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Urban Design vs. Architecture

Daily Journal of Commerce

April 9th 2013

Bob Boileau has gotten used to average Portlanders approaching him for advice on what they should keep an eye out for when developers propose projects in their neighborhoods. Boileau, an architect who also has a background in planning, always gives the same answer.

He tells them to disregard the color of the paint on the building, and forget about dickering over building heights, numbers of units and floor-to-area ratios.

"I know the focus has been on height and massing, but that was all determined long ago by another means. That's not the battle you want to fight," said Boileau, a principal with Myhre Group Architects. "The battle you want to fight is the ground floor. The battle - and the war - is having walkable ground-floor space."

He offered as an example the Prescott Apartments. One look at renderings for the Prescott Apartments - a full-block, mixed-use project under construction in Northeast Portland - shows what the end result can be when a project starts with a focus on planning and urban design rather than straight architecture.

On its highest side, which runs along Interstate Avenue, the Prescott boasts six floors. While the top five floors are dedicated to apartment units, the ground floor promises plenty of retail space with lots of glass to encourage window browsing at a leisurely pace.

"You may never walk into this building, but you're always going to walk by it," said Boileau, who serves as Myhre Group's partner in charge of the project. "You should be vigilant on the ground-floor plan; you should find out what you really want there because that is what you're going to be seeing."

Boileau is quick to point out, however, that it's equally important for people to realize that what works on one side of a mixed-use building may not work on another. While opposites may attract for human relationships, they aren't always the best fit between buildings facing each other in a neighborhood. That's why the Prescott features ground-floor residential units on the side of the building that faces other residential structures.

"You want to have 'likes' across from each other - mirror images of the same use," Boileau said.

While the Prescott now is rising as a seamless transition point for the neighborhood, things haven't always gone smoothly for the project. Shortly after Woodland, Wash.-based Prescott Partners purchased the lot on the corner of North Interstate Avenue and Skidmore Street in 2008, the economy took a tumble and money for the project dried up.

Late last year, with a fresh round of money in hand, Prescott Partners decided to restart the project. The building that began to rise under the guidance of Sierra Construction Co. as general contractor looked a little different from its original incarnation, at least on the inside.

"We had to change the unit types; we made a change in the mix," Boileau said.

On the outside, however, the way the project fit into the existing neighborhood has remained largely the same, down to the south-facing courtyard and the 111 below-grade parking stalls.

"Architecture is what you find once you walk in the door," Boileau said. "Urban design is everything surrounding the side. We did know we had a great urban design solution, and that didn't change."