Peak Portland: The Carson
Slabtown in Northwest Portland has been a neighborhood waiting to happen for a long time. The giant surface parking lots around the Con-way freight company's headquarters have beckoned, with their access to the 405 freeway and their proximity to downtown and the Pearl District.
The neighborhood is on the edge of attaining a critical mass of all the key elements — coffee shops and chiropractors, gourmet pizza joints and brunch hotspots.
The Carson is the latest to emerge. Carson South is already 98 percent rented. It is linked by an underground parking lot to Carson North, just across Northwest Savier Street. Savier here is pedestrian-friendly because it doesn't lead anywhere, blocked at the east by chain link fences and a parking lot. There's a covered hangout area out front, a large sculptural name sign, and a spiral inscription set in the sidewalk praising the doughty "boot strapping wage workers" and "good honest folk", the loggers etcetera who once populated this part of town, on the edge of what is now Forest Park. The Carson name refers to the Carson Mill, a lumber mill in the park whose scraps of slab wood were stacked outside blue-collar homes for winter fuel.
It's unlikely anyone here will be wielding anything more blue-collar than a Timbers scarf or an Apple iPad pencil.
Venesia Monk, an associate portfolio manager at Prometheus Real Estate Group, which manages the building, and James Santana from the developer Cairn Pacific, showed the Business Tribune around the building recently.
There were the usual amenities: a sales office with free dog treats, coffee and wine; a gym with a glass front and back and one peloton bicycle; a pet washing station with dryers and free products; and a spacious lobby decked out in unfinished wood and Pendleton blanket pattern upholstery.
"The theme of the brand here is northwest outdoor adventure with a little bit of vintage flair," said Santana. "It ties with the relationship to Forest Park."
The mail room, as befits a 200-unit development expected to hold 400 people, is large, but there is a separate room full of yellow metal lockers. Branded with the word Hub and the Amazon smiling arrow, these are the same automatic lockers found outside convenience stores where Amazon customers can pick up their packages using a QR code or a PIN.
Amazon has a special relationship with Prometheus and the Carson, according to Monk, who says she loves Amazon and does all her grocery shopping via their two-hour Prime Now delivery service.
The contractors have turned over certain floors and the first tenants have been moving in since February. Twenty-three units have been leased so far according to Monk.
She demonstrates state-of-the-art features such as Latch, a keyless entry system. Every door can be opened with a fob or with a smart phone. It allows for a temporary six-digit code so people can enter the apartment during certain times, such as pet sitters or cleaners. There are gas stoves, Nest thermostats and light switches that connect to Alexa, the Amazon voice-activated assistant. In fact, every apartment will be supplied with an Amazon Echo speaker, if the tenant wants one, to play music and control the smart home features.
One other thing: they all get a free year's worth of Amazon Prime, worth $119, which makes using Amazon much easier. (They get a two-hour consultation with an Amazon expert to show them how to set it all up.)
Tom DiChiara, founding principal at Cairn Pacific, wanted the Carson to have variety. The north building is in three parts, the biggest of which is a 19-story tower. On the ninth floor there is a community room, which includes a "billiards room" (a pool table and some vintage logging photos). Outside there is covered seating, a patch of artificial turf and 270-degree views of Forest Park, downtown, and the industrial northwest.
As is common now, large monitors pop up in common spaces. When they are not used as TVs they are tuned to Active Building. This is an interface that shows who has packages, and makes announcements. "It's similar to Facebook," says Monk. "We called it Hub until Amazon branded their Hub, so we had to go back to Active Building. It's very common in property management, and very user friendly."
Surveying the blocks below, Santana points out some of the developments Cairn Pacific has been involved in. There's the Leland James office building that they renovated into a wood-lined, open plan hub of activity with Capstone Realty and SERA Architects.
There's the Breakside and LL Hawkins block where Besaw's is, which used to be surface parking. That block, with New Seasons, was the first to bring life to what was a series of empty lots and windowless warehouses.
Right now, there's a crane where they are building Raleigh Slabtown, which is 174 residential units between Northwest 22nd and 23rd avenues. It's hard to remember it was ever there now, but it's the site of the old George Morlan Plumbing Supply. Raleigh Slabtown should open in August 2020.
Cruzan and Invesco have partnered on renovating Con-way's old AdTech 1 office building. And Cairn Pacific is building 350 more apartments with Prometheus (SERA again) called Saltwood 1 and 2.
Neither Portland's inclusionary zoning nor the state's new rent control laws will affect these Slabtown buildings directly. The Con-way Master Plan sketches out 1,200 units of housing, 400,000 square feet of office and 80,000 square feet of retail space. The plan is set to sunset in 2022. Buildings of a certain size built here after 2022 will have to conform to inclusionary zoning and contain 20 percent affordable housing. But the tenor of the neighborhood is set: it's more Salt & Straw than Joe's Cellar. (The quarter block beneath former bar-cum-greasy diner Joe's Cellar was recently sold.)
According to Santana, the Slabtown project will be completely built out in two or three years.
As they build apartments they are adding underground parking for residents, but also for office workers whose spots have been displaced.
However, office workers are still going to head into the neighborhood to work.
XPO Logistics paid $3 billion for Con-way in 2015. It laid off 101 of 872 local employees it said were in duplicative positions. The firm also said it was committing to the Portland office as a center for "resources for technology, accounting, human resources and other vital functions."
"Parking is getting tough, that's why it's important to us to build parking," Santana says. "And it's important for our retail tenants. If cars park all day long on the streets, you don't have people coming in to the restaurants, and the retail suffers. You have to provide parking, even though it's expensive. There's a ripple effect that's important for the whole development."
To lighten traffic, they are lowering the grade of Northwest 20th where it passes under the I-405 ramp. This is so traffic coming off the Fremont bridge and freeway can turn right instead of left, go behind the Ducati store and enter the neighborhood with less congestion
People are moving in.
At the Carson North, currently a 398 square-foot studio rents for between $1,267 and $1,337. Basic 524 square-foot one-bedrooms are $1,562 to $1,622. A 780 square-foot two-bed, one-bath ranges from $2,089 to $2,249 and the most expensive apartment according to the web site is $7,044, although it is not clear how big it is.
Rents are high, but will they stay high? Even the experts don't know.
Kim Minasian Sparks and Melissa Lunden make up Team Arrive at Urban Nest Realty. Minasian Sparks has been selling homes for 13 years and six years ago added rental brokering services "Because it was not uncommon to see renters lining up to view an apartment." Clients wanted boots on the ground.
"We're now seeing a surplus of studio and one-bedroom apartments that are 400 to 600 square feet. There are just too many of them. They are very similar in layout, finishes and amenities. Features such as stainless steel appliances and in-unit washer/dryers are now common in new construction offerings."
They started noticing 12 to 18 months ago that management companies were offering incentives due to the increase in inventory and competition.
"It appears that the runaway rental increases have been curbed over the past few years. There is still high demand and low inventory for single family homes. The rental market rate is still affected seasonally with an increase in rents in the late spring/early summer. For multi-family options, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment continues to increase. The new construction options have created enough inventory to help the rents for the older units plateau."
The typical call that Team Arrive gets is from an out-of-stater who wants what she calls the Portlandia experience: "a walkable neighborhood with the coffee shop on the corner, good restaurants, public transportation and outdoor space close by.
"Renters need help navigating a new city and the Portland rental market. Most of our clients don't set foot in their new rental home until the day they arrive in Portland."
Team Arrive will do video walk throughs by phone. Potential clients complete a questionnaire and a thorough phone interview to clarify their needs. "People who have not rented in years are surprised what information they have to provide."
Single-family homes and duplexes are always in high demand. The new apartment buildings have created more inventory for studio and one-bedroom apartments but they haven't addressed the needs of renters looking for a single-family homes and midfall options.
Slabtown with its mix of new, tall buildings and hundred-year-old apartments is fairly typical of Portland right now.
"Finding an apartment below $1,000 is still a real challenge. The building of newer and larger buildings has had some negative effects on existing smaller buildings. Their height and proximity effects the natural light and feel of the neighborhood's existing housing."
Who would live in the Carson?
Anna Sambsom loves it.
It took a while though. She and her husband moved from their home in El Salvador to Houston, Texas when he got recruited to work at Enron, the energy company that went down in a financial scandal.
Fourteen months ago, his latest job took him to Portland to work in IT at Thompson Reuters. They had a sight-unseen rental in Lake Oswego which they found unlivable, so they moved to Q21 at Quimby and Northwest 21st Avenue, two blocks from the Carson North.
Before they moved 2017's Hurricane Harvey hit and all their possessions, in a trailer, were soaked. They didn't know until the trailer was delivered to Portland, two months later, and they opened it to find everything irretrievably moldy. It had been parked on low ground outside their home in the gated community of Stonegate. They lost $30,000 worth of possessions with no compensation.
Q21 seemed fine at first but she discovered it was a party building, with lots of groups showing up just for short term rentals, for a wedding or a weekend.
"We found it online. The tenants are nice but the bad thing is the management. They didn't tell us it's a B'n'B."
One time some people were throwing watermelons they stole from New Seasons off the third floor into the street. It's people having fun - it's nothing bad but it's nothing good. What if you're walking by? A water melon!"
She found the building messy as well as noisy and said the management didn't seem to care. They watched the Carson being built and jumped at the chance to move.
Now she's content, walking her beagle Baxter through Forest Park and cooking a lot. She even cooks for the staff at New Seasons.
"We came here to be healthy, to ride bikes and walk."
She tried riding an electric bike but fell off and returned it. One of her sons has moved in with them, and drives one of their two cars.
"I am happy here. I don't care about my loss, I have love here, everywhere I go."
The Carson Apartments
2121 NW Savier St.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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