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It's no HafenCity, but South Waterfront is quietly growing up

skyscraper, architecture

In the Travel section of last Sunday's New York Times, writer Gisela Williams takes a look at the HafenCity district in Hamburg, Germany. What she found there got me thinking about Portland's South Waterfront district. HafenCity is a new district at the site of Hamburg's central harbor on the Elbe River. It's one of the largest and most ambitious urban construction sites in Europe. "Though several portions of the district are unfinished," Williams reports, "HafenCity is filled on the weekends with tourists and residents eating at its waterside cafes, enjoying its vast open space and seeking a glimpse of its 'starchitect'-designed buildings...The spotlight so far has been on the Elbphilharmonie, a 350-million-euro (and counting) project...designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron to look like glass wave cresting atop a brick warehouse...and will eventually house the NDR Symphony Orchtestra's concert hall..."

Although it's much larger in scope (388 acres versus 38 acres), HafenCity shares many similarities with South Waterfront. They are both former industrial-zoned waterfront neighborhoods being invented from scratch, starting with large public investments that sought to kindle private development. But there are also key differences besides size. HafenCity is being anchored by cultural facilities and public spaces. There are not just condos with retail below, as has largely been the case in South Waterfront (other than the OHSU Center for Health & Healing).

South Waterfront also doesn't have any 'starchitect' buidings. There are plenty of reasons to be cynical of the culture of a few famous architects designing indulgent eye candy. But having, for example, a new concert hall for the Oregon Symphony designed by a Zaha Hadid, a Rem Koolhaas or even a Brad Cloepfil would help give SoWa a cultural foundation and an architectural draw. Cloepfil, as it happens, has remained embittered that he once seemed to have a commission for the OHSU Center for Health & Healing when it and the neighborhood were initially being proposed. only to be relegated, in his words, to "the bait". Then there is the question of public space. "In HafenCity you find a lot of quality public spaces," architect Martin Haas of Behnisch Architekten told Williams. "You can see how important the urban planners understood the importance of that by seeing how much money was spent on designing public spaces."

It's not to say South Waterfront doesn't have open space. But only now, years after the first towers rose there, is the first park, Elizabeth Caruthers Park, opening. There will be an opening celebration and ribbon cutting on Thursday, August 19 from 5:30-8:00 PM. Meanwhile, though, the South Waterfront Greenway continues its purgatory. Portland’s vision is to have a continuous greenway running along the Willamette River from the Steel Bridge, past River Place, through South Waterfront to the Sellwood Bridge. But according to Portland Bureau of Parks & Recreation, the action for 2010 on this riverfront strip consists of "defining the "preferred alternative" design, conducting outreach to stakeholders, meeting with committees and continuing discussions with the state DEQ about environmental testing of material and with riverfront property owner Zidell. If I were a salmon, I wouldn't plan on resting along these banks anytime soon.

And then there's that pesky economy. Condo towers like the John Ross and Atwater Place once attracted stampedes of people ready to plunk down deposits on units yet to be built. But once these buildings were completed, they experience bank repossession and auctions of units. No architecture took a bigger hit during the Great Recession than SoWa condo towers. But as the economy has revived from its worst moments of crisis in late 2008 only to sort of stagnate, neither falling nor rising quickly, South Waterfront has quietly become more of a real neighborhood.

Those auctions may have been embarrassing and not as lucrative as backers of the original projects might have hoped, but they have put residents in these buildings. Currently only 79 units out of 214 in the Atwater Place remain to be sold. Only 20 units in the John Ross remain to be sold. The Mirabella condo for retirees opens in August, 2010 and is largely pre-sold. The rental apartment properties, the Ardea and the Riva on the Park, are 72 percent and 85 percent occupied respectively. There are also three children's learning facilities opening in 2010: the Montessori day care in the John Ross, the Healthy Starts OHSU day care, and the Southwest Charter School in the old Discovery Center. The South Waterfront community garden is even up to 85 beds from 30 a year ago.

Looking ahead, plans to develop the area are largely on track. For example, the General Services Administration (GSA) is planning a 74,000 square foot add-on to an existing building to house a division of the Department of Homeland Security. A five-story affordable housing unit, The Tamarack, will break ground in the fall of 2010, set to provide 209 homes. There is also the Gibbs Street Pedestrian Bridge, which will connect SoWa with the Lair Hill neighborhood. Construction is scheduled to start in December 2010 and conclude in December 2011. And then there is the Life Sciences Collaborative Building north of the Ross Island Bridge. This multiple-university facility is still being planned, but it will in time fill in the gaping hole between South Waterfront and the rest of the downtown waterfront with science and research facilities. That's really when SoWa will feel like a vibrant part of Portland: when it's part of a continuous strip of city and greenway along the Willamette.

South Waterfront will never be HafenCity, and maybe we don't even want or need for it to be. At the same time, as the saying goes, news of the district's death have been highly exaggerated. It just needed time to get rid of its new-car smell, so to speak. In time, we'll think of SoWa not as an island, but like we do any other district in the city. After all, cities and neighborhoods don't take years to grow in, but decades and centuries.

Photos and text by Brian Libby

Published with permission of Portland Architecture


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