Members of The Lynd Company, the latest real estate development company to take on Centennial Mills, were in town last week to meet the locals.
Two representatives of the San Antonio, Texas-based firm gathered in front of a public audience in the meeting room of Prosper Portland in Old Town, accompanied by representatives from the architects and law firm attached to the project.
Will Thier of Prosper Portland, who has been the project manager on Centennial Mills for four years, explained that the agency solicited buyers last fall and after meeting with five chose the Lynd Company in April. It's not a done deal yet, but both sides expect a sale to go through this summer. The last deal, with Jordan Schnitzer, fell apart in 2014 over how much the city was expected to contribute.
Selective demolition of Centennial Mills began in 2015, so that now the main flour mill with the water tower on its roof stands out among the remaining bland structures. The Crescent Electric building sits to the north and could be included in the sale.
The stakeholder committee includes the PDNA, ZGF Architects, Restore Oregon, Waterfront Pearl HOA and the Native American Family Center.
This is Lynd's first time in the Portland market. As well as managing apartments they have built luxury condos in big cities such as Miami and Chicago. The final mix will probably be condos, market rate and affordable apartments. There could also be retail, senior living and affordable housing. They won't know until the master plan is done.
"They are very interested and want to be here," said Thier.
Thier said there will be five opportunities for public input. After the purchasing agreement is signed this summer, from 2018-2019 there will be coordination with DEQ to clean the site. Since Centennial Mills has been on the market for 15 years, it has been cleaned before, so he estimates that will not be a large time or money expense. They hope to break ground in 2020.
Judging by their questions the public were very curious about what is going to be built. There were inevitable questions about tall buildings blocking the view of the river and the eastern skyline. The architect and developer punted that question, saying they wouldn't know the massing of any new building until the after the masterplan is compete in four months.
"We're really interested in listening more than talking," Scott Brymer, Executive VP at Lynd, told the crowd by way of introduction.
The architect firm SERA will first work on a masterplan, determining things like access roads and the number and heights of the building. Each building then will have to go through a design review but only for lesser issues like finishes, and progress will be smoother. SERA will have design options and renderings ready later this year that meet the criteria of the framework plan (see sidebar), and the public can weigh in at a series of open houses.
"We'll check in every month and get your feedback," said Kurt Schultz, a principal at SERA Architects. "We're trying to get that hard design work out of the way in the first 10 months before we start with the phasing."
"We came to Portland and fell in the love with the city. We're going to make a bet on the city and this community," said Brymer. Portland has "enormous challenges with how constrained the city is," and where workforce housing can go. "We truly don't want to get into anything controversial about the site or do anything that makes us unwelcome. That's why we're doing the master plan."
Locals can be forgiven for being skeptical of seeing anything built. In 2000, the Portland Development Commission, as Prosper Portland was then known, bought the site from ADM for $7.7 Million. They spent more than $20 million in demo and clean up. On two different occasions the city was close to a development deal then balked, with LAB Holdings and Schnitzer's Harsch Investment Properties.
The terms of any deal with Lynd will not be released until the next Prosper Portland board meeting, later this summer.
Local architecture critic Randy Gragg asked if the new buildings would be exceptional.
"We've seen a period of extremely bland, generic development in Portland over the current boom. Could you single out a couple of developments you think represent the most responsive development you've done, that really responded to what was there?"
Brymer replied that they have not developed a seven-acre tract in any big city. The Centennial Mills site is a rare find, to be so large and so close to a downtown. He said this meeting would tell them a lot about how to design for this market.
He then cited a high-rise Lynd developed in 2008 in Chicago called EnV, on about half an acre. "It brought design standards to the units, it was different from what the market was offering, and brought a fresh. It won High Rise of the Year from an industry group." Lynd sold it with the highest price per unit in the history of Chicago.
"We pay attention to demographics, who the users are, what the personality of the city is...We'll take the river into consideration. I don't know if that answers it, but we've been successful in every market we've been in because we pay attention to what the customer wants."
Horses for courses
One resident asked about freight train traffic delays, and if the city was going to address it with perhaps a bridge?
Schultz of SERA said the idea of a bridge came up in the preconference with Portland Bureau of Transportation and said it would be part of the master planning process. Paying for a pedestrian bridge over the train tracks might be beyond the developer, but perhaps the Local Improvement District (public funds) could cover it. There will also be a restriping of the road as part of the LID, and the master plan calls for multi modal transportation planning.
Peggy Moretti of Restore
Oregon, which works for historic preservation, said she hoped success would not be measured in just profit, and that "telling the story of this very historic site, which has been mismanaged," was important. "We haven't seen great new development that reflects the culture of Portland this far. The community is hungry for something," she said, adding that "a little bit of signage on the open space wouldn't cut it."
She then suggested she had an historic carousel which would fit in with the horse theme of the former Mounted Police Unit paddock.
An audience member asked what would happen if there was a downturn and there was an excess of condos again.
Brymer said that was hard to predict, but if it happened, "We would wait for the time to build. We'd wait for the next cycle."
Jeramie Shane, a principal at the landscape architect Mayer/Reed, said he was confident they could do good work along the waterfront, as they had on the Vera Katz Eastbank Promenade. They are also helping Snöhetta design the Willamette Falls riverfront in Oregon City.
"Our main goal is to measure twice and cut once," said Scott jumping in. "That's our plan. We've seen some incredible things done on waterfronts, and we look for inspiration for that kind of thing all over the United States."
All about the water tower
Another audience member asked if the iconic water tower would be retained in the final design.
"The framework plan does not say the buildings have to be preserved," said Schultz. However, the water tower is often cited as an example of the type of historical detail that should remain.
Schultz said if the flour mill can be saved it will have an addition to it. "It's very small, it's tiny. It could be condos or retail or office...We don't know." The other new buildings on site will be a mix of sizes. The maximum height they can build to on the river's edge is 250 feet, which is about 22 stories tall.
The architects will draw up options, then show them to the public and then the design review committee. The loudest voice will probably belong to the city though.
"The decision maker in the end is going to be the Portland design commission. (To get your voice heard) come to the open houses and when we have design advice convey it to the design commission."
Afterwards Jarrad Thierath of the Lynd Company told the Business Tribune they had fallen in love with the lifestyle in Portland, finding it similarly outdoorsy to Denver and Austin. Does the city want something that stands out or blends in?
"We wouldn't do anything ultramodern like in Miami, because that's not how Portland is. We try to get a really good feel for each market before we finish designing and break ground. As unique as possible but with a local flair."
This is their first historic property. Will they keep the flour mill?
"If not the mill then at least the water tower. We've been talking about a park and maybe we move the water tower down there, or maybe keep it there with a new sign. Either the mill or the water tower, or both. It's a toss-up."
Does Thierath know much about the previous failed attempts to develop the site?
"I don't, but Scott does. I know this is not their first rodeo. Prosper Portland stressed that to us."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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