Ankrom Moisan Architects: passing the torch
The son of an Oregon farmer who grew up to shape Portland's skyline is passing on the torch.
Tom Moisan, founder, president and then chairman of Ankrom Moisan Architects, celebrated his retirement announcement with a Bon Voyage-themed cocktail party that had a 600-person invite list at his firm's new headquarters, 38 Davis.
"I'm sure I'll miss it when I'm sitting out there in the ocean," Moisan told the Business Tribune, because he's planning a four-year cruise around the world with his wife Susan Golden. "I have nothing but great feelings about (AMA), and I know they'll keep it up."
When Moisan walks through his Portland-based firm's office, he says hello to people he's known for 15, 20 and even 25 years.
"More than any other firm I know we strive to get people to find their own path here. We want people who are self-started, don't have do be loud, but just focuses and is excited about what we do," Moisan said. "That's the biggest legacy of AMA. This organization just has the DNA to keep going forever."
He sat down with the Business Tribune after the hangover recovery (and he sailed his cruise ship to Portland from Seattle) to give an exclusive interview about how AMA has shaped the skylines of the West Coast.
A shy navyman
"I was a pretty super-shy person growing up," Moisan said. "I grew up on a farm and always felt intimidated by the cities. I never could get traction with anything, never felt I knew what to do."
He went to college to study for two years before joining the navy.
"I thought if I don't join the Navy I'm going to get drafted into the Vietnam war," Moisan said. "My brother had done the same thing."
There, he scored high on Navy tests and was put into the eletronics program. He began thinking about becoming an electrical engineer and later took calculus courses on the East Coast.
"I studied that for close to a year, but always had been interested in art," Moisan said. "About a year after I started thinking about engineering I thought to myself, I'm going to be bored by this. It's going to get too dry, it doesn't have any way to study art — it doesn't have anything to do with art."
Then one day, he picked up a coffee table book, and it was the architecture of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.
"I was just looking through a book one day written by a famous architect with cool pictures of buildings and artwork and I thought wow, this is just so cool," Moisan said. "It was very broad in scope about all the great things an architect could do. I just started thinking about it, started sketching pencil drawings, I just got carried away. I know this is what I want to do."
By the time he got out of the navy he had already enrolled at the University of Oregon's school of architecture.
"I had a friend rent me an apartment. I wasn't due to get out till November but I got out early, I think late August, a week before school started," Moisan said. "It was just the more awesome, that first year was so incredible, an eye-opening experience for me. I'd never been exposed to anything like it, it was super exciting."
The new Pearl
AMA is one of the firms that worked on transforming the Pearl District from sketchy warehouses to what it is today, including working with developers John Carroll and Homer Williams.
"We had a big part of the early years with the Pearl, not so much the later stuff. Those were all very successful initial buildings, very cost-effective, sold like hotcakes and started the buzz," Moisan said. "Our buildings were more what we would call contextual because they needed to be, they were the first (new) buildings and people wanted to know how they are going to fit into the neighborhood. I think they did that and people got excited."
AMA designed the Riverstone lofts, McKenzie lofts and Tanner Place condos in the Pearl District, among its 19 full-block projects there.
"The later buildings have been more modern. Ours tended to be more relating to the older buildings, I think," Moisan said. "The modern buildings are great too. I think as the districts matured it makes sense to build more modern buildings."
In 1976 Moisan went to work for a 15-person architecture firm — medium-sized, for the day. It was the successor firm to the John's Landing Architects, which built the John's Landing corbett neighborhood and some of the older buildings on the waterfront.
There was a recession in 1982 when work dried up.
"I was a senior employee at that time and when they let me go I had worked on-site already, and started working out of my house," Moisan said. "I quickly realized there's no future here for me working by myself. I just don't have the personality to make that work."
He started talking with Stewart Ankrom about working together as their former firm was winding down.
"He was nervous about leaving his partnership. It took him six months of drawing no salary — maybe more than that — he finally decided we should get together," Moisan said. "I just knew for me it had to be, I just felt it, that we could make it work. I think Stewart felt the same way, he was just a little more conservative than I am. I can rush into stuff and he's a little more careful."
The two started Ankrom Moisan Architects in a Victorian house in Southeast Portland on Ash Street.
"Within three years we had so many employees (about 12) we couldn't keep them in the house, so we moved," Moisan said.
That was 1986, and the building was a 50s-style building already set up for an architecture firm that had just moved out. After three years they moved again around 1990 to the former headquarters along Macadam Avenue, which they bought later on and worked in until last December when they moved to the new 38 Davis location.
The neighborhood effect
While other firms were struggling during the recession, AMA found their own path to success.
"Stewart and I both focused on the clients. What do they need? What would make them happy? How can we design this building that would really work for them?" Moisan said. "A lot of that was around numbers, efficiencies mostly. I focused on net rentable square footage, the efficiency of the core, how the building worked and made a nice-looking building."
AMA has interiors, urban planners and branding teams.
"We have a group of people who try to figure out what and how we can brand this building to fit into the neighborhood, have personality and say this is what my building is — personalize it," Moisan said. "We like to do that early on, we want people to look at the building and say that's this or that, we want them to have personality."
He thought about numbers in terms of how much space you can lease, and how many square feet the lobby or the stairway would be.
"A neighborhood building is what everybody needs to be trying to do," Moisan said. "If this neighborhood doesn't work, my building is not going to be very good and I'm not going to make much money on it."
In Moisan's experience Homer Williams and John Carrol are both conscious of this neighborhood effect, which is often what other experts around the nation site as what makes Portland unique.
"Portland has been so lucky that they've had developers who really want to build great communities," Moisan said. "In most cities, people are just out to make some money."
Moisan knew he wanted to expand the firm to Seattle.
"We had opportunity there, it's a similar city. I was the person pushing on that, Stewart was lukewarm," Moisan said. "He said Tom, if you really want to do it, let's do it. Finally we had an employee come forward who wanted to go to Seattle — Dave Heater."
Now, Heater will assume the presidency at AMA after Moisan retires and leaves on his cruise.
"The first several years I was going up every week seeing if I could help," Moisan said. "It became apparent Dave doesn't need a lot of help, he's dynamite. He grew that, it's 110 people now since he started in 2006 — that included the big downturn."
The past two years, Moisan has been serving as chairman, so the firm won't jolt when he leaves.
"There's not one answer. Architects aren't always responsible for it, but can help owners think about it to do the best job we can with the streets," Moisan said. "Buildings need to look cool to, that energizes neighborhoods."
Passing the torch
"My advice is always figure out how to make the best neighborhoods you possibly can," Moisan said. "Humanity is in a perilous condition. We've got to build better buildings, we've got to build places that are healthy and people want to live and are fulfilling in all aspects of their life, not just a place they can camp out for awhile."
He describes some of Portland's modern architecture like The Slate, the Yard and the Fair-Haired Dumbell as "quirky, creative and inventive," although not what AMA is trying to accomplish in terms of maximizing efficiency and use.
"People in the cities read books, they think, it's just the way it is," Moisan said. "We've got to build better cities or people aren't going to want to live in them. I'd rather people think about that and focus less on the funny little design work on their buildings — but there's nothing wrong with that, I just want people to focus on are we making good cities."
He said it's better to walk past a car repair shop than an empty storefront.
"When you drive around and see empty storefront that's awful," Moisan said. "It hurts cities and it hurts to walk past an empty storefront. It makes you feel bad, it doesn't feel healthy. What feels good and healthy is when everything is bustling and happy."
Inclusionary Zoning: Not a fan
"I'm really mad about it. They (the city) could've done it so people would be happy to build affordable housing with the developers, but they didn't," Moisan said. "I think they screwed it up. They made it almost impossible to build some, and easy to build others."
"I think all they would've had to do is say we want you to build affordable housing, build it to HUD standards or some standards, and we will give you whether the number is 40, 50 or 60 percent tax break," Moisan said. "Whatever that number is, give it to people and they'd build it all day long."
"Instead they said we want your affordable units to match your private units," Moisan said. "If you build 2,000 square foot units we want your affordable units to be 2,000 square feet. It makes so sense at all. Then they gave 100 percent tax rate to high-rise buildings and didn't give any to low-rise, and I think that's criminal, backward."
Moisan said the Portland developers he knows are incredibly good-hearted and would love to build affordable housing, but can't do it on their own backs. "They have to have some incentives, something they can work with," Moisan said. "People are kind of discouraged."
Moisan said the Inclusionary Housing policy hasn't affected AMA's business much — but the firm has offices in San Francisco and in Seattle.