New TriMet bridge could be a vital link to 'job magnet' area

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - OMSI's surplus property, shown through a new streetcar stop, is being used for staging construction equipment, but the museum hopes to turn it into a money-making development. Twenty-one years ago, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry relocated from bustling Washington Park to a gritty, hard-to-reach pocket of Portland’s inner-eastside industrial area.

Now OMSI sits in the midst of a booming district it helped spawn, and it’s hoping to cash in.

The museum is commissioning a six-month study by ZGF Architects to prepare an OMSI District Plan. That will chart future growth of the museum plus commercial development of six vacant acres to the south that OMSI purchased in 2005. The surplus property combines rare waterfront footage next to a planned MAX stop and the new Portland Streetcar line — a future two-minute hop by transit to downtown and Portland State University.

OMSI isn’t quite ready to pursue expansion of its campus, says Paul Carlson, OMSI senior vice president. But it figures the timing is right to develop the adjacent property it bought to strengthen its financial footing.

“I’m hopeful that the museum will have a road map to development that we can start activating as opportunities develop,” Carlson says.

Eventually, OMSI foresees a major expansion of its exhibit space and other new attractions, using some combination of its sprawling parking lot and the six-acre site to the south. Among other tasks, OMSI may want to explore opening a “second front door” as the new MAX stop opens up more access to the museum, Carlson says.

But the museum sees the best short-term potential to find development partners that would build commercial structures compatible with the museum’s science, technology and sustainability emphases, Carlson says.

Area transformed

When OMSI first moved in 1992, it was a challenge for museum-goers to even find the site via potholed surface streets.

In subsequent years, the Portland Opera moved its offices next door. Construction of the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade brought a flood of pedestrian and bicycle traffic in front of the museum. The McLoughlin Boulevard Viaduct was built, improving auto access to the area. More recently, Water Avenue was relocated, allowing PGE to move some electric towers off OMSI’s property and free up use of its parking lots for redevelopment. The Oregon Rail Heritage Museum moved across the street. The Portland Streetcar began serving the area.

And now TriMet is building a new bridge across the Willamette River that will bring bus and light-rail service to OMSI, while providing new pedestrian and bicycle access to the surrounding district. Eventually, the streetcar will extend across the bridge, providing a loop connecting both sides of the river.

Carlson figures that bicyclists and pedestrians will enjoy a new loop around the river as well. Many now traverse a loop from the Steel Bridge on the north to the Hawthorne Bridge on the south. He foresees wide use of a longer loop that extends south to the new transit bridge, which will exclude auto traffic but allow bicycle and foot traffic.

Employment center

Many Portlanders may not realize it, but the inner eastside has become a jobs magnet.

From 2010 to 2011, employment in the inner eastside rose 8 percent, compared to only 1.8 percent citywide, says Troy Doss, a senior planner at the Planning and Sustainability Bureau.

“The central eastside grew while everywhere else in the area was just chugging along,” Doss says.

There were about 17,000 jobs in the area between the Willamette River and 12th Avenue, and from Powell Boulevard to the Banfield Expressway.

While the city prizes the industrial land in the inner eastside because it’s in short supply, the area has gradually evolved from heavy industry to light manufacturing and warehousing, to a new direction of “creative workspaces” populated by younger entrepreneurs who like the relatively low rents and close-in location.

The six-acre site south of OMSI would appear ripe for development. Pat LaCrosse, the former executive director of both the Portland Development Commission and OMSI, figures there are really only two prime waterfront sites in central Portland available for development now: the Zidell plant that was eyed by Nike and the site south of OMSI.

OMSI’s first effort to plot long-term use of the area, completed in 2008, suggested it could accommodate $500 million in new development, perhaps including a few 12-story buildings on its parking lot that would have riverfront views.

But the museum hopes the next phase of planning will get more specific on the types of development it will pursue, the parties it will pursue that with, and the timing for such projects, Carlson says.

OMSI purchased the surplus land for $4.7 million in 2005, without the need to take on new debt. It’s not clear yet if OMSI will lease its investment property or sell it outright, Carlson says.

OMSI hopes ZGF will provide a menu of development options, plus an idea of potential partners that might want to develop or use the site, Carlson says.

ZGF was asked to complete the OMSI District Plan by November, he says.

The study was timed, in part, to coincide with what’s known as a “station-area planning process” the city is doing from June through September, to chart potential uses of land near future MAX stops in the inner eastside. Then the city will complete its Southeast Quadrant Plan from September through next June, Doss says, to look at potential zoning and other comprehensive plan changes in the entire inner eastside.

OMSI expects that new MAX, bus and streetcar service will enable close to 30 percent of its 800,000 annual visitors to arrive by transit, a considerable increase from the current situation. Ideally, the museum also hopes the added transit will boost visitor traffic.

LaCrosse, who assisted OMSI on its selection of ZGF to do the latest plan, says the museum can be patient, and look out for a 10- or 20-year horizon.

“It’s a terrific site,” he says, but “there’s no hurry.”

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