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Towering trend

Condos in the clouds are just the ticket for empty-nest urbanites

Anyone who's kicked around the plazas south of Keller Auditorium probably has noticed that there isn't much to do once you've stepped beyond the high-rise office building known as the 'black box' at 200 Market St.

What is back there?

A no-man's land of outdoor sculpture, a liquor store, a Plaid Pantry and some wispy trees.

There are a few nice, underused public fountains, too, located along walkways that stretch through the blocks. But there's little else until suddenly, three imposing, vertical structures appear.

It could be said that the three towers that house the American Plaza Condominiums lack warmth. Indeed, they are brutally plain to the naked eye. But inside, architectural gems lurk.

Developed in the early '60s as part of the city's first urban renewal project, the area bounded by Southwest Harrison Street and the Interstate 405 freeway is also called the South Auditorium District.

A bitter consequence of this renewal project was that it displaced 44 blocks of thriving working-class Jewish and Italian neighborhoods. In its place, three megablocks were created; pedestrian walkways replaced many of the streets and homes; and the Plaza towers, as well as other high-rise apartment buildings, were erected.

The respected international architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill designed the Plaza towers, which upon completion would consist of 346 units. The design style is best described as late modern.

Lincoln Tower, built in 1972, rises 18 floors. The second tower to be constructed, Grant Tower, topped out at 26 floors in 1975. Madison Tower was built in 1980 and has 22 floors.

Elevators for each of the buildings, which are about a block apart, are located off a central courtyard. Shared amenities include a swimming pool, workout room and parking.

The condominiums are laid out in five different floor plans. Each has 8-foot ceilings, except for the penthouses, which have 9-foot ceilings. Each of the buildings has four to five floors of penthouses.

The square footage of the units varies from the largest with 2,800 square feet to the smallest with 915 square feet. Most of the units average between 1,300 and 1,400 square feet and have two bedrooms and two bathrooms. Prices at American Plaza start at $160,000 and rise dramatically to $900,000.

Retired Portland Police Chief Ron Still moved to the Plaza in '85. The unofficial on-site Realtor, Still sells about 75 percent of the Plaza units that reach the market. He describes most of the residents here as 'empty-nester, no-grass-to-mow' types.

The high life

Now, the towers are getting another look from a different breed of urbanite, people like Donna Drummond and interior designer Jill Bayless. Both are contributing to a change in the building's complexion.

The towers offer space, good floor plans, and easy access to downtown arts and restaurants.

Drummond, who most recently lived in the Pearl District, knew what to look for Ñ and what to look past Ñ when scouting for her next home.

Many of the units here have not been updated since they were built. A dropped popcorn/asbestos ceiling shrouded the kitchen, chandelier light fixtures hung in the dining area, and white granny-style cupboards hung in the kitchen. There was textured 'frosting' on all of the walls.

Drummond hired a contractor to peel back these layers and unearth the good bones she knew lay beneath. She moved in last summer after a complete renovation.

She then decorated her home with a well-edited selection of mid-century furniture and artwork by Portland artists. Her immaculately designed 1,267-square-foot space has two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a gas fireplace. It has a terrace, and views to the north and the West Hills.

Because of the concrete floors, ceilings and exterior walls throughout the buildings, virtually no noise travels between units.

In Drummond's apartment, the walls and ceiling were covered in a layer of waterproofing material that looks exactly like concrete but provides a finished look. (It was also applied to the gas fireplace.) Drummond decided to leave the fluorescent lights in the kitchen. A light over the dining room table was designed by her son.

'It's a well-built, well-thought-out space,' Drummond says.

Bayless' future home is totally gutted at the moment. Her 1,600-square-foot penthouse faces the river, downtown and the West Hills. She echoes some of the same reasons as Drummond for making the leap to high-rise living.

'For me it was two things,' Bayless says, 'the location and the fact that the floors and ceiling are solid concrete. The structural walls inside are concrete, too. But all the other walls can be taken down.'

The spirit of urban renewal lives on where it commenced so many years ago.

Contact Michaela Bancud at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .