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Prime mixed-use project in Gresham takes shape after five years of work

The Oregonian

A conference today focuses on The Crossings, a $12.9 million project that's part of Metro's push for suburban centers

March 3rd 2005

GRESHAM - After five years of plans, praise, criticism and controversy, an apartment-retail complex intended to bring urban shine to suburban Gresham is getting off the ground.

It's not ready yet. The developers of The Crossings at Gresham Station don't expect a finished building until summer. But the $12.9 million project, made possible with tax abatements and other help from government agencies, is the centerpiece of a sold-out conference in Gresham today, part of Metro's effort to promote mixed-use, transit-focused regional centers.

"Everybody wants it to be a pinnacle for this area," said project manager Brian Laramee, an associate at Myhre Group Architects. "Everybody's watching it pretty closely."

The project got started about five years ago, when local developer Mike Rossman and other investors bought land at the southeast corner of the planned light-rail stop at Civic Drive, said Phil Whitmore, supervisor of Metro's transit-oriented development program.

Metro paid attention because it cares abut how land near light-rail stations is used. It wants to cut traffic and pollution and contain urban sprawl by promoting urbanized regional centers served by public transit.

The economic downturn of 2001 made the investors nervous - and prompted Metro, the regional government, to make a deal, Whitmore said. Metro bough the land for $700,000 and "optioned it back to Mike to develop" using Metro's specifications.

"It took a lot longer than any of us thought," Whitmore said. "There were a lot of cost issues we had to get around."

"What Metro had in mind was unusually expensive for Gresham, where low land costs have given developers little reason to invest in multistory buildings with elevators and underground parking. Gresham rents generally aren't high enough for a developer to pay for such pricey features, Whitmore said.

So Metro, the developers, the city and the architects started looking for ways to finance the building or cut its costs. Metro absorbed the cost of the land. Rossman and fellow developer Ron Blank of Peak Development won a 10-year property-tax exemption for the buildings, worth about $355,000 o the city of Gresham and $436,000 to Multnomah County. They also looked to a state development fund for a grant.

Those moves attracted critics. Some argued that tax breaks would be better targeted toward poor neighborhoods than at the heart of the successful Gresham Station center, where landlords get some of the highest rents in the city,

One critic of the transit-oriented development, John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute, said if developers aren't willing to risk their own money on a project, taxpayers shouldn't be forced to make up the difference.

Supporters argue that promoting high-quality projects ultimately helps governments by raising property values and improving the quality of life.

Even with the subsidies, the project was still expensive, and the costs of steel and concrete keep rising, Whitmore said. Features were redesigned to prune costs. The building was narrowed by five feet. Designers erased a pedestrian passageway so the space could be rented by retailers.

Rossman also ended up forgoing fess as a contractor or a developer, Whitmore said. At this point, "what he's looking for is a long-term asset appreciation" of the building, Whitmore said.

The result will be a five-story mixed-use project. At 68 feet tall and close to nearby bridges, it is intended to create what planners call a "street room" that attracts pedestrians and makes them feel comfortable.

The bottom part of the building includes slabs of concrete that had to be shaped to match the grade of Civic Drive. Although concrete is relatively expensive, it is strong and wears well over time, Laramee said. However, because of cost constraints, the upper floors are built of wood.

The façade resembles a series of individually designed buildings. It undulates along its 320-foot length, "by no means an easy task, cost- or constructionwise," Laramee said. "It takes more money to put corners on things."

On the ground, there is space for 10 retailers, with two large anchors on either end. Ryan Lowe and Tony Mullins have agreed to put their second Cup-A-Cino's coffee shop in the building, although the rent is about $4 a square foot more than their first location near Mt. Hood Community College.

"The combination of everybody working, living and shopping in that area... we realized there was a Starbucks on the corner, but we feel there's plenty of demand," Lowe said. The space "kind of offered the more community, neighborhood, independent coffee shop feel."

Above are four floors with 81 apartments, ranging from small studios of about 450 square feet of two-bedroom units of about 900 to 1,000 square feet. They have decks, and some have "amazing" Mount Hood views, Laramee said.

The smallest apartments will rent for about $495 a month; the two bedrooms will rent for about $895 to $925, Whitmore said. A similar two-bedroom in the Pearl District could fetch $1,400 to $1,600, he said.

The renters will likely be "empty nesters, single professionals, the same kind of MO that the Pearl District is doing," Laramee said. "It's a gamble... (but) it's these kind projects that change the paradigm and make the area desirable for people to live there."

Metro's plans don't end there. It controls two other corners at the intersection of Civic Drive and the light-rail line. The 4.38 acres on the southwest corner will probably support a similar mixed-use building, possibly including condominiums, Whitmore said.

The northwest corner should include a public plaza and light-rail station. Metro is seeking additional federal money for the station, which Whitmore hopes will be open by 2007. Metro also hopes to attract a major cinema, housing and retail to the area.

Ultimately, the project "will show Gresham is ahead of most of the rest of the region in terms of understanding what constitutes an urban center," Whitmore said.