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British Columbia developers add spice to West End

Daily Journal of Commerce

November 24th 2003

As construction has completed and orange cones have given way to a welcome mat, the Museum Place project in downtown's West End along Jefferson Street between 10th and 11th avenues has brought a new intensity to this long dormant and under-utilized neighborhood. But Museum Place isn't the only new building gaining attention here. Just next door, the much smaller but arguably much more architecturally bold Mosaic Condominiums project is turning heads with its sleek glass facade and brash multicolored trim.

The Mosaic represents the first Portland project by the Victoria, British Columbia, developers Don Charity and Frazier McColl. Both have a long resume of experience in Canada and the United States, although the team is best known for a Victoria residential project also called the Mosaic (they are planning projects of the same name in several cities, the next of which will be in Honolulu).

"I used to build a lot of the punched window, four-story apartment buildings that we're all used to from the '70s to the mid-'90s," Charity recalls. "I basically got out of the business in about 1995 because I was just bored with it."

The Victoria Mosaic was a rehab of an old concrete building that the developers helped transform into a modern structure that's earned rave reviews. It taught Charity and McColl that there is a largely untapped market for quality modern architecture in which size is given up for transparency.

"What we learned was that people out there are looking for glass walls, not square footage. If you could take a small space and put a big window in the space, that space is not small anymore. Each Mosaic is like a little jewel box," he said.

Charity and McColl first came to Portland three years ago in hopes of spearheading a residential project, and their first stop was the Pearl District. But unlike local developers such as John Carroll and Homer Williams, who largely made their names there, Charity and McColl were turned off by what they call the "dark spots" of industrial business slowly being forced out and the over-emphasis on faux-industrial architecture.

Instead, the developers became interested in Portland's West End, which is much closer to downtown's cultural amenities.

"We thought, 'How come nobody's building around here?'" Charity recalls. They first submitted a bid for the multi-block development that is now Museum Place.

"We were going to do two towers there called the Artist Blocks," he continues, noting that award-winning local architect Rick Potestio was tapped to design them. "We lost the proposal, but it was a great concept: all glass, way ahead of Portland's time. But the city decided to go with another developer."

Meanwhile, Charity and McColl wound up a block away, on an admittedly smaller parcel, but one that nevertheless provided the kind of urban location they were looking for. The duo eventually parted company amicably with Potestio, who recommended they consider Portland's little-known Myhre Group Architects. Headed by Jeff Myhre, who left Ankrom Moisan Architects to head his own firm (with two of his colleagues coming along), Myhre Group is a smaller firm specializing in multifamily housing. It turned out that the architect and developer were a perfect match.

"These developers are unique in that they're really hands-on," says Jeff Myhre. "They're not just going to come in and say, 'Here, design this while I work with the finances. Do whatever you've got to do as long as it pencils out.' That's not how these guys work. We really like that hands-on approach. We want an interactive process with the developer where we're all making decisions together, so at the end of the day we can have a product that we all feel good about. So right off the bat it was like we'd known each other for 10 years."

Charity and Frazier told Myhre that they were looking to use Vancouver, BC - where thin glass apartment towers are the norm - as a model for the Mosaic. But, Myhre says, "Doing Vancouver-style buildings here is a challenge. We've got energy codes that are much different. We've got the ADA. We've got the Uniform Building Code, which has different provisions, especially regarding existing systems: no scissor stairs, for example. In addition, it relies on a real slender floor plate and is tall, but the city of Portland won't allow you to have setbacks from your property line. So I said to Don, 'That's going to be a real challenge.' And he said, 'Well, that's the trick. Can you design me a Vancouver-style building with an eclectic feel and a lot of vibrance and energy, but get it past the codes, get it sold to the planning commission, and get public support for this project?' "

Both the developer and architect believe that the Mosaic has met these goals, but not without difficulty along the way.
Canada, where Charity and Frazier hail from, has different ways of building than here. Whereas in America the architect and the contractor act as an umbrella over the design and construction team, in Canada, as Myhre explains, "The owner is more the central hub of the wheel. All of the contractors, including the architect, are contracted independently to the owner. In addition, you're required to have an outside project design coordinator, who works independently. That's required by law.
And the general contractor really acts as the master builder. They can make design decisions and modify things in the field as they see fit."

When McColl and Frazier came to Portland to build the Mosaic, aside from Myhre Group they utilized a mostly Canadian design team and made the unconventional decision (at least for the United States) to act as their own general contractor.
This eventually led to a string of delays. Also, Myhre adds, "Unfortunately, I think a lot of the subcontractors either didn't perform to the level that they were expected, or had a different process and sequencing than was expected."

Ultimately, Myhre continues, "At the end of the day, it still came down to Don and his unique ability to live in the details. Don lived the project. If something wasn't done right, he had them take it out. He was just adamant about quality and detail. He was all over it. All's well that ends well. But when you're going through it, it's tense and difficult."

"Every project is a learning curve," says Charity. "It's very rare that developers are this involved in the day-to-day construction. But I want to make sure they get everything right."