Home Firm Profile People Services Portfolio Awards News Careers Contact

MGA News

Creatively Speaking, Bigger Isn't Always Better

Daily Journal of Commerce

September 1st 2005

As the Pearl District and South Waterfront have transformed briskly in recent years from underutilized industrial enclaves into coveted markets for high-density residential development in Portland, it's easy to overlook the fact that change has also come to neighborhoods already established in the city.

Mixed-use housing projects east of the Willamette River and west of the West Hills are generally smaller than ones nearer the central city. But more and more, developers are finding these projects "pencil out" (bringing prices that justify construction and land costs) in neighborhoods more removed from downtown. And perhaps because the stakes are just a little lower, the denominator not quite so common, these projects also are bringing opportunity for talented smaller design firms.

Take the Belmont Lofts in Southeast Portland, probably the most-admired recent building in the city since opening last year. A modern twist on classic Northwest modernism with crisscrossing wood patterns giving the building's simple-yet-sophisticated architectural form a warm golden hue, the building makes an ideal calling card for Holst Architecture and principal John Holmes. Belmont Lofts' developer Randy Rapaport is planning another Holst-designed gem on Southeast Division called The Clinton. If early renderings are any indication, it will be a multicolored glass jewel.

In the Lair Hill neighborhood, construction is completing on The Lair, a small (13 units) but significant multifamily housing project given that its architect is Rick Potestio. A sole practitioner (although the scuttlebutt is that may be changing), Potestio has won several design awards for single-family homes over the years, and the move to larger projects is a boon not just for Potestio but for the city's overall design outlook. Potestio is unquestionably among the handful of most talented architects in Portland.

Even Beaverton is getting into the act. Myhre Group Architects, co-designer of the striking Mosaic Condominiums in downtown Portland's West End, has designed a high-density condo to be nestled in the Tek Woods near the Nike campus. With highways and roads in the suburbs unable to keep up with increasing traffic and no traditional street grid onto which the cars can spill from the gridlocked arterials, suburban high-density housing along the MAX light-rail line and at other key clusters envisioned by the Metro 2040 Plan is even more essential. Again, while renderings of unbuilt projects are no guarantee of quality, initial sketches of Myhre Group's project seem to promise an elegant, glass-ensconced alternative to cookie-cutter single-family homes in cul de sacs.

Whether it's for green buildings, sneakers or advertising, Portland is increasingly becoming known internationally as a city brimming with great designers. We have more of the coveted "creative class" per capita than virtually any other American city.

But when you've got a building budget of, say, $80 million, it's understandable to choose a more established architecture firm that has handled lots of comparably large-scale projects. It's not to say there are no talented architects working on large-scale buildings - far from it. But there remains a logjam of talented smaller firms here looking for commissions, such as Colab, Skylab and Emmons Architects. The fact that a new generation of developers are bringing mixed-use, high-density development to historic neighborhoods like Hawthorne, Beaumont-Wilshire and Alberta means there is a new avenue for these designers to prove their mettle.

And here's hoping that what we've seen so far is only the beginning. For every historic neighborhood like North Mississippi or Alberta that has revitalized with a mix of housing and retail, there are countless more whose reversals of fortune remain in their infancy: Interstate Avenue, Lents, Russell Street, Roseway. And for every massive condo tower a walk or short streetcar ride from Pioneer Courthouse Square, there are countless smaller housing projects up for grabs. This is where the most compelling architecture is poised to materialize.

Amid the historic craftsman bungalows, Tudor residences and Queene Anne homes, none rising more than two stories, taller contemporary buildings may sound like a strange fit to some. But wherever there are single-family homes, there are small retail pockets with restaurants and shops. These mixed-use housing projects mean there are customers living just a few feet above the retail. And they're not getting in cars to do their shopping - they're on foot, assuring a more sustainable urban environment.

What's more, the public's slowly increasing acceptance of modern design means we needn't patronize older buildings with faux-historic architecture. Any great city is a collection of buildings from many different eras. Our architectural legacy is likely to be comprised largely of housing, and it is in the neighborhoods where that legacy has the best chance to be a positive, enduring one.