Seven floors, four owners, one hope
The new Vanport Building, shared by PSU, PCC, OHSU, and the City of Portland, is open downtown.
You wouldn't know the building was open if you were to walk through the silent lobby with its pristine art, or through the City of Portland cube farms with their monitor holders hanging empty, or through the sunny roof deck, the silent lounges and the bike room with only one bike.
The $111 million Vanport Building at 1808 SW 5th Ave, opened without fanfare in January 2021. Because of COVID-19, most people are still working remotely. The clinic where PCC students learn dental technician and X-ray tech skills see some action, but most rooms last week had unpacked boxes and virgin whiteboards.
The Vanport is a commercial condominium, meaning the tenants own rather than rent the spaces. Retail on street level is expected to be leased by a coffee shop and a soft goods store, though building manager Jason Franklin expects it to take at least nine months before those spaces are built out and consumers flock to this block. The only guaranteed tenant so far is U.S. Bank, which is moving a branch from its brick box across Montgomery Street.
The schools will use it for teaching and office space, and the City of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability will take the seventh floor, moving from 1900 S.W. Fourth Ave., where it has been with the Bureau of Development Services. (Planning and Sustainability create the plans and the code that BDS then implements.)
The exterior has an understated beauty, with its white and grey metal panels and slight diagonal lines that make the building seem to soar. Franklin pointed out the plentiful art on the walls is thanks to the "Percent for Art" rule for public buildings. Even the vents on the backup generator room were turned into a laser-cut steel wall of poetry by the artist Dao Strom.
If you haven't been to this part of downtown for a year, you might get turned around. Across Fourth Avenue is a new building with a CVS pharmacy. PSU's Academic and Student Recreation Center (the gym, pool and running track) is partially boarded up because of vandalism. The plaza where the Streetcar usually noses its way through crowds of students is quiet.
The Business Tribune took a tour with Jason Franklin. He is PSU's buildings guy, the interim AVP of Construction and Real Estate.
Franklin explained that the financing for the building is complex. The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is moving out of one new building into the Vanport.
"When we started this project, they needed more space," Franklin said of BPS. "This project goes all the way back to 2014, 2015, when we worked with the city to partner with them, essentially to look for space on PSU campus."
Prosper Portland (the City) put up the land. PSU got matching funds from the state of Oregon by having the City of Portland buy-in. There are three types of general obligation bonds involved. (G-bonds are what fund capital projects across the state.) Like a condo, there's a monthly fee to pay for operations and to build a reserve.
PSU owns the first floor, so it is responsible, with broker CBRE, for finding tenants to activate street level.
Office Space II
Franklin says it will be "tricky" if a large portion of workers do not come back to office life.
"There are definitely ways to move space around on campus. If we had to shrink other workplaces, we would move other people probably out of other buildings that we could entirely close," said Franklin.
PSU has 50 buildings on 50 acres so that they can contract and expand. Franklin's team fitted all new CDC-compliant air filters to fight the COVID-19 virus, and he is confident PSU can resume school with masks but not-spread-out students this fall.
The city has less space and flexibility to move its staff, but working alternate shifts might be the wave of the future. Franklin says the city is "not in a real hurry."
SRG architect Scott Mooney worked on the building's design. He told the Business Tribune the curved exterior was informed by having rail on three sides: Streetcar and MAX.
"We have radius corners to work with the curves of the site, so we used Aluminum composite material, an affordable and elegant metal panel," said Mooney. SRG, which is now based in The Oregonian's old building, also redesigned Hayward Field in Eugene, whose new roof has a curved metal skin and has already become a signature of track and field excellence.
The key structural challenge was coming up with a building with a large floorplan for classrooms on the first three floors, then offices on the top with more daylight. They did this by choosing an L-shape and having the upper floor step back to let in more light.
Stakeholders at the table
The three sides with rail also step back from the street to give pedestrians more room. Mooney praised Andersen Construction for devising a crane plan where they would never have to fly objects over the rail lines.
Working with several different public stakeholders was not that hard, Mooney said, because SRG focused on shared goals of sustainability and equity.
"We were really making the office environment something that was positive to the health of all the occupants, those who work there every day," said Mooney.
Each stakeholder has their schedule for returning to the office after COVID, so Mooney has no idea when or if the building will ever be full.
"Having four different public entities, each individual school or organization has their own set of policies around returning to work. I think we're all kind of kind of trying to navigate that right now," said Mooney.
There will be a dedication ceremony in May 2021 as part of the Vanport Mosaic Festival.
The Vanport was designed by Portland's SRG Partnership and cost $111 million.
The building's L-shape replaced a PSU parking lot untouched since the mid-1980s. In 2011 it was then-mayor Sam Adams' dream to have a net-zero energy building called the Oregon Sustainability Center on that site. The $59.3 million project never came to fruition.
The designed is for the four owners to connect workforce development, educational and economic opportunity and provide public services. It is now home to the City of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (moving from the seventh floor of the 1900 building across Fourth Avenue, to the seventh floor of the Vanport). It also houses PCC's Dental Services Programs (floors two and three) including the cut price clinic where student dentists train, PSU's College of Education (floors two and four) for student teachers, and the PSU/OHSU School of Public Health (floors two, five and six), which has been very busy during the pandemic. In addition to its academic, research, and civic facilities, it also features low-cost mental health services for the general public.
The Vanport Building is named after the City of Vanport, which was destroyed during the 1948 Memorial Day Flood. It was a town built for predominantly black shipworkers who came here for the war effort in the 1940s, shoddily built houses in a dangerous flood plain. In 1946, Vanport became the home to the Vanport Extension Center, the predecessor of Portland State University. Vanport's location is now occupied by West Delta Park, Portland International Raceway, and Heron Lakes Golf Course.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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