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Mike Thelin on how urban design and food come together in Portland



TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Mike Thelin of Feast annd now Pine Street Market

A look at any of Portland’s most vibrant neighborhoods will show that food has been central to their success. In fact, food-based businesses most often are first at the table when it comes to neighborhood development and revitalization, according to Mike Thelin.

Thelin, co-founder of Feast Portland, said there are striking similarities between the design community and the food community, and the creativity involved in both stems from the same inspiration. He noted that food has played an essential role in Portland’s reputation and has directly impacted its built environment.

“You can track the development of neighborhoods around certain gathering places where people came together over food,” he said. “It’s usually the food operators, the bar operators, and the cool coffee shops and cafes that are the first to the table. And if there is a good restaurant, people will want to live near it and work near it.”

Likening Portland’s food-and-design dynamic to that in Brooklyn, New York, Thelin pointed to Genoa as an early driver in the Belmont neighborhood and the more recent influence of food carts in downtown Portland and multicultural cuisine on Northeast Alberta Street. Each created a unique environment that attracted other retail and commercial businesses and increased property values for homeowners.

Clarklewis Restaurant is among the pioneers that put Portland’s Central Eastside on the map, paving the way for a thriving district that merges an industrial and manufacturing history with newer tech startups and creative companies, he added.

With Pok Pok, Lauro Kitchen and Salt & Straw Ice Cream, among other big names, Southeast Division Street is yet another example of the synergistic relationship between food, design and economic success.

“This is a street that was kind of sleepy, sleepy for inner southeast Portland, and now you have five or six of the best restaurants in the city within a three or four-block stretch,” he said.

Thelin also serves as culinary curator for the Pine Street Market, a new food hall and marketplace in the historic Skidmore/Old Town Historic District. The building features an open floor plan with communal seating surrounded by nine restaurants. Mercy Corps, the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine and the University of Oregon Portland campus initiated the investment boom in the district, which also houses Puppet Labs and Airbnb.

“What’s exciting about that project for us was the chance to work with the developer and design team and put food at the center of the neighborhood,” Thelin said.

While Portland’s food culture is often compared to that in Europe, he noted that Europe’s food culture is more established but is also less dynamic. Americans traveling to Europe 20 years ago found unique foods that were not available in the U.S. Contemporary culinary offerings stateside show a different picture, however.

“Even Portland, which is not as diverse as other cities, is more diverse than a lot of European cities,” he said. “We have a lot of international options, and that has added to our vocabulary about food.”

Thelin noted that the nation, and particularly Portland, has rediscovered itself in terms of how food culture and design culture intersect. He will speak about this topic in a presentation titled “How does food shape place? The Renaissance that Remade Portland and America” April 15 during Design Week Portland’s Main Stage event.

Between 2002 and 2012, food economy employment grew by nearly one-third in Portland, outpacing non-food employment growth for the city by nearly double. Almost 40,000 food economy jobs in Portland accounted for just over 10 percent of all employment, according to an August 2015 report by Portland State University for the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Mike Thelin's Pine Street Market, the gourmet food court, could revive Old Town.

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