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Citys heart deserves best

My View • The moment is right to lift up Portland's waterfront

It is now or never for Fire Station No. 1. After three years of hard work and expense, the city might give up and just remodel the existing fire station at 55 S.W. Ash St. But if Fire One stays where it is, it would be a significant setback Ñ not only for our Waterfront-Old Town area, but also for downtown Portland. And downtown should be a top priority: If the heart of a city is not healthy and prospering, the rest of the city will wither.

Which leads us to another observation: It is now or the distant future (read: maybe never) for downtown waterfront housing.

We're experiencing our hottest housing market ever. New tower cranes are popping up everywhere. Districts outside of downtown are booming. But absolutely nothing is happening on the downtown waterfront, where Portland's best urban housing should be.

Housing on the river would reconnect the city to the waterfront, make streets safer and ease traffic congestion. It also would make downtown a more desirable location for business, retail and culture.

Housing brings many more people to a district's streets and sidewalks at all times of the day and week. More people on the sidewalks results in reduced crime. When more people live in a neighborhood it means more customers in shops and restaurants. When more people can walk to work, fewer people clog our freeways. All great, successful cities (including Vancouver, British Columbia; Paris; and Barcelona, Spain) have one thing in common: They have people living in their downtown cores.

We've given the waterfront ample time to develop, yet it remains a rummage of parking lots and underused buildings. But nothing will happen if development is left to the private sector. There are too many hurdles. This is exactly why we have the Portland Development Commission Ñ to catalyze projects and make key areas more appealing to private investment.

The Fire One site Ñ with one side on Southwest Naito Parkway Ñ is the best chance for a catalyst project in the district. It needs to become housing during this development cycle in order to spur housing for the rest of the waterfront. It needs restaurants and markets on the ground floor to reawaken Ankeny Plaza and set the stage for the Portland Public Market.

If the site remains a fire station, with no housing and blank walls facing Ankeny Plaza, it's likely that there will be no housing on the waterfront for another generation. Our downtown and our local economy can't wait that long.

Since last fall, hurricanes, oil price spikes and construction in China have increased construction costs 12 percent to 18 percent. Given this reality, all government projects should be reassessed, but key catalyst projects must still move forward. Fire One is clearly one of these.

There are tremendous long-term economic benefits for our city if the waterfront becomes a housing neighborhood. Tax gains for a new housing district range from $4.5 million to $5.5 million per year, with 38 percent of that going directly to education. And imagine the revenue from the inevitable increase in business and retail activity.

Something must be done. Small things are always tied to much bigger things. This is not a matter of a new station versus a remodel. The vitality of our downtown is at issue, and therefore the vitality of Portland.

Stuart Emmons, principal of Emmons Architects, was the lead urban designer for the Downtown Waterfront Development Opportunities Project in 2003.