Rethinking Centennial Mills
In the 61 years since voters first approved formation of the Portland Development Commission (today known as Prosper Portland), perhaps no city redevelopment effort has been a more epic disaster than Centennial Mills.
The recent news that Prosper Portland's latest agreement with a private developer to redo the site has fallen through — the third time this has happened — makes it painfully obvious that something needs to change. The agency swears they'll get it right this time, as they shake hands on a new deal. But clearly, it's time to re-think the entire approach.
This is one of the most historic sites in the entire city, where millions of acres of Oregon wheat were milled and sent to market for more than a century — a bigger contributor to our economy than even timber. But since Prosper Portland took ownership a couple decades ago, thanks to their delinquent stewardship there has been more deterioration than in the previous hundred years — so much so that most of these priceless architectural artifacts have already been demolished.
Then there's the succession of developer deals the agency has bungled over the past decade. Be it California's Lab Holding, Portland's Harsch Investment Properties or San Antonio's Lynd Opportunity Partners, each ultimately failed to move forward with Prosper Portland as a partner.
Why have these deals disintegrated? I think it's because the agency has tried to shoehorn too much new construction here and worried too much about parking: eyeing the profitability of the land over public good. Prosper Portland doesn't get as much tax revenue from urban renewal as it once did, and so the agency has begun to desperately think about returns on investment and parking revenue like a private developer — effectively abandoning its role as the public's development steward.
What should we do instead at Centennial Mills? It's easy: let the remaining mill building be a ruin instead of retrofitting away all its patina and character. Demolish the former horse paddock owned by the Portland Police Bureau that long served as a barrier to the site's redevelopment and make the land surrounding the mill become a park.
There are already numerous precedents in other cities where a former industrial site has been turned into greenspace, with the relics becoming the attraction, almost like public art. There's Gas Works Park in Seattle, 19 waterfront acres including the ruins of a gasification plant. In Toronto there's Sugar Beach, another reclaimed industrial area.
Admittedly, the Pearl District is an affluent neighborhood that already has park space — something many outer neighborhoods with poorer populations lack. Yet a riverfront park at the Centennial Mills site would serve us all, acting as an extension of Tom McCall Waterfront Park a mile to the south and serving residents of North and Northeast Portland just across the Broadway Bridge.
In preservation circles, there's a term known as demolition by neglect: when an owner eventually demolishes a building after allowing such deterioration that the wrecking ball is inevitable. We are nearing that moment with one of Oregon's most historically-significant sites. After these three strikes, we must save Centennial Mills not just from the ravages of time, but from its supposed caretakers.
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