A large parcel on the north waterfront near the St. Johns Bridge may soon see a transformation from its current assortment of warehouses to a multi-use area with public river access over the next couple of years.
In a pre-application for a zoning change, Mainland Northwest LLC envisions multi-dwelling residential, retail, office and manufacturing uses for a 15-acre site in North Portland.
The site is currently zoned for general employment, but the developer — in keeping with the Comprehensive Plan Designation — wants to get that changed to central employment. It's also zoned river general, due to it's Willamette-fronting location.
"It's not just a piece of property," said Brian Wilson, Northwest development partner with Mainland Northwest LLC. "We need to be very thoughtful and mindful about what we are going to try to propose for the future."
Wilson is a fifth-generation Oregonian with more than 20 years' experience building and operating family-owned commercial real estate investments and management.
While the application does not include a specific development plan, ideas abound for the waterfront site that equals about eight city blocks.
"Ultimately we think it's an ideal site for mixed-use. We'd like to see all flavors of development including every level of affordability for housing, from for-sale to very affordable, all the way through to some mixed-use, retail and some parking components," Wilson said. "We'll hopefully get a little live-work, some offices, and we'd love to attract some river-dependent manufacturers — small, custom boat-makers and things like that."
The site was originally settled by homsteaders in the late 1840s, and the area transitioned to mostly industrial uses by the 1880s when the lot came to be known as the Steel Hammer site.
Today, it contributes to the area's decline into an underutilized brownfield, a part of what attracted Mainland to the property — being able to clean up a site and restore it to the active inventory of land available for responsible development without impacting a historic neighborhood or displacing residents.
"Our Mainland Northwest Division approaches projects with a high degree of sensitivity to the historical and cultural elements of a property," said Ken Larish, CEO of the Nashville-based Mainland Companies. "They have a very clear vision for evolving the Steel Hammer neighborhood, and we are very proud that Brian and his team have reached this point in the development process. This is an exciting time for our company."
Currently, the site is home to Viridian Reclaimed Wood and Dock Sales, and the Columbia Forge machine works warehouses. Along the half nearest the river sits a rail yard.
The Columbia Forge is in the process of building a new facility and will be moving within the year.
"Meridian Reclaimed Wood uses a large, 14,000 square-foot warehouse and we're hoping to keep them there and engage with them as we rethink through potential uses," Wilson said.
The land butts up against the city's water pollution control lab, around which meanders along the Cathedral Park Trail.
Across the street from the Crawford site, next to the St. Johns Marine Center, the same developer is beginning the construction phase of a 101-unit multi-family residential property — that's how Wilson's company found the location.
"We've been out there for the last couple of years, and just decided it was a good opportunity to try and exercise the muscles that are the best of us, clean up some dirty dirt, restore public access to the Willamette River and repurpose the otherwise underutilized land for active development," Wilson said.
The Crawford Street plans mention a greenway trail could be developed, and could connect to the trail that leads over to Cathedral Park.
"If I got to make every decision in my own manner — which I don't, I'm part of a company and we all make decisions to the best of our abilities — it has to be respectful of the character of St. Johns," Wilson said. "We want to be respectful of the neighborhood. There's a huge amount of history attached to that site — it's where Johns ferry originally landed."
At the base of Burlington Avenue is where James John, an early pioneer and settler of St. Johns, operated a rowboat ferry service and generate store in the 1840s and '50s. (A few miles south on higher ground, there once was a large Native American encampment, according to the St. Johns Heritage Association).
"It will take some time," Wilson said. "We're not going to go vertical with anything on the site until long after the entitlement."
Wilson aims to get through the entitlement process and zoning amendment within 18 months, and after that engage with architects, planners and eco firms to conduct a study of the site's regional significance.