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Milwaukie expects revitalization effect for downtown

Portland Business Journal

July 1st 2007

Like other recent efforts to revitalize the downtowns of Portland's suburban communities, North Main Village in Milwaukie faces great expectations.

Completed in January of this year, the $14 million mixed-use project -- which includes both rental and for-sale residential units and some 9,000 square feet of retail space on Main Street -- is the first major construction development to hit downtown Milwaukie in roughly 10 years.

And the great hope is that North Main will serve as the catalyst for Milwaukie's rejuvenation.

"The idea," says developer Tom Kemper, managing member of KemperCo LLC, "was to create a mixed-use village that was fairly high-density and that would kick off a renaissance in downtown Milwaukie."

The project arose in part out of the city of Milwaukie's 2000 Downtown Milwaukie Comprehensive Plan. Like plans for many other satellite city centers around Portland, Milwaukie's version called for a revitalization of the downtown core with new businesses and new living opportunities.

Kenny Asher, Milwaukie's director of community development and public works, says the site for North Main -- nearly 2 acres -- sat in disuse for years before the city purchased it.

"The site had been envisioned for some catalytic redevelopment of the downtown," he says, adding that one of the original plans was to use the land for a new transit center.

The state and Metro also have been involved in the process from early on.

After an effort with one developer failed to come to fruition, Kemper stepped in and took on the project a few years ago.

"I looked at how close Milwaukie was to downtown Portland and how it was right on the [Willamette] river," he says. "Those two things are pretty attractive features, so we decided that we wanted to pursue it."

What Kemper and his team came back with was a proposal for North Main Village. The project would bring six different buildings to the site and include 64 rental units, 33 for-sale units -- condominiums and townhouses -- and ground-level retail space for shops and restaurants.

"It's nice to bring a mix of housing product and therefore a mix of people to the downtown core," says Michael McLaughlin, an associate with Myhre Group Architects, the firm that designed North Main. "I think that's the biggest thing Milwaukie will benefit from is having people living downtown."

Similar mixed-use projects have helped breathe new life into places like downtown Gresham and in Hillsboro at Orenco Station.

"I think North Main does fit into the trend as far as town centers go," McLaughlin says, "but it's definitely not a trend in Milwaukie. In Milwaukie, this is a pioneering project."

Myhre Group's design for the six buildings incorporates various architectural and construction styles that flow together but at the same time give the impression that the buildings arose separately over time. The buildings also surround a central community plaza of sorts designed, like the ground-level retail spaces, to accommodate and encourage foot traffic and local living.

Kemper says rising construction costs during the building phase of the project, as well as securing necessary financing, were the biggest challenges in bringing North Main Village from renderings to construction.

But the project may actually be facing its biggest challenge right now, which is rising to the expectations that so many have for it -- and for downtown Milwaukie.

Kemper says that all of the apartments have been rented in North Main and just seven for-sale units remain available. The retail end has been a bit slower to catch on, even though townhouses that include ground-floor retail spaces have been offered 10-year property tax abatements.

Kemper is not discouraged. He says roughly 25 percent of the retail space has been leased by a couple planning to launch a restaurant later this year that will feature modern American cuisine and "knock-your-socks-off" vegan options.
The city, too, is optimistic that North Main will eventually achieve the desired results.

"It's on its way to doing what we want it to do," Asher says. "We can't confuse the building itself for the activities it supports though. The building is there, some of the activities are there, and people are living downtown now where we didn't have that before. I think the most important thing is that people are living in and using downtown Milwaukie in new ways."

Another sign that Milwaukie is confident in the mixed-use model for revitalizing downtown? The city recently chose Kemper and his team to develop another building just across the way from North Main.

To be called Milwaukie Town Center, the new building will include 76 for-sale housing units and 16,000 square feet of retail and office space along McLoughlin Boulevard and Main Street. The side facing McLoughlin will be five stories tall, with housing units that offer views of the river.

Asher says it's projects like North Main and Milwaukie Town Center, along with long-range plans for light rail and other developments, that are reshaping the city as a whole.

"I think people ought to pull off McLoughlin and check out Main Street in Milwaukie," he says. "It's changing, and between downtown and the river, Milwaukie is really a diamond in the rough."