Portland's South Waterfront neighborhood is the city's child prodigy – still in its infancy and already showing signs of impressive potential. The neighborhood has the slightly surreal feel of a place that popped up overnight, like a movie set, but the buzz gets a little louder every week or so, as housing units and new businesses open their doors. First, a little compass-intelligence. The name South Waterfront might confuse non-locals: It is actually located on the west side of the Willamette River in a former industrial site just south of the Ross Island Bridge. (If you are the sort of person who likes to imagine the lay of the land – or in this case, bridge – click here for a helpful guide to the local spans.)
South Waterfront grew out of P-towns's 1998 Central City Plan, which aimed to mix up the land use along the river for jazzier (and economically livelier) growth. Things got rolling with the redevelopment of a brownfield area also on the west side of the river, just north of the Marquam Bridge. That housing and mixed-use project, called RiverPlace, was successful enough that the city happily moved on to tackle the 38-acre parcel now called South Waterfront.
Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) and private developers partnered with the city, with OHSU kick-starting things by building its ultra-sustainable Center for Health and Healing in 2006. Then the futuristic Portland Aerial Tram came online last year. It's since carried a million passengers between South Waterfront and Marquam Hill, where most of OHSU is located. New condo towers – the John Ross, the Meriwether, and Atwater Place – have been filling up since opening earlier in 2007.
I spent some time roaming the neighborhood, asking locals how they were finding their new urban digs. I promptly met one who is practically a poster-person for the project: Linda Carter, a nursing student at OHSU. Carter has little time to spare, so when she went hunting last summer for a place to live, study, exercise, and occasionally draw a semi-relaxed breath in attractive surroundings, South Waterfront offered the magic words: location, location, location.
For OHSU staff and students such as Carter, the neighborhood is a cure for the headaches that come from commuting to work. In Carter's case, she rents a $1,000 studio with inside parking that's two blocks from the Tram, which whisks her up Marquam Hill in the mornings to her classes and back down for a workout at the shiny fitness club in the OHSU Center for Health and Healing. Shops and restaurants are sprouting in the neighborhood, and the Portland Streetcar gets her downtown in less than 10 minutes. She rarely uses her car.
South Waterfront is very much in keeping with the city's history of innovative downtown and brownfield redevelopment, according to Ethan Seltzer, director of Portland State University's Nohad A. Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning. Seltzer credits South Waterfront as an approach "poised to take advantage of a powerful set of demographic and social trends."
Of course, those trends cut both ways. South Waterfront is not immune to the market forces that have prompted many condo developers to re-think their business model. The credit crunch spurred by high default rates in the subprime mortgage industry hit Seattle and other cities harder, but Portland is feeling the pinch, too. Rocketing housing prices of the past couple years, especially in the higher-end condo market, have slowed considerably.
Prometheus Real Estate Group of San Mateo, Calif., which owns six lots in South Waterfront, is scaling back its original strategy: Three of the six South Waterfront lots Prometheus owns were meant to be condo towers, and those plans are on hold. Meantime, Prometheus is moving ahead with the design of two market-rate apartment buildings. Jon Moss, a development honcho at Prometheus, told me the company isn't spooked by the market slowdown, and is banking that South Waterfront will continue to attract buyers and renters who want the views of the Willamette River, downtown, and Mount Hood. (It isn't exaggerated developer-speak to say these views are downright stunning.)
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