Portland breeds another chic urban neighborhood

South Waterfront.

Portland's South waterfront neighborhood rises. (SouthWaterfront.com)

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.)

Developers have also committed to building sustainable structures. Trammell Crow Real Estate’s Alexan, a 22-story apartment building under construction at the south end of the neighborhood, is designed to meet the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold standard. It will have a green roof, low-flow plumbing fixtures, and an energy-efficient skin, according to Kip Richardson, whose firm, Ankrom Moisan Associated Architects, designed the apartment building.

Similarly, The Meriwether and John Ross have sustainable features such as exterior glazing to reduce heating and cooling needs, green roofs, and building materials that have recycled content. Developers are successfully using sustainability as selling points in Portland, which has become a magnet for buyers intent on embracing greener urban living. As the lyrical brochure for the elliptical-shaped John Ross building puts it: “The act of building is not an act of spoiling – but an opportunity for creating permanent sustenance.” This approach may well help insulate developers, architects, and builders from some effects of the slower market felt by their less-green peers.

This all begs the question: With so much planned (some might even say contrived) character, is South Waterfront a bona-fide neighborhood? Well, almost. Allison Cowan, who lives in the Meriwether and works as a barista at Bella Espresso, made a point when she told me it isn’t quite there yet, in part because several buildings are still under construction. She’s still a booster, citing the nearness to downtown and relative quiet of the area.

At a meeting last month to discuss the city’s development of the South Waterfront Greenway, which will stretch along the banks of the Willamette through the new neighborhood, residents turned out in healthy numbers to see the city’s plans and to meet each other. More than one person mentioned the seemingly paradoxical closeness to nature they find in this swath of land bristling with new towers. (One woman surely warmed developers’ hearts when she said she’d whiled away part of her weekend watching a river otter below and a hummingbird on her balcony.)

New-community building, of course, takes more than wildlife sightings and good views. It takes, among other things, a core group of residents who interact well enough to have some traction when development changes are announced (like the towers put on hold), when environmental land-use issues come up, and when changes or services are needed from the city or private sources. Portlanders are typically very skilled at creating and running effective neighborhood associations, but the settlers in uber-urban spots like South Waterfront are a somewhat different crowd – busier, fewer kids, less concerned about trash pickups, the noisy band rehearsing down the street, and the like.

One thing seems certain: This is not a planned community with predictable, controlled evolution. The pace of change here, even in the slower real estate market, is brisk; the health of the city-OHSU-developer relationship is delicate; the critical mass of OHSU employees and growing number of nightspots promise to keep diverse constituencies moving through the area. To some those challenges seem like worrisome unknowns; to many admirers, that’s exactly the point of a brave new urban world.

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