When Prosper Portland began searching late last year for development teams to transform the 32-acre Pearl District site soon to be vacated by the US Postal Service, a bold and arguably outlandish proposal from architecture firm William Kaven stole all the headlines: a pair of 95-story buildings that soared far beyond what zoning allows. But from the three developers to emerge as finalists, it was not a surprise that Denver-based Continuum was recently chosen.
After all, Continuum has received nationwide accolades for redevelopment projects like the Denver Union Station District. In its presentation to Prosper Portland, the developer also spoke the right language, emphasizing sustainable design and construction practices, working with minority and women-owned businesses, and extensive community outreach.
Yet a successful redevelopment of the USPS site will not be defined solely by those progressive values or by questions of height. What this parcel needs is an additional type of diversity: one of multiple developers and architects contributing. It's a super-block that must be re-stitched into the urban fabric, which is ultimately a matter of breaking it down into smaller individual pieces. And the pieces don't become individual when conceived by a sole actor.
"Monocultures simply don't work," Continuum founder Mark Falcone said in his presentation at Prosper Portland's Broadway Corridor Development Forum in March. Those are encouraging words, but Falcone was referring in this case to how Continuum once transformed a moribund suburban shopping mall in Lakewood, Colorado into a thriving mixed-use district: by combining retail offerings with housing and commercial space. That kind of cultural and programmatic diversity will be important for the Broadway Corridor too, but equally significant will be giving a variety of design-and-development teams the opportunity to contribute.
Be it in city or suburb, the most antiseptic and inauthentic-feeling places are the gargantuan developments that pretend to be what they're not: a collection of smaller buildings and places created with different hands. RiverPlace may attract tourists with its location along Portland's downtown marina, for example, yet what local ever chooses to stroll there instead of a real neighborhood? You can tell it's a monoculture. No wonder it's often close to empty.
Every five or 10 years a big local land parcel comes along for redevelopment, often an industrial property transitioning to public mixed-use. It makes sense to hire an experienced developer that understands sustainable place-making to be the orchestrator. But transforming the USPS site into a vibrant future part of town won't come just from LEED ratings and saying the right things about inclusiveness. Like we've seen with the Burnside Bridgehead development across the river, successful neighborhoods are created by giving different teams the chance to tackle different buildings.
In other words, if Continuum and a single architect tackle this development alone, it will be just a horizontal version of Kaven's mega-tower proposal: something too monolithic to become an integrated part of the city, no matter how much the design appears to be several buildings instead of one. To succeed, Continuum must not just listen but share the job: not for the sake of equity but because that's how the best and most authentic urban spaces come together.
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
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