Man with a plan
Pearl District visionary moves on to his next project
Homer Williams, the man who remade the city's Pearl District into loft housing encircled by Eastern European streetcars, is at the presentation board again.
Pharmacy, he scribbles in red felt-tipped pen.
It doesn't make a lot of sense to anyone in that context. Taken together, they are pieces of the project that will take the 58-year-old Williams into the next decade: North Macadam Avenue.
Like the Pearl, it is a flat, environmentally contaminated expanse of acreage that will serve as a perfect blank slate for Williams' vision and energy.
He, along with the Portland Development Commission and his two development partners, Opus Corp. and Gerding-Edlen Development, is laying the groundwork for public transportation, housing, retail and the businesses that will bring an estimated 10,000 jobs to the now largely vacant district.
Simultaneously, Williams is teaming up with one-time competitor John Carroll on a 180-unit condominium-hotel project next to RiverPlace and redeveloping the former Safeway site as part of the $100 million Museum Place project at Southwest 10th Avenue and Madison Street.
To Williams, it's all about creating a neighborhood.
'If you do a few key pieces of property and if you do things well, it'll make things around it better, and the property will reach a higher level,' he said during a recent interview at his Northwest Flanders Street office. 'That neighborhood (North Macadam) is ready to blossom.'
Williams' trail of investment partners include Weston Properties' Joseph Weston and Clay Fowler, a partner in Williams' Hoyt Street Properties.
Williams, soft-spoken and silver-haired, 'is a visionary,' said developer Pat Prendergast, who has known Williams for 30 years. 'He has a tremendous grasp of putting together these multiphase, lengthy projects. He's good at looking at the future and what needs to be done.'
Other developers have vision, said David Frank, PDC's project coordinator in the River District, but their projects are often built a block or two at a time. 'The difference is one of vision and scale and being the right person at the right time,' he said of Williams.
From here to Hoyt Street
In 1994, Williams was one of six Hoyt Street Properties investors who purchased from Prendergast half of the rights to 50 undeveloped acres that once made up the Burlington Northern rail yards. Prendergast had negotiated the original redevelopment agreement of the little-known Northwest neighborhood and, along with Carroll, helped establish the River District.
In 1996, the investors bought the remaining 50 percent.
At the time, Williams' rŽsumŽ as a developer included only Portland's Forest Heights subdivision, a hotel on the Caribbean island of Antigua, and Bend's Broken Top development. Many doubted that he had the skills for urban development, but there's little skepticism now.
His Hoyt Street Properties built five loft projects Ñ Riverstone Condominiums, Johnson Street Townhouse Condominiums, Kearney Plaza, Tanner Place and Streetcar Lofts Ñ in the Pearl. Two years ago as the work was humming along, he turned over Hoyt Street Properties to his stepdaughter, Tiffany Sweitzer.
He bought 28 acres on North Macadam Avenue, which then was in the midst of ongoing disputes about a neighborhood master plan. Plans now call for 1.5 million square feet of office space, a conference center and hotel, 2,000 apartments, retail stores and restaurants.
Oregon Health & Science University would be the anchor of the project, moving into a 19-story administrative and research building at the waterfront site. Williams calls it 'the most important thing the city will do in the next 20 to 30 years.'
'It's really more than just OHSU,' he said. 'The idea is to bring to Macadam the best of what we have. This neighborhood needs to be modern. The area was begging for something to happen. Sometimes it's just timing.'
That includes Oregon Graduate Institute, Portland State University and a satellite of Oregon State University's School of Pharmacy. Eventually, he sees a high-tech component and world-class pharmaceutical company located there.
'You need energy, restaurants, steel, glass and open space,' said Williams, holding a sketch of 12 blocks in the proposed North Macadam District, which bears a likeness to Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. 'There are two worlds Ñ the private up above and the public 40 feet below. No sky bridges. No tunnels. The idea is of creating a dense urban environment.'
Neilson Abeel, president of the Pearl District Neighborhood Association, says Williams clearly embraces urban design.
'I think a lot of people were interested in the Pearl and how Hoyt was going to build out Burlington Northern rail yards. Until then, Homer's reputation was Forest Heights. But Homer really gets it (urban life). He's not building New York City here.'
While most developers thrive on 'doing the deal,' Williams is more of a visionary than a detail person, said Abeel, who likes to call Williams 'Our Man From Havana' because of a predilection for wearing khaki shorts to meetings.
'He wants to move onto a new frontier. And he will take what he learned in the Pearl. I think Homer sees how all the pieces fit together. He's a can-do person.'
For it to work, Williams says construction of an aerial tram atop Marquam Hill linking to Macadam Avenue is a must. Without the tram, the Macadam project would not be the same density, he said.
Mayor Vera Katz and local business leaders are behind OHSU and the developers 100 percent. It is the Corbett/Terwilliger/Lair Hill Neighborhood Association that is adamantly opposed to the idea.
'I think he is being very shortsighted,' said Martin Slapikas, chairman of the association's transportation committee. 'The constraints are phenomenal in the North Macadam District, and now you add the tram. The question is, how do they get to it? It's a situation where you have to get to it to take it.'
Economics aside, he said neighbors are not interested in paying taxes for a development that will gridlock the area for years.
'If this is the way planning is going into the city, I really fear for the city,' said an obviously upset Slapikas, who admires what Williams did in the Pearl. 'If only the city carried a concurrent transportation network into Macadam from the south.'
A partnership with PDC
As he did with the Pearl District lofts, Williams has the backing of PDC for some of his projects. Hoyt Street Properties' Kearney Plaza and Streetcar Lofts received 10-year property tax exemptions for eligible buyers; Kearney also received tax exemptions for its owners. The city is paying for the infrastructure and providing property tax incentives on North Macadam.
In the eyes of some competitors, it's a too-cozy relationship.
'I'm not going to go there,' Williams said when asked about PDC. He describes the partnership with agency officials as 'evolutionary.'
He said: 'If you're going to develop a new neighborhood, it takes investments from both sides. Everybody has things they're good at. I'm better at the beginning of things. It was a blank slate when they started.'
PDC development manager Bruce Allen said Williams 'merely got there first' by buying property in areas targeted for urban renewal.
'He hasn't gotten any special treatment from PDC,' Allen said. 'It's just worked out that way. He understands the city. There are few people that would buy 40 acres of contaminated land and try to develop it.' Williams did it twice, in the Pearl and Macadam.
The redevelopment agency 'has a pattern of aligning with a few developers and doing a number of projects with them,' said Prendergast, one of three developers whom Williams labels as competitors. The others are Carroll and Bob Gerding, developer of the Brewery Blocks project on West Burnside Street.
Williams' stepson, Trammell Crow Vice President Craig Sweitzer, said competing developers 'can get a lot more done in working with him. He's a consensus builder,' Sweitzer said. 'He's smart, but he doesn't push his agenda. He cares passionately about what he does.'
Waiting for the end result
Williams' uniqueness lies in his unerring confidence and patience Ñ and an occasional thumbing his nose at convention. PDC's Allen said that unlike out-of-towners, he knows how Portland likes to debate projects and good design. And though he isn't an art collector, Williams likes adding creative touches to his projects and started the Pearl Arts Foundation.
Williams graduated from Jesuit High School and majored in history and political science at the University of Oregon. He got his start working on apartments during his college days. 'He didn't have the money, he earned it himself,' Sweitzer said.
It took 13 years to get Forest Heights approved.
'You don't go to school for what I do,' said Williams, who finds urban projects more challenging than suburban ones.
Despite the scale of projects he undertakes, he doesn't worry about anything going wrong.
'It won't,' he said. 'If you're a developer, you're an optimist. I can't think anything will go wrong. There's the political will to make it happen.'
Such chutzpah led him to call renowned architect Frank Gehry one day and ask to meet with him about a 180-unit affordable housing project. Gehry, who designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, liked the idea, which at one point, seemed kaput. Not so, said Williams, a compulsive reader who likes architecture and design magazines, including Wallpaper.
'It's a work in progress.'
A man of mystery
Williams, who is separated but still dates his wife, Joan Williams, has a mystique that he cultivates about his partnerships and his private life. Besides Craig and sister Tiffany Sweitzer, his children include daughters Whitney and Devan.
Williams, a fan of New York City, London and Rome, lives and breathes the city. He hasn't owned a car in at least three years and walks to his Pearl District office from his home 15 blocks away.
He's an avid golfer who likes to practice off a loading dock outside his office. On weekend mornings, he eats at Fuller's Restaurant, an old-time lunch counter on Northwest Ninth Avenue.
If he gets a break, Williams can be found taking a nap on his office sofa. 'He's king of naps,' Sweitzer said. By 5:30 p.m., he's holding court at Paragon restaurant.
The topic: What else? Portland's future.