not sure where the Washington County 'potential high-rise district' thread is...
Can high-rise mixed use make it in the burbs?
A residential, research
Sunday, May 06, 2007
HILLSBORO -- Bold moves have raised Hillsboro's standing in the Portland metro area.
Intel's Ronler Acres campus. Orenco Station's nationally recognized town center. The rise of the retail-heavy Tanasbourne area.
Now, Hillsboro's leaders are offering their most daring vision for the city's mostly suburban landscape: a high-rise urban center with condos that could reach 20 stories tall.
The project site in east Hillsboro, if realized, would fill an area equal to 100 downtown Portland blocks. If the land can be brought together and the proposal wins financing, both public and private, it would create a new mold for urban living in Portland's suburbs.
The community, the OHSU/AmberGlen Area, could attract 10,000 residents to nearly 600 acres in the city's Tanasbourne area over the next 20 years. South of Northwest Cornell Road, the area is envisioned as a magnet for high-income singles and two-member households seeking alternatives to Portland.
Still in its initial stages, the project remains in the city's hands -- an idea being shaped and touted by its planners. A handful of developers have been briefed on the proposal, the concept plan is almost finished and supporters in coming months will begin to look for financing.
Billions of dollars would be needed for all the work.
Development community members have greeted the concept with excitement and skepticism. They marvel at the forethought, but question whether the vision would be profitable.
"No one would do a project of this scale and just hope that it works," said Ethan Seltzer, a Portland State University professor of urban studies and planning. The city's planning team, he said, must do enough to prove the area is ready.
While centers of this scale have flourished in suburbs outside much larger cities -- Atlanta and Los Angeles, for example -- the Portland area seems an unusual candidate. Ultimately, developers would determine whether it is strong enough to succeed, Seltzer said.
Retail and research
With as many as nine 20-story buildings and a series of smaller towers stacked around a 35-acre park, the center would include condos and townhouses mixed with retail, office space and research centers.
There are a few examples of this concept nationwide. In Oregon, Portland's Pearl District comes closest with its mix of condos and townhouses built along a streetcar route dotted with shops and restaurants.
The Hillsboro land now consists of vacant lots, greenspace, office buildings, Oregon Health & Science University research facilities and education centers used by Portland Community College and the state.
Those behind the idea see the timing as ideal.
"We've got growth, income, the right political attitude and willingness," said David Leland of Leland Consulting Group, one of the lead planners steering the project as a consultant to the city. "You don't find these conditions elsewhere. Hillsboro might be the best place in the region -- one that becomes a case study, a paradigm for the evolution of centers in the Portland region."
The locale includes a bounty of acres owned by a few willing property owners. It's 12 miles from downtown Portland. It's easily accessible to U.S. 26 commuters. And it's adjacent to Tanasbourne, one of Washington County's most popular hubs of retailers and restaurants.
In coming years 7,000 to 8,000 new jobs are expected to arrive in Hillsboro as companies such as Genentech Inc. and Standard Insurance Co. build sites, and Kaiser Permanente adds a new hospital just blocks from the planned community. In all, 270,000 new residents are expected to arrive in Washington County in the next 25 years.
Whether those residents would buy into a high-rise condo lifestyle or prefer the traditional single-family home with a backyard remains among many unanswered questions.
Hurdles include how to pay for the project's high cost, secure land rights and line up public and private funding -- not to mention how to cope with traffic congestion that could result when infill developments arrive.
For developers, the question is simple: Would units sell?
"We all remember the Round," said Craig David, vice president of Matrix Development with Legend Homes, referring to the Round at Beaverton Central, an office-restaurant-condominium complex that failed to gain momentum as a residential center. "We won't commit to invest a lot of money unless we're convinced that it will be viable."
Matrix Development, which builds residential buildings as high as four stories, recently completed the first phase of The Q, urban-style high-end condominiums in Hillsboro. It is also one of three lead developers in North Bethany, an 800-acre site that could eventually be home to as many as 15,000 people.
Hillsboro's concept has the right ingredients and makes sense, but it's hard to predict how suburban home buyers would react, said Matt Brown, a project manager who looks into new projects for Williams & Dame Development.
"The $64,000 question is whether Hillsboro and the western suburbs are ready," he said. "When you think of suburbs, you don't think of that type of environment."
Developers would need to study closely the demographics of the area, said Brown, whose Portland-based company was one of the primary developers of the Pearl District and has been involved in Portland's South Waterfront district.
Start from scratch
Brown said suburban areas are a challenge because "you have to create a highly vibrant, mixed-use community out of whole cloth. You don't have the bare bones of an interesting urban area. It can be done, but it must be done right."
Planners realize the idea raises eyebrows, but with the right partnerships, it can pan out, Leland said. Rather than rising from the ground overnight, the community would take years to mature and develop character.
The study area is not among the Portland region's town centers. But that may change with the leaders at Hillsboro and Metro -- the area's regional government -- discussing the land's future. A town center designation would mark the area as a future home for retailers and employers. It also could qualify any projects for financial assistance, such as transportation grants.
In the end, the area might not support 20-story towers or look like the Pearl or a mini-version of New York City's Central Park.
"This cannot happen without an arsenal of private-public partnerships," Leland said. "It will take a major commitment from Hillsboro, and support from Metro, the governor and others to make this a reality."
Some developers, including John Bartell, vice president at Opus Northwest, plan to stand back and watch the vision mature before they reach for their checkbooks.
After discussing the idea with Hillsboro planners and property owners, Bartell said, he considers the project too much of a gamble for now.
The cost of construction may be too high, and compared with prices of surrounding homes, it may be impossible to make the proposed community so "special" that people would be willing to pay $100,000 more to live in it, he said.
Also, with the suburbanlike layout of wide roads and large lots, it would be difficult to imitate the intimate feel of the Pearl.
"Who would want to walk through a suburban office park and major arterial to get to retail?" he asked.
Of course, 10 years from now, Bartell's opinion may change.
"If you would have asked me 20 years ago whether the Pearl could have made it this far, I would have said, 'No way.' "
Esmeralda Bermudez: 503-221-4388; firstname.lastname@example.org