Affordable college, affordable housing
How do low-income Portlanders get off of welfare and into jobs? That's the question Portland Community College is trying to answer with its next project.
PCC's new two-story Portland Metropolitan Workforce Training Center will replace two old buildings — one a windowless former grocery store — on three acres at Northeast 42nd Avenue and Killingsworth Street. The new building will be made of mass timber — either plywood panels or cross-laminated timber — a material that is increasingly favored by architects, engineers, construction companies, and economic development professionals.
PCC's current Metro Center works with people receiving public assistance to attain skills for employment. The new building will continue to provide a hub to connect PCC to community members and employers who can seek career advice and job search help, and point them to college courses. The new workforce training center will also offer basics such as driver education and help with writing resumes, as well as providing offices for the Oregon Department of Human Services.
This effort to help people often underserved by higher education comes with a twist: affordable housing. For the first time, PCC is developing a 90-unit apartment building on the same site, managed by Home Forward.
There is no requirement for people in the housing to study at PCC, nor is there priority on getting an apartment given to PCC students. However, developers expect there will be a symbiosis, just by virtue of the buildings — and the people — being next door to each other.
Bora Architects are designing the new Metro Center and Hacker, the affordable housing. A shared plaza will link the buildings.
The project is currently in its schematic design phase and is slated to open in summer 2023, with affordable housing construction to begin in early 2023 and completion in spring 2024. The fact that this is paid for by PCC's 2017 bond measure means it is financially secure and very likely to be built, despite the Coronavirus Recession.
The Metro Center will be mostly office and community space, but it will also have areas for community partners offering services such as health care and counseling. These are the "wraparound services" that have become the new normal when dealing with underserved populations. The theory is that if someone is missing out on one service, such as childcare or free healthcare, that can hinder attempts to better themselves through services such as education or job training.
Rebecca Ocken is the project manager on the construction and part of PCC's Planning & Capital Construction team. She told the Business Tribune that PCC will build the new center while the two current buildings are still operating, then demolish the old buildings.
Although not a full PCC campus like Cascade or Willow Creek, the location is considered a good one, being on the east side and served by two, high-ridership bus lines.
"We're looking for ways to support student success, and that can mean helping them with housing, healthcare and food insecurity," said Ocken.
Many people being helped by DHS are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) so there may be a small place to buy food in the building.
PCC will not own or operate the affordable housing and won't have a say in its design. "If you have a stable home, then you have the bandwidth to improve your employment capabilities and stabilize you finances," Ocken said.
It has been a collaborative process so far. The teams have been working though Zoom and Microsoft Teams for video meetings, often with 35 to 40 faces on the screen. They are also using Miro, a virtual whiteboarding tool, for visual concepts. She says one much-used feature is the virtual sticky note.
PCC President Mark Mitsui is believed to have brought the idea with him from his last job as president of North Seattle College in Washington state, which has a similar opportunity center.
Currently the center is open only for DHS clients, but Ocken says they would like to eventually open it to the general public.
"This would be PCC's first time using CLT," said Ocken. "It's a sustainable product, and wood can enhance the building and make it a warm and welcoming space."
She said at this stage of design they are still investigating the material, as well as consulting people who would use the building. They are trying to figure out how they want the space to feel as well as what type of services should be on offer.
Jeff Slinger from Andersen Construction said his company is excited about the project because they believe in PCC's values.
"It's our town and this project is greatly needed. It's always nice when your job aligns with your personal values. We get up and go to work to make our community better. We're replacing two, old decrepit buildings. One is an old grocery store, and doesn't really have any windows. They're trying to help people on the road to success and they don't even have access to daylight."
He said the current buildings are the "exact opposite" of the mass timber buildings that are coming. "Instead of concrete and steel and fluorescent lighting which have a really institutional feel, mass timber is warm and inviting and has lots of natural light. The way people feel when they walk in this (Metro Center) building will be different."
Andersen will be trying to "stretch PCC's dollar as far as we can," Slinger said, by using the Target Value Design method. That is where the budget is weighted to the owner's core values. He compares it to shopping for a picnic. If wine and cheese is more important than the crackers or dessert, then you maybe spend most of your money on them.
He said it's better to set targets first, then draw later.
"We can draw the wrong building really quickly. We should take a pause and make sure we understand what they (the building's users) want."
Leaving the wood exposed is one of the signature pieces of the project.
"With mass timber you can be simple and let the structure make the statement. Unlike concrete and steel, where we try to cover up the structure."
He said Andersen is already working closely with Bora. Andersen has the expertise in working with panels that are made offsite then trucked in for quick assembly. The contractors give feedback to the design team and usually know more than them about things such as new joints for the timber beams and posts. Wood has certain rules and "it gets very expensive very quickly" if you go outside of them. It's best to use mass timber members that are simple and repeatable, like Legos. "Our goal is no sawdust," said Slinger.
The methodology should save the taxpayer some money.
"The old way was the architect draws and then I price, but you never knew the price until they were done drawing." Slinger said on this project they are working together from the start. "Put designers and builders together and you can get amazing buildings at a reasonable cost."
Pam Hester, regional director for PCC Workforce Development, understands the kind of services needed by people referred to them by the Department of Human Services.
"We'll collaborate closely with our on-site community partners to ensure people have all of the wraparound supports, resources, and encouragement they need to succeed," Hester told the Business Tribune,
There is a career center on site and a weekly employment marketplace, which is like an employer job search area.
The people they serve are often called TANF families, after Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which used to be known simply as welfare.
"They get a cash grants, like $500 a month, and that helps them to subsist in addition to their food SNAP benefits."
They might cross town by transit looking to get a help with a new career.
"We rely heavily on career specialists who coach folks. They also have a family coach from DHS and they're focused on more social service. Then we have career coaches or career specialists who provide life skills classes and job search classes and ESL, GED and employer connections. We have a range of skill building activities."
Many people know nothing about applying to college and need help.
"The vision for the Opportunity Center is to bring even more services and supports together so that anyone who walks in the door can connect with the college, and access what we call 'on ramp' services,"said Hester.
That might be short-term courses for brushing up on math and English skills. Hester said that if someone has a vague idea they might do well in the healthcare field, they can take a non-credit course called On Ramp to Healthcare. Counsellors can help them decide whether to aim to be a medical assistant, or a nurse, or something else, and then help them with their prerequisites and point them to classes at PCC.
Healthcare, manufacturing and the trades is our initial focus," said Hester.
The architecture has to match the programing. There will be classrooms, meeting rooms, and study nooks where someone can spend an hour with their books or a tutor.
"Instead of just like handing someone off, like 'Go talk to DHS or go down to PCC,' it's really 'Hey, let's walk down the hall and talk to Diane, she's my colleague, and we can talk about what options there are for you."
Hester added, "We know that education is a path to a career track or family wage job. You could go on to campus and go into a career center, but for a lot of folks that we serve, that is really super intimidating. So, this becomes a more accessible entree into higher ed. Especially for the folks who may have not done well in school or feel they're not supported at a college. it's not a perception, it's a reality."
"All of the folks who live in those apartments will be connected programmatically and encouraged to access services and programs (at the Metro Center). We definitely hope to create that back and forth between the residents and the center," said Hester.
Don't look back
Home Forward's director of development and community revitalization Jonathan Trutt said they started talking with PCC in early 2019 about how to collaborate. "We ultimately decided to partner to redevelop the PMWTC site to provide job training, affordable housing, community services and retail space at a single location."
Trutt added that single students usually do not qualify for affordable housing.
"We plan to respond to this challenge by creating opportunities for roommate-friendly housing. We also are looking to create many larger units (both two-bedroom and three-bedroom) and are mindful of what that will mean in terms of providing appropriate outdoor space for kids. This challenge can be solved through thoughtful design, and we're delighted by the early thinking we've seen from Hacker Architects."
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