The City of Portland is in the midst of rapid growth and transformation. As properties change hands, new buildings are rising quickly in all corners of the city. Some are composed with a strong eye towards social and historical context, but many are not.
Three vacant blocks along Water Avenue on Portland’s Eastside provide a remarkable opportunity to create a new type of environment for industry in the 21st century. We know these blocks are on the verge of redevelopment. How they get developed will define this area for decades. How can we as a city capitalize on this unique opportunity?
While the three blocks will be developed by private interests, the land below the I-5 freeway is publically owned, as is the parkway along the banks of the river. Rather than treating these as two separate and independent parcels, we imagine a third alternative, one that leverages public investment and private development to create a more integrated and diverse place that can serve all of Portland. This site could be a place where the future is made in harmony with the history that surrounds it, and a view across the water to the city skyline.
As citizens of Portland we are passionate about its future. As architects we have both the knowledge and training to imagine alternatives. Without the influence of a client or the pressures of a deadline we can think broadly, beyond typical project constraints. We can consider the broad potential of a site to provide public benefits, and consider the long term impacts they will have on the future of our city. These three blocks along Water Avenue are now empty parking lots and piles of rubble. But what could they be?
We are interested in how redevelopment will change the character of this longstanding industrial area at the center of the city. Can it continue to thrive as a place for makers and doers and start-ups? What will ‘industry’ look like in the 21st century? As Portland awakens to the value of the Willamette River as a place of beauty, recreation and nature how do we strengthen access and facilitate that connection? These issues converge here, which is the biggest parcel of empty land near the city core and one of the only remaining places the public can access the river on the central eastside.
This proposal re-envisions these three blocks together with the space below the I-5 freeway underpass as a place of production, recreation and gathering that extends from Water Avenue to the river. The result is a unique environment that provides space for creation and industry that invites public use and interaction. These uses can support one another in a way that is uniquely Portland. Because the first step in making something happen is imagining what might be possible.
The Bora Research Team
The project is centered on an arrival plaza located where Main Street terminates at Water Avenue. This plaza provides a place for gathering, and a center for information about the activities and businesses sharing the site. Imagining a place where on-site production can be showcased to the public, a series of retail spaces at street level animate the Water Avenue street frontage. They are located on street level at the end of a series of flexible ‘sheds’ that stretch across the site to the freeway overpass. These simple flexible buildings sit on a ground surface shared by cars, service vehicles, bikes and pedestrians, providing for fluid circulation. The buildings recall the geometry of the docks that stretched into the river when Water Avenue marked the riverbank, and define a series of shared streets that allow unfettered access to both business and the river.
The location of this site on the banks of the Willamette provides an unparalleled view of downtown Portland, which is typically reserved for cars stuck in traffic on the I-5. The elevated freeway ramp creates a rare moment on the eastside of the city where pedestrians can actually reach the river. By extending the redevelopment beneath the freeway to take advantage of existing infrastructure, the site can support new lighting and activity spaces expanding the range of uses. These could range from futsal to a beer garden to outdoor performances and makers fairs. With temporary buildings to house events, market space and recreation rental the site can accommodate activities that create a destination drawing people to discover the industries and activities on the rest of the site. Through reshaping the river bank, pedestrians can access the water for recreation, social gatherings, and an overlook of our best view of the Portland skyline.