Portland let a big one get away

by: Courtesy of Homer Williams, One developer’s idea for a Frank Gehry-designed complex of affordable housing at Northwest 12th Avenue and Northrup Street never got off the ground.

Homer Williams has a six-year-old telephone message on his office answering machine.

Williams, the lead developer for much of the development in the Pearl and South Waterfront districts, likes to play the message every now and then, and consider what might have been.

'Homer, I consider you my conscience,' the message says when Williams presses the Play button. 'I really want to work with you on this project.'

The voice on the other end belongs to Frank Gehry, arguably the world's most famous and sought-after architect.

As architects throughout Portland bemoan the city's lack of iconic buildings, they sometimes wistfully recall how close the city came to getting a building designed by this iconic architect.

Sometime in the late 1990s, Williams went to Los Angeles with a proposition for Gehry. He wanted Gehry to design a building in the Pearl District - an affordable-housing condominium at the corner of Northwest 12th Avenue and Northrup Street.

Williams recalls Gehry saying, 'Do you know how much our fees are?' And Williams remembers replying, 'I think it's more than I make.'

But Williams prevailed. His pitch? Social conscience.

Williams says the idea appealed to Gehry, who agreed to design the building. Architects from Gehry's Los Angeles office flew up to Portland. Models for the building's basic structure were put together. Plans were made for a ground-floor Montessori school as tenant.

In the end the Housing Authority of Portland, which provides funding for affordable housing, backed off the project, citing 'development risks.'

The Gehry building would have cost more than most affordable-housing projects. The Portland Development Commission considered stepping in, but Williams says it decided to withdraw in the end. The city's cautious attitude toward design won out.

'The bottom line was, it was going to be politically just too difficult,' Williams says.

So the Frank Gehry building never went up on the site, where Sitka Apartments now stands. Williams was left with what he calls the greatest disappointment of his life, and city architects continue to bemoan the lack of visionary buildings in Portland.

'It would have been on the streetcar, and would have been a must-see,' Williams says. 'How many cities in the world have Frank Gehry affordable housing?'

- Peter Korn