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Beam him back to Burnside Bridgehead

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Oregonian columnist Steve Duin reports today that Brad Malsin's Beam Development may be in the running to eventually kick-start the moribund Burnside Bridgehead project.

Beam, as you may remember, was recommended back in 2005 by an advisory group to the Portland Development Commission  for the Bridgehead commission, but PDC's board instead selected Opus Northwest, an offshoot of Minnesota-based national developer Opus Corporation. (Kind of like choosing a McDonald's burger over one from McMenamins.) But Opus abandoned the project after the economy turned. They had some quality architects working on the plan, such as Gary Larsen and company at Mulvanny G2. But it was not to be.

Mayor-elect Sam Adams told Duin, "Hindsight is 20/20," referring to that decision. "But I wonder if it would have been different if they'd chosen Brad."

Obviously no construction will begin anytime soon given the current economy. And PDC cautioned in Duin's article that talks with Beam are "...very preliminary." If the talks go well, a development agreement might be signed in late 2010.

Even so, once the economy rebounds, Burnside Bridgehead is such a prominent site that it needs to go forward. On the other side of the bridge to the west, the University of Oregon's White Stag block and the new Mercy Corps headquarters, as well as a new Saturday Market site, are invigorating the area. To the east of Burnside Bridgehead, the lower Burnside area is home to a cluster of popular restaurants and retail, including three of my absolute favorites: Le Pigeon, Simpatica, and Biwa, as well as Doug Fir and the Jupiter Hotel. Then we'll also have a new streetcar line going along Burnside over the bridge. If it's not the time to build on the bridgehead, it's at least time to start planning again.

The slower, more natural pace of development in the lower Burnside area may have actually benefitted from the delays to the Bridgehead project. The cluster of businesses here haven't been dwarfed. Even so, that's not a proper argument to halt Bridgehead. Eventually they will grow together. After all, there shouldn't really be any under-utilized land this close in. The days of low-density industrial sanctuaries without any housing in central cities will ultimately end, whether it's over thirty years or ten or three. That's true in Portland just like it's true in Cleveland or Manchester.

A separate Oregonian article today by Ryan Frank also confirms that Danish wind-turbine manufacturer Vestas has agreed to locate its North American corporate headquarters in Portland. The company is eying South Waterfront for its planned office building, which will hold several hundred employees (if not more). Vestas would be a huge gain for South Waterfront, where OHSU's bio-science campus plans are not as ambitious as they once were. But wouldn't Vestas perhaps be better off in the heart of downtown -- maybe overlooking the Willamette from the east side of the Burnside Bridge? After all, part of why this development has fizzled in recent years, beside the economic downturn itself, is the inability to secure an anchor tenant. What anchor could be better than Vestas? If they do end up in SoWa, though, that'd be great too. (And with apologies to locals, I'd be intrigued if they brought a talented Danish architect in to design their SoWa office tower.)

With the possibility of PDC gearing up to eventually re-start the Bridgehead process, I also wonder if their way of going about it merits some question. Is the Portland Development Commission in the best possible position, through its requests for proposals, requests for qualifications or other processes, to assure not only that something gets built, but something of lasting architectural quality? Is it right to always be selecting a developer for these jobs, and then allowing the developer to select the architect? When I look at PDC projects around town, I see some noble efforts to spur economic development, but I also see some ugly buildings. Take a look at the concrete-block lighthouse of a mixed-use building at Fremont and MLK and you'll see what I mean.

Beam When it comes to Burnside Bridgehead or any other big city-funded project, it's not enough just to get something built or to do so with a transparent, open process. More than ever when taxpayer dollars are involved, we need to build quality. But luckily, this is something Malsin and Beam Development understand. The developer's experience comes mostly from renovation of old Central Eastside buildings, like the Olympic Mills Commerce Center or the Eastbank Commerce Center. Yet Malsin's recent collaboration with fellow developer Randy Rapaport and white-hot architecture firm Works Partnership suggests that he knows something about creating compelling new architecture as well. If PDC does choose Beam, it's a good move. If only someone had told them that in the first place!

by Brian Libby, 2008

Published with permission of Portland Architecture

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