a janitor, whether a young single or the head of a family of five?
There's no paved road to follow to success in these times. Maybe the buildings would be low, maybe tall. With the area already gridded with super-blocks, maybe we could build true Vancouver-style "point towers" -- thin skyscrapers that rise from five- or six-story buildings topped by roof gardens, some serving as family-supportive daycare playgrounds. Maybe they're very small units arranged in buildings with more common rooms and pocket parks for communal recreation. Maybe they're an entirely new kind of flex-space buildings where people buy raw space to live in, work in or rent as they need for growing and shrinking families and businesses.
Whatever. The key is to drive the process with aspirations rather than limits, to consider models beyond our own and maybe even develop some new ones.
Randy Gragg: 503-221-8575; firstname.lastname@example.org
©2007 The Oregonian