Depending on your point of view, the Goat Blocks in Southeast Portland could be called a thoughtful act of urban placemaking that breaks down a superblock into digestible pedestrian-scaled pieces that fit the neighborhood.
Or it's an exercise in architectural mediocrity where changing facade materials can only partially disguise the development's massiveness.
Rather than one or the other, I see all of the above.
There's a lot to like about the Goat Blocks, which was designed by Ankrom Moisan for Vancouver, Washington developer Killian Pacific. But the successes are in scale and mixed-use density more than its architectural style or, for that matter, the name.
The old cliche about suburban subdivisions is that they're named after the natural settings they destroy. (Either that, or the builder's daughter's first name.) My childhood home in McMinnville, for example, sits beside the Tall Oaks and Bethany Pointe developments. Similarly, the name Goat Blocks refers to goat herd that once roamed the grass-covered parcel (and thereby cut it, one bite at a time) at 11th and Belmont for a few years starting in 2012, following a fire that destroyed the produce warehouse and Italian restaurant long occupying the site. Intended to express authenticity through neighborly homage, the name somehow does the opposite.
At least it's not called the Brielle Blocks or Adalynn Apartments.
Walking the site, I appreciated most how the 460,000 square feet of this superblock never felt gigantic. Instead of one big building constructed as tall as possible and to the edge of the property line, overwhelming the adjacent Buckman neighborhood's single-family homes, the property is comprised of four separate buildings at different heights and with a pedestrian thruway down the middle.
The Goat Blocks also bring a sizable new grocery store (Market of Choice) to the neighborhood as well as a massive hardware and home improvement store (Orchard Supply, owned by national chain Lowe's) without using any surface parking lots. All the stalls are underground, and 347 apartments are perched on top. In that sense, it's well done.
Yet these four buildings are essentially aping what doesn't exist there but is in evidence everywhere else in the neighborhood: the architectural variety of smaller individual structures by different architects and developers.
The Goat Blocks may be a group of individual buildings, but because all come from the same developer and architect, it still feels like one large collective development, like you'd build on a blank canvass of suburban land. The materials change a little bit from building to building, but only slightly, like variations on the same couple pages of a materials catalog: creamy brick, brown brick, green brick, white metal, red metal, green metal. To really make this feel authentically like a neighborhood, four different architects would have had to be hired (if not four developers dividing up the parcel).
As Portland continues to grow, with more construction cranes in the air today than even New York City (which is more than 13 times larger), but within the constraints of an urban growth boundary, the Goat Blocks can serve as a model of smart development: mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, and mindful of the shadows cast over its neighbors.
In other words, I'll take middling architectural style when the placemaking is done right.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com