America Festival

Going Big on the Central Eastside

A Design Week PDX Panel takes on a big question: How does the city keep the Central Eastside industrially fertile?

Hanging at the front of the room where Bora Architects hosted the Design Week Portland panel discussion, “Central Eastside: Beyond Taking Sides” on Tuesday night, were proposed development plans for the industrial district. Digital images showcased a Bora design called “Water Avenue Yards:” A futuristic waterfront scene with long shed-like structures that looked glassy in these renderings, which could house creative spaces, beer gardens, etc. People populated the vision, looking both at work and leisure. A few guys in gym shorts huddled together, futsal players near the proposed futsal courts. Next to Bora’s, hung plans from Mayer/Reed, a Landscape Architecture firm, which removed I-5 from the picture entirely, opening up 24 blocks of space, represented by bright blue and green squares.

This was an apt introduction to the discussion. The images could make you giddy and we would all spend the next half hour listening to the panelists “think big” on the possibilities of the district and what could happen. I emphasize could here — it signifies a conditional possibility. The great-big concerns of displacement, homogeneity, and threatened identity confronting Portland were central to the talk. That giddiness about the future could stay intact, but only if the conditions are met which solve those problems. The five panelists of two architects, a developer, urban planner and Willamette River champion led the exploration.

Michael Tingley of Bora began, announcing that Water Avenue Yards was a “completely hypothetical” design, a research project to “explore potential.” They “colored out of the lines” he joked, pointing out that no control or jurisdictional issues were taken into account, at all. But the plan spurs ideas about mixed use private and public spaces which he sees as fostering small businesses and transforming the “big empty parking lots under the freeways.”

Before the next panelist spoke, panel mediator Ethan Seltzer, an Urban Planning Professor at Portland State University joked, “it’s amazing what you do without a client,” referring to Bora’s admitted abandon in it’s research project. The packed room laughed, which happened frequently through the talk; these speakers managed quite a few jokes into the serious discussion.

The way Seltzer talks about urban planning is inspiring. His perspective is practical, all-encompassing and informed. He spoke about the need to relieve our city’s populace of its unwillingness to change. He knows we all love our neighborhoods the way they are but he suggested that we need to look at the big picture.

Next up was Carol Mayer-Reed, principal landscape architect at Mayer/Reed, the designers of the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade. She also admitted to taking “great liberties” with her plan. I-5 vanishes in her vision, unburdening the Eastside of its many ramps and freeway space — spaghetti is what she calls it (in the picture showing the Eastside the way it is now, the highways are colored red and it does look like sauce-soaked pasta).

Aerial view of Harbor Drive, west bank WIllamette River, Portland. Photo courtesy of The Oregonian
Aerial view of Harbor Drive, west bank Willamette River, Portland.

However, this proposal to remove I-5 isn’t so dreamy. In the 1970’s Harbor Drive was removed from the Westside so that the Tom McCall Waterfront park could be built in its place, providing a public park and access to the river. Mayer-Reed points out however, that the transportation problem was shifted to the Eastside, which was not deemed valuable back then. So she suggests we do the same on the Eastside now. Tacking her last sheet to the wall, she ended saying, “so with money and willpower” we can do this.

Although each panelist spoke about the value of public access to the river, Willie Levenson, the leader of the Human Access Project, makes this his sole aim. He emphasized the amount of money that has gone into cleaning up the river, speculating that we may have the highest sewage bills in the country.

Industrial land is the farmland of the city.

From left, Willie Levenson, Andy Jansky, Tom Vandel, Tod Cordill and John Ostrander help clean up Poets Beach, Portland. Photo courtesy of Portland Tribune.
From left, Willie Levenson, Andy Jansky, Tom Vandel, Tod Cordill and John Ostrander help clean up Poets Beach, Portland. Photo courtesy of Portland Tribune.

HAP volunteers have built trails to the river, removed concrete and debris from riverbank beaches. Best of all, he encourages swimming. “Not only will the Willamette not kill you, it actually feels great!” In the summer, the HAP Riverhuggers team swims across the river a few times a week. You’re all welcome to join in.

Lastly, Brad Malsin, Principal Developer at Beam Development, and President of the Central Eastside Industrial Council, reined in the conversation. He’s originally from NY, and his accent holds on even after being out West for over 20 years. He wants to maintain the character of the Eastside, preserving it as the engine of the city. Seltzer had said earlier that, “industrial land is the farmland of the city.” Malsin knows how valuable the neighborhood is and how important it is for the city that the Eastside remains industrially fertile. For him, it comes down to providing affordable creative work space.

“People need a place to start,” expressing his goal as a developer to provide for small businesses and startups. He turned it toward the audience, saying it’s not just about space, it’s about community engagement. “We need people to start businesses, so the demand [for creative workspace] goes up.”

He brought up the interesting point that rather than housing being built for all the people who have found jobs here, as is historically the case, the opposite is happening here and now: people are coming to Portland without jobs. He says that we need to make Portland not only “open for renting and leasing, but for business.”

Countering a question from the audience about how the eastside will avoid becoming another Pearl (the man who asked seemed incredulous that it wouldn’t and his voice had that specific aggravation that the Pearl brings out in people.) Malsin responded saying that by design, it could not become the Pearl. The Pearl is market-rate housing and retail, he explained — residential real estate is what drives the prices up.

Malsin was adamant about keeping the industrial eastside free of residential space but I am still unclear about whether this was solely Malsin’s mission or if by some zoning code or law, there can be no residential spaces. The CIEC 2035 plan (link below) emphasizes that zoning laws and codes need to be addressed to keep out what the CIEC deems the greatest threat to the area: housing.

More than anyone else, Malsin anchored my optimism, although he spoke less about what he envisioned and more about the realities of the market forces and rising real estate rates. Experts are experts for a reason — they offer knowledge and insight that often is absent in the daily polemical discussions happening about Portland’s development. It’s an emotional conversation and people like Malsin are sometimes cast as the villain. But the developer is not the villain.

There were of course some issues that weren’t discussed here. The one that was on my mind was the subject of the last question asked by a young woman. The Central Eastside is indeed residential — tents spread under those freeways which block the rain for many homeless men and women. Her question asked how plans to eradicate homelessness figured into the greater vision. Malsin took this on, briefly, but his voice betrayed that this is something he has considered but it was too much to get into then. It’s a complicated matter but it’s difficult to think of a shiny green futsal court — or to want it — where we’ve all seen so many poor people sleeping.

A few takeaways from the talk: We need to be open to change. As Mayer-Reed put it, “not having displacement is the goal, but we can’t have a resistance to change.” Also, I look forward to swimming across the Willamette in the summer and lastly, as a Portlander of over a decade, I know too little about the legacy of the great Tom McCall.

Those “big” dream plans which opened the panel could happen. And although they were all hypothetical, it’s a good start to see the vision on paper ahead of you. It’s not just conversation anymore at that point.

By Kathleen Dolan

I studied writing and English at Purchase College in NY State and graduated from PSU with an English degree. I contribute content, edit, and brainstorm at THRU.

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