With new building, school has chance to shape neighborhood
The biggest news in the Portland art world this year is not the debut of a new play or the opening of a new gallery - it's the sudden emergence of a century-old institution as a major player in the city's culture and real-estate development spheres.
The Pacific Northwest College of Art stepped to the fore when the federal government agreed to give it the former U.S. Post Office at 511 N.W. Broadway last month.
With that move, the school will both double its space and ensure itself a role in shaping the emerging neighborhood between Old Town and the Pearl District, an area already slated to receive hundreds of millions of city urban renewal dollars in coming years.
Although the school won't move into the building for three or more years, PNCA President Thomas Manley already has some development priorities for the neighborhood - including a substantial increase in affordable housing and work spaces.
'We believe the area should be mixed-use, of course, but it should also accommodate a range of income levels,' Manley said. 'It would be great if students could afford to live and have their own studios near the school. And I'm sure some of our faculty members will want to live there, too.'
Manley also believes the city should include art or spaces for art-related events when it expands the North Park Blocks, which currently end just south of the 511 Building.
'This area has the potential to become a new arts district,' he said.
Although the college has hosted numerous redevelopment-oriented workshops at its current headquarters in the Pearl District, this is the first time the school has been able to confidently consider itself a partner in such major projects.
Al Solheim, the Portland developer who is chairman of the college's board, gives much of the credit for the school's growing influence to Manley, who took the job of president four years ago.
'Tom has the vision and energy to make things happen,' said Solheim, who has been active in the arts for more than 20 years.
Carole Morse, chairwoman of the Regional Arts and Culture Council, agreed.
'Tom is the greatest asset the college has had in a long time,' said Morse, who also is president of the charitable PGE Foundation. 'PNCA is just taking off.'
Remarkably, Manley does not have an extensive background in the arts. He had never worked at an arts school before applying for the PNCA job. Instead, he had held a variety of positions at Chapman University, a private liberal arts institution based in Orange, Calif.
'I had worked in so many different capacities that someone finally said, 'You've either got to become a college president or retire,' and I thought, 'Why not?' ' Manley said.
Others made a play
Manley credits the acquisition of the 511 Building to 'community good will' toward the school, which was founded in 1909 as a program within the Portland Art Museum.
'There's a lot of support for PNCA in the community,' Manley said last week.
But in fact, the deal was closed only after the college flexed its muscle during a showdown with the Melvin Mark Development Co., which was working with the nonprofit Portland Public Market Foundation to obtain the building for a mixed-used project.
The confrontation occurred last year when both sides squared off before the board of directors of the Portland Development Commission, the city's urban renewal agency.
During a meeting, representatives of Melvin Mark and the Portland Saturday Market promised that their proposed project would be a catalyst for redevelopment in the area at the south end of the Broadway Bridge.
They were supported by a letter from the Old Town-Chinatown Visions Committee asking the PDC to hold more public hearings before deciding which proposal to support.
But the art school countered with a letter of support signed by a who's who list of politically connected Portlanders, including former Mayor Vera Katz, developers Jim Winkler and Mark Edlen, and civic leader Jordan Schnitzer, who also is president of Harsch Investment Properties.
In the end, the PDC board decided not to do any more work on the project, clearing the way for the college to make the sole request for the building to the federal government.
The school was notified it would be given the building for free early last month. Under the terms of the transfer, the college will receive the title if it uses 100 percent of the building for educational purposes for 30 years - a requirement Manley said will be easy to achieve.
School was museum offshoot
Although the school has been in Portland for nearly a century, it never before has been considered one of the city's top-tier arts organizations.
For most of its life the college was known as the Museum Art School, and it occupied several floors of offices and studios on the north side of the original museum building, overlooking what is now the outdoor sculpture court.
In the days before Portland had a thriving gallery scene, many of the city's best-known artists made their living by teaching there, including Manuel Izquierdo, whose sculptures grace several local parks, and Michael Brophy, who painted the image of the logger being used as the poster for Portland Center Stage's production of 'Sometimes a Great Notion.'
The school changed its name to PNCA in 1981, was legally incorporated as a separate entity in 1994 and struck out on its own in 1998. At the time, some within the local arts scene thought the school had not received much from the split.
It moved into leased space on the western edge of the first phase of the Pearl District's residential projects. The school now leases and rents all or parts of six buildings around its main quarters at 1241 N.W. Johnson St.
For the past 10 years, the college has been the only major art and design school in the country that owned no property.
When the school left the museum, it was headed by Sally Lawrence, a well-known figure in the arts scene. She remembers the school receiving around $1 million and a share of several endowments from the museum, enough to lease and remodel a warehouse known as the Goodman Building, its current headquarters.
'It wasn't much, but it was enough to get started,' she said.
Although Solheim praises Lawrence for overseeing the transition from the museum, the college took a significant step toward the future when it hired Manley to succeed her as president in 2004.
Despite his lack of an extensive arts background, Lawrence said he was the best candidate for the job.
'Tom has been wonderful for the school,' Lawrence said. 'I'm thrilled to pieces about what he has been able to accomplish.'
Shortly after taking the job, Manley met with the school's board of directors at a retreat and laid out an ambitious plan for its future, including developing a vision plan.
Manley said that at least a few of the board members thought he was dreaming the impossible dream: 'Now they tell me they thought, 'Yeah, right.' '
The Regional Arts and Culture Council's Morse agreed that Manley is moving the college forward much faster than most observers thought possible.
'The college was doing a good job at its primary purpose, teaching artists, but now it is becoming a vibrant and vital part of the community,' she said.
MFA brings new needs
Since taking office, Manley has tapped into the reservoir of good will toward the school to move his plan forward. He asked school supporters to do more than they ever had before, from working on the vision plan to raising ever-larger budgets.
One initiative, called the 20/20 fundraising program, sought 20 supporters to pledge $20,000 a year each for five years. By late last year, 25 supporters had signed on.
But the most significant development happened when Hallie Ford, a lifelong supporter of arts in Oregon and co-founder of the Ford Family Foundation, gave the college $15 million - the largest gift to any arts organization in Oregon history.
The gift, announced last May, is intended to fund the creation of a new master of fine arts program at the school, based on a world-class artist-in-residence program, called the Ford Institute for Visual Education, or FIVE.
The gift also raised an immediate and serious question for the school - where would the MFA program be located? School projections showed the need to double its existing space to accommodate a student population projected to grow from 429 last year to 947 in 2012.
From the beginning, Manley knew the school would need more space, and he has spent several years looking for one or more buildings to buy as a permanent campus.
One of those he considered was the 511 Building, which the federal government declared surplus in 2001. When he first saw it, Manley thought it was too small to hold the school. But after the Ford gift, he realized it might work as an addition to the school's current space dedicated to the MFA program.
By the time Manley started taking a closer look at the building, the PDC was beginning a public process to put together a public-private partnership proposal for the federal government to consider.
Although Manley and his staff held several meetings with the PDC about the building, he knew the college had an advantage over everyone else interested in it - as a nonprofit educational organization, the art school was entitled to receive it for free by applying to the U.S. Department of Education.
And, in a move that caught the Portland development community off guard, that's just what happened when the school filed its application late last year.
Manley called the building ideal for the MFA program. Constructed as Portland's first central post office, the 1916 Italian Renaissance Revival building is well-lit with large windows and skylights. The large ground-floor work spaces can be easily reconfigured into studios and galleries, while the upper-floor offices will make good classrooms and offices.
'If you didn't know it, you'd think the 511 Building was designed as an art school,' Manley said.
The college will take possession of the building when the current tenants, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, relocate in about two years.
After that, Manley believes the school will need to invest between $12 million and $16 million to bring the building up to current seismic standards, remove asbestos, overhaul the mechanical systems and move walls around.
Additional work eventually could push the total renovation to $40 million or more, although some revenue might come from the sale of tax credits and other public financing tools.
The conversion will be overseen by architect Brad Cloepfil. Solheim said the school is planning to launch a capital construction fundraising drive for the project.
'It will be the largest fundraising drive in the school's history by far, but we're confident we can achieve it,' he said.
Neighborhood takes shape
Acquiring the building does much more than anchor the school's future. It also makes the college a player in the coming redevelopment of what some are calling the next great Portland neighborhood - the blocks between Old Town and the Pearl District.
They already include the DeSoto Project, the new home for the Museum of Contemporary Craft and several galleries in the renovated Daisy Kingdom building at Northwest Eighth Avenue and Davis Street.
Although still in the early stages, plans for the area took a major step forward last week when the PDC board authorized the agency to enter into exclusive negotiations with the U.S. Postal Service to buy its distribution center at 715 N.W. Hoyt St.
The post office's 13-acre site of prime development property lies at the juncture of the Broadway Bridge ramps into downtown and the Pearl District. It has the potential to be transformed into nine city blocks between the North Park Blocks and the Willamette River.
According to a letter of intent approved Wednesday, the purchase price will be 150 percent of the appraised value of the property. The PDC and postal authorities will retain appraisal firms by the end of this month to determine that value. Both agencies will attempt to complete the sale by the end of this year.
Although a February 2007 appraisal set the value at $45.5 million, the PDC and Portland City Council already are working to ensure that some funds will be available for the purchase.
They are realigning the three existing urban renewal areas that cover most of Old Town, Chinatown and the Pearl District, including the Brewery Blocks adjacent to Powell's City of Books on West Burnside Street - a process expected to free hundreds of millions of dollars of additional urban renewal funds for projects throughout the area.
With the acquisition of the 511 Building, Manley now can argue that the art school will bring hundreds of people into the area every day - students, teachers and visitors.
They will have a major economic impact on the neighborhood, giving the college the right to push for such development goals as more affordable housing and work spaces as well as a commitment from the city to include art and art-related spaces in any expansion of the North Park Blocks.
'There's no doubt the school intends to play a role in the development of the neighborhood,' Solheim said. 'When you look at it, the area from the Pearl District to Old Town, all connected by the Portland streetcar, has a very exciting future.'
Best of all, Solheim expects the plans to come into focus by 2009, when the school celebrates its 100th birthday.