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February Biz Influencer: Carrie Strickland
As principal at Works Progress Architects, Carrie Strickland is the 95 percent owner of a firm that is known for its intelligent and playful style in Portland (Doppleganger and bSIDE6) and now also in Los Angeles and Denver.
The firm has grown in the last three years. That includes the departure of cofounder Bill Neburka, about which she will not talk. Strickland has long worked with developers and has edged her firm into small development deals. In the process, she has built her network to include elected officials and executives of the architecture, design engineering and construction trades. Today, she is proud to helm a woman-owned firm with majority female staff. Strickland has been in Portland 16 years, but hails from Portsmouth, Ohio where her uncle Ted Strickland is a well-known former congressman and governor. Carrie Strickland has political ambitions of her own, although right now they are on hold while she runs W.PA.
Business Tribune: How is W.PA doing?
Carrie Strickland: In the last three years we've doubled in size, although we've probably slowed down in the last year. We've gone from 26 people to 40 people. We have a lot of work in Denver. We are working a master plan for a 14-acre parcel in RiNo (River North, the arts district). We're working on seven acres right now. We started with a 4,000-capacity rock-and-roll venue with the music distributors AEG, which was to be a model to take nationally. We designed a chassis and the front and back of house configurations change a bit from city to city. It's about $300 million of construction.
As we got to know the developer and their timeline, we built an awesome relationship and started taking on more and more, until we were in charge of everything.
The developer is Westfield — but not the international retail developer Westfield. They're similar to Beam Development, with the son taking over from the father, the younger generation coming up. They do a lot of private development, like us.
One of the biggest changes is that Bill (Neburka) is no longer with the firm. After 12 years of running the practice together Bill has stepped away to focus on other things, and I will continue my leadership of W.PA. It's a big step forward for me. We have a minority owner Jen Dzienis whom we made a five percent owner two years ago, and I am a 95 percent owner.
BT: Why did your architecture firm get into development — buying land and selling buildings?
CS: Personally, for me getting into development had a lot to do with long-range financial planning. Running a business for this period of time, I hadn't put away a great deal of money for savings or 401K, personally, so project development was a way to build some personal investment. Running a partnership business, it's hard to pull money out and say I'm going to put this in a 401k, because I'd rather put it back into the business. It started that way, but also so much of my career experience is based in private development projects, and I've got to understand that world.
I've done projects where I'm the only one running their pro forma, the cost and income analysis on a project, to the point of helping them get bank financing. I know how the numbers work, so I realized if I built all this knowledge, I could do some smaller projects on my own.
I have built a strong network and background in development, it's a logical next step. But I'm only doing small projects, I don't want to compete with developers. The first was Blackbird townhouse at 57th and Burnside. We had to sell it to a developer prior to completion. And with 811 Stark, I am a 5 percent owner in the building.
On Killingsworth, we've taken on a minority ownership, we're investing some of our fee as equity, and that's probably how we'll continue to do it. It helps us earn equity and it helps them finance the project.
BT: Where are we in the Portland building boom?
CS: I think we're at the top of it, I definitely see it slowing down. Subcontractors are charging more than they typically would, and that's a sure sign it's getting frothy. I feel like it's crested. It's getting frothy, but it feels more like a correction than a bust.
When inclusionary zoning went into effect last February, it slowed people down, because unless you were planning for that (20 percent) affordable component, your project didn't work. And the new 2035 plan coming into effect in May will also have an effect I think. Everyone's reacting right now. Some areas are being decreased in density, some increased. It will take a pause on everybody's part, to see what the new ground rules are. But a good thing of everyone slowing down is prices will start to correct. This (IZ) went into effect so quickly the rules weren't clear at the beginning, so you had a lot of people scrambling and changing projects. A project takes three or four years. The big hiccup was you didn't know it was coming in advance.
BT: When it comes to influence, if you want to get policy changed who do you talk to?
CS: I'm pretty integrated politically in the city, and I know most of the city council members at some sort of personal level. The reason I have that relationship is been very active in policy making. I'm on committees with the city, zoning, AIA...For years I was chair of the development review advisory committee for the city. Any change came through that committee and I would present it to city council. I was on the Portland Plan Southeast quadrant advisory committee. I love being that integrated and active that way. If something comes up I usually go to head planners or city council members' chiefs of staff to get their feedback.
They listen, but I think it's because I've been so active in the community. There's a mutual respect, they know I am not just out there barking, it's usually something serious. I've been here 16 years but I immediately got involved in various committees... I spent three years of my life going to meetings about the Columbia River Crossing Bridge, on the design advice committee.
BT: On the CRC were you pro- or anti-bike lane? And would you be again.
CS: I was (pro). Yes, I think so.
BT: Would you recommend being a committee joiner to other people?
CS: Yes. I like to hear things firsthand and I like to be a part of the conversation. Not everyone has that need or drive. I always think if I wasn't running the architecture firm right now I'd definitely pursue politics in some way. I've thought about it, very seriously. Now that I'm almost solely running the practice, it would be completely unfeasible.
BT: When you stood up and chastised the judges at the AIA Awards ceremony in 2016, how did you feel?
CS: I was frustrated. The jury were cloaking their comments as positive, but they were saying they weren't going to give an honor award because (Portland's general architecture) work isn't up to par. I felt there needed to be a little more honesty and transparency in their process. I sit on juries all the time, I'm on at least two or three state or national ones all the time. I've been on juries where we've not given honor awards, but a big part of it is being able to explain constructively. It was all flowers and lollipops and then, 'Oh, by the way, no honor award.' They didn't give it and they didn't acknowledge it. That's why I stood up and said we deserve an explanation.
BT: Were you scared? No one ever says anything bad at award events.
CS: No. That's a big part of who I am anyway. I think if there was one person in the room that night that someone was expecting to stand up and say something, it was me.
BT: Does Portland have buildings worthy of honor?
CS: There's so much being built right now. I believe strongly in the fact that we should have fabric buildings or background buildings, that are just about providing quality space to occupy and not necessarily making an architectural statement, just average-looking apartments. It doesn't stop me being disappointed every time I see something like that go up. But if everything is special nothing is special, you need fabric buildings, you need background buildings. I don't do a lot of them, but we do some stuff with fairly modest approaches. Until the 2035 Plan comes in, you really don't have to go through design review for anything outside of 12th Avenue on the east side. Hopefully it will raise the bar a bit, they'll have to be more carefully considered.
BT: Who are some smaller Portland firms doing good work?
CS: Obviously Ben Waechter. And Brian Cavanaugh with Architecture Building Culture, also a good friend. Very thoughtful.
BT: What does a building boom do for architecture?
CS: It creates new firms. And what happens is, in the bust, a lot of them go away. In a time where everyone is so busy, anyone can get work so long as they're truly not f—-ig everything up. But when it slows they aren't able to sustain themselves because they don't have the background or relationships to get through the hard times.
Prior to launching this firm, I had three solid years working with developers and building relationships, and I was connected to the city. I was already coming to the table with ideas for working on a narrow margin, when people had to start trimming budgets I was able to stay above water. In the worst days I was down to nine people, eight architects and one admin person.
BT: Has the way you or other women are treated in a group changed over the last year?
CS: A lot has changed. Now we are 100 percent women owned, with a majority women staff. There's been huge empowerment and pride around that, which is really rare in our field. I've been talking to people about how to change how we all behave. (Laughs).
Architecture has been a good-old-boys club, and you're interacting with developers and contractors, so to be able to walk into a room and have respect...I can walk on to a job site, and it's not like comments don't get made. But I can deal with them. I have my tricks. I don't take any sh—. My tactic is I will match any feedback with an equal and opposite reaction. Some people assume the bully tactic will work.
Architect magazine likened me to a left-handed boxer, that keeps people on their toes. I'm smiley and nice but I can curse like a sailor. I don't have any clients now who treat me differently. I've gotten past all that stuff. I had two clients during the transition say I don't even know the name of your company, I just want to work with you.
BT: Have things changed in the last year?
CS: The big thing I've seen is I have had more women talk to me about issues they're having, Prior to this year I think a lot of people were internalizing issues because they didn't know it was OK to address them, and that's now different. Even within my staff, I can go back to a client, contractor or fellow employee and address it in a way that people we're talking about before. Everyone was assuming this was something you had to endure, and it's not.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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