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Slabtown shakeout

Transitioning section of Northwest on tipping point of development
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Jim Hittner looks out the window from his restaurant, Joe’s Cellar, and wonders what the neighborhood will become. It’s part of the “transition area” northwest of the Pearl that is known more for copious parking lots, warehouses and precious few landmarks, such as St. Patrick’s Church.

When Jim Hittner looks north out the picture window of his Northwest Portland restaurant, Joe's Cellar, he sees the future and the past converging.

Hittner's window looks out on an abandoned warehouse and parking lot - a warehouse that rumors say will be turned into condominiums soon. And it reminds him of years ago, when this area just west of the tony Pearl District was teeming with industrial life. And when dozens of factory workers and longshoremen would frequent his restaurant every day, for bacon and eggs, a quick lunch, even to cash a paycheck.

There's little foot traffic past Joe's Cellar anymore.

But it's not the past that most concerns Hittner. It's the future that appears ominous to him. This area of town - historically known as Slabtown, more recently dubbed NoLo (north of Lovejoy) by real estate agents, but labeled the 'transition area' in city documents - is changing, adding dozens of town houses and condominiums.

It's changing fast. Faster than the city can manage it, say some who think the city needs to put in planning controls before it's too late.

'I don't think the horse is quite out of the barn yet,' says John Bradley, chairman of the Northwest District Association planning committee. 'But the door is open, and the horse may be looking outside the door.'

Town houses and condos are replacing old industrial plants - at least 42 units, at current count, with the potential for dozens more during the next year or so. Property values are shooting up in what Bradley calls 'the last piece of underdeveloped land this side of the river.' Developers have the zoning they need to do just about anything they want.

With the Pearl as a border to the east, and Northwest 21st and 23rd avenues a few blocks west, the future of this overlooked neighborhood of approximately 50 square blocks looks predictable to Hittner. And, unless the city steps in and changes the course or the pace of change, it's clear to Hittner he won't be a part of it.

Hittner leases his space and worries about losing his business to another condo development.

'Whatever development is going to be put in here is going to be worth more than my business,' Hittner says.

A 25-town house development opened last month on Northwest 20th Avenue and Pettygrove Street, with units priced around $500,000. At Northwest 22nd Avenue and Pettygrove Street, five new row houses are nearing completion, and nearly sold out at $689,000 each. The historic Lane-Miles Standish building, for 85 years home to a printing business at Northwest 19th Avenue and Raleigh Street, is being converted to a mix of office space and five levels of residences.

But residences alone don't make a neighborhood.

Parks? The city doesn't own any suitable property in the area, and now it's too expensive. Roads? There will be few new roads, with potentially thousands of additional car-driving residents.

'The infrastructure down in that area is just going to collapse,' Bradley says.

But the future isn't here yet, and there is still one possibility for large-scale planning similar to that which guided development in the Pearl District.

Approximately 15 square blocks right in the middle of the neighborhood is owned by one company, Con-Way Inc., which bought the old Consolidated Freightways property. Much of Con-Way's land is surface parking lots. Virtually nobody thinks it will stay that way.

Con-Way officials have no comment on their plans for the property. But Hittner, developers, city planners and Bradley can see that bit of the future pretty clearly.

'At some point in time, some large developer is going to buy that property,' Bradley says. Before that happens, Bradley adds, 'we need a commitment to see orderly and sustained development in that area. It's got to come from City Hall. Somebody has to say this is important.'

And if not? 'It is the anti-Pearl in terms of development. The invisible hand of Adam Smith will wash over it unless something is done,' Bradley says, referring to the unofficial father of capitalism.

The closest the city has to a vision for the area is the 2003 Northwest District plan, which recommends retail and commercial shops on 18th and 19th avenues, a commitment to keeping jobs in the area, and affordable housing for families with children.

A neighborhood association master plan explored more specific needs, including the possibility of 'a shield around Interstate 405,' according to Bradley - Pearl-style condos buffering the rest of the neighborhood from the freeway. But that plan was never adopted by the Portland City Council and now nobody, not even the neighborhood association, can find a copy.

City Commissioner Sam Adams admits the neighborhood has been overlooked by the city while developers have established a toehold, and he thinks the city has missed an opportunity to put in infrastructure that could guide development. 'I can't believe nothing happened (in the transition area),' he says. 'In the fight over the Northwest plan and … all the controversy on parking, this has been forgotten.'

But Adams doesn't believe the city has completely lost its chance to develop the transition area with the city's planning vision in mind - higher density, easy access to mass transit, less vehicular traffic and more affordable housing.

'We have an opportunity here to do a neighborhood that can either stabilize the livability of Northwest or it's going to degrade it,' Adams says. 'It's going to degrade it if you don't do a master plan.'

A master plan, similar to the one that guided development in the Pearl, would give the city at least some chance to deal with developers, Adams says. If there were the promise of a park - which Adams said might not be too expensive with the right deals - developers would want to have their projects nearby. If the city were to offer extending the streetcar north from its current route up Northwest Northrup Street, Adams says, developers would see an increase in the value of their investments and might be willing to offer the city some of what it needs. Infrastructure, Adams says, 'is our bargaining chip.'

'We do have some limited leverage,' Adams says. 'Right now it's just happenstance, ad hoc and haphazard. We're behind the ball on this one, but if you're creative in your development agreements, you can make this happen.'

New residents move in

Developers aren't waiting for a master plan, and Julie Peterson is pleased they haven't.

Three weeks ago Peterson moved into her new condo at the 25-unit development at the corner of 20th Avenue and Pettygrove, called 20th Avenue Townhomes. She's smack-dab in the middle of warehouses and parking lots. Her front door looks out on the old Dove Lewis animal hospital on Pettygrove, but she's got 1,500 square feet of high-ceilinged luxury, a two-car garage that's attached to the rear of her town house, and she loves it.

Peterson, 35, is enamored with the location, warehouses and all. 'I'm a city girl,' she says. 'I like to be in the action, and this is very, very convenient to most of the restaurants I frequent.' She says most of her neighbors in the development are between 25 and 40 years of age, singles and couples, but she hasn't seen any children yet.

The city's vision for close-in neighborhoods involves high-density housing and an emphasis on mass transit riders - like the Pearl District. And Peterson does find that in her free time she walks more than she did while living in the Burlingame neighborhood.

But the attached garage - which planners would not recommend for an area intended for dense development - was a major selling point for Peterson. She drives to and from work each day.

As far as the replacement of the parking lots and warehouses with more homes, higher property values and possible traffic headaches, she says: 'Good. Because I don't plan on living here for a long time.'

And why would she leave?

'When I have a family,' she says.

More building's on the way

Chris Rogers, president of Phase Two Development, which built 20th Avenue Townhomes, says he's got 'multiple projects' scheduled for the neighborhood, but he won't reveal which properties he has purchased. 'Everyone's snapping them up,' he says.

The owners of warehouses and factories that haven't sold yet eventually will, Rogers says. 'But pretty soon they'll have no choice. It will be like winning the lottery for them.'

Alex Hughes, a broker with Debbie Thomas Real Estate who sold the 20th Avenue Townhomes, says the units have sold fast because they're like the Pearl - but not quite. And they're cheaper. 'We're trying to draw out the Pearl District people who think the Pearl might be too crowded for them,' he says. 'It's kind of the last frontier for Northwest.'

Around Hughes' office, the unnamed neighborhood has an old-timey name. 'What we call it in our office is the Bucket, because it gets all the spillover from 21st and 23rd and the Pearl,' he says.

As for concerns about a lack of overall vision, Hughes likes the contrast the neighborhood offers to the highly planned Pearl.

'I think it's great,' he says. 'It's everything the Pearl isn't. The Pearl is very dense and big and wonderful, but this is fun because it's funky. It's undiscovered territory. One block you've got Justa Pasta and then right next door it's Parr Lumber, and you've got wood deliveries happening while you're eating the best pasta in town.'

But in a city that prides itself on its planning, those can be dangerous words. Joseph Zehnder, principal planner with the Portland Bureau of Planning, is looking a little bit further into the future than Hughes. And already he sees missed opportunity.

Resources, leverage needed

Zehnder - less hopeful than Adams about the park that the 2003 district plan recommended for the neighborhood - believes it probably will never happen. A community center, for which the Northwest District Association has lobbied, also is unlikely, he says.

'You need resources and you need leverage to get a park, and in this district we have neither one now,' Zehnder says. A large community center, on the order of the Southwest Community Center, is more likely to be placed in the north end of the Pearl, he says, where the city has the leverage to secure a piece of undeveloped property.

City plans for the neighborhood also say that affordable housing and maintaining industries in the neighborhood that provide jobs also are important.

But the primary infrastructure issue for the neighborhood will be transportation, Zehnder says. In fact, transportation could be the one issue that halts development there in its tracks.

The city is conducting a traffic analysis of Northwest Portland, and Zehnder says projected development in the neighborhood will have to be a factor. Too much development could lead to too much projected traffic, which could force city transportation planners to recommend zoning changes that could halt residential development.

Currently, there is only one primary way in and out of the neighborhood - the highway ramps at Northwest 23rd Avenue and Vaughn Street. According to Jeanne Harrison, senior transportation planner for the Portland Office of Transportation, the intersection already is rated an F by the city. The grade means drivers on Vaughn looking to enter the expressway usually have to wait for more than one green light before passing through the intersection.

One solution is a new entrance to the expressway system somewhere in the neighborhood. But Harrison says that won't happen; the Oregon Department of Transportation would never approve it.

Mass transit emphasized

Harrison says the only hope for avoiding major traffic problems as the neighborhood adds housing is to get the people moving in to rely on buses and the streetcar.

'What we really want to do is calm the traffic by providing all the alternatives to driving that we can,' she says.

Extending the streetcar farther north is one possibility, she says. But just as important would be more frequent bus and streetcar service so waits are shorter and people will know they can depend on mass transit to get them where they need to go on time.

The problem is that TriMet, due to rising fuel costs, has been reducing, not increasing, the frequency of its service. And there are all those two-car attached garages - at last count at least 42.

Town houses and row-house condominiums are not the way the transition area should be developed, says Homer Williams, president of Hoyt Street Properties, primary developer in the Pearl.

'Most developers will always take the path of least resistance,' Williams says. 'We could have built out the Pearl and made it look like Georgetown, and it could have been sold out five years ago. But it's not what the city needed. You need the density there, and that will help increase the (mass transit) ridership.'

Williams looks at the neighborhood west of the Pearl and its close-in town houses with two-car garages, and says: 'It's the antithesis of what we're trying to do in this city. What they're doing is taking the suburban model and dropping it in an urban area. The city needs to get out ahead of it.'

But it's not too late, according to Williams. 'It's never too late,' he says. 'There's a lot of land over there.'

Good planning adds value

The key, Williams says, is the Con-Way property and its surface parking lots. Williams says he has not contacted Con-Way but plans to in the future. He's hoping he can help its owners recognize the value of working with the city on large-scale development. Individual blocks in the Pearl, Williams says, are worth as much as $7 million but only if deals are made so that large-scale high-density development is allowed.

'Their land is going to be worth a quarter of what it would be if they planned it properly,' he says.

Still, Ty Kovatch, city Commissioner Randy Leonard's chief of staff, isn't sure the type of development favored by Williams is right for the neighborhood.

Kovatch would like to see a few more of the old industrial buildings remain, keeping a bit of the heritage that Jim Hittner remembers, and holding the residential developments at bay.

'It doesn't take long before the residential areas start to overpower the industrial, and they move to Washington County and California and Southwest Washington,' Kovatch says. 'Putting all our eggs in the housing basket without jobs to support the people is shortsighted in the long run.'

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