Pearls of Wisdom

Eight Portland State University graduate students spent their winter term developing a proposal for two large buildings that would serve as an iconic entrance to the Pearl District.

Eight Portland State University graduate students spent their winter term developing a proposal for two large buildings that would serve as an iconic entrance to the Pearl District. While the recession has cancelled any large-scale construction, the plan does showcase the values of the next generation of architects in our city and developers’ visions for the future of Portland. It does, however, have a downside, with proposals for big-box chain stores to set up shop in the Pearl.

Students Tom Heinicke, Mike Shall, Jon Winslow, Jared Hendricks, William Their, Atha Mansoory, Brad Johnson and Ben Gates have created plans for two large mixed-use buildings located on West Burnside and Northwest Davis. The buildings currently in the area, which house Everyday Music and Storables, would be razed. The students, who worked with members of the Oregon chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, created their proposal for local Harsch Investment Properties.

The proposed buildings are a stone soup of sorts, containing a boutique hotel, workforce housing, office space, an art museum, and national chain stores like Best Buy, Apple, and Crate and Barrel. One of the buildings would be 23 stories high, creating an imposing boundary between Southwest Portland and the Pearl District.

I want to stress the importance of this wonderful program for young architects. They not only get to show their class work and get that “real world experience,” but in a real sense, this is their opportunity to get their names out to developers and designing firms. Their proposal, which occurred earlier this month, was delivered in front of key members of Harsch Investment Properties including President Jordan Schnitzer. With public feedback after coverage by the Daily Journal of Commerce and The Oregonian, the students will also deal with the importance of their work for actual Portland residents, rather than a closed room of professors.

The largely glass buildings match the monolithic Indigo Twelve West mixed-use building across the street from the proposed site. Hopefully, the students’ workforce housing won’t mean traditional downtown prices. A studio apartment at the Indigo, for example, is about $1,200 for a mere 600 square feet. I’ll bet the view is insane. Sadly, if the proposed building were to go up, most of their residents’ views would be of the cold, reflective Indigo.

The small 175-room hotel is great for tourists who come to Portland to shop. The Pearl has become a purpose-built retail location where 75 percent of shops are local, and that number is only growing. Large chain stores like Adidas, Puma and most recently, Eddie Bauer, have packed up and left, leaving more vacancies for local retailers.

This is why I can’t understand the need for Best Buys and H&Ms in the area. For the Pearl District to truly become a gem, we need to invest in our unique local artists. Bloated leases and high prices have created the high-class mystique that developers envisioned for the Pearl. I call it a stigma.

The recession hit Portland hard. It’s no longer fashionable to flaunt your Anthropologie bags or be seen at P.F. Chang’s. Young Portlanders have quickly learned that substance is much cooler than price. GenCubed, a Portland firm that researches 18- to 30-year olds, told The Oregonian that “a lot of people don’t feel comfortable down there. I’ll hope we’ll see more of the eclectic things that Portland is known for crossed with its hoity-toity.”

We put a high value on authenticity in Portland. The success of local retailers over chains in the Pearl is a testament to that. Perhaps this recession will bring leasing prices back down to earth so future developments won’t need to rely on the deceptive stability of large retailers.

The true pearl in the students’ proposal is the contemporary art museum. Jordan Schnitzer, son of Portland art booster and donor Arlene Schnitzer, has quite a collection of his own. The Harsch Investment Properties president owns more than 5,000 prints, including Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Schnitzer has expressed that it is a public collection he wants to share with the Northwest. The PSU students were visionary in this regard. Even if the proposal was just an exercise, perhaps we’re one step closer to a permanent home for Schnitzer’s collection.

The recession has changed the attitude of Portland residents. The way we spend our money puts a high premium on value over name brands. The same goes for housing. A great shift has occurred and developers and leasing firms will have to shift, too.