Retail element trimmed in new Pearl high-rise

Commercial space in new buildings is often vacant, but should developers be required to build it anyway?

North Pearl neighbors complain that community building benefits will be lost

By Thacher Schmid

A neighborhood group voted unanimously to oppose a developer’s reduction in retail space for the 21-story high-rise at Northwest 11th and Pettygrove at the western edge of The Fields Park.

The Pearl District Neighborhood Association planning committee took issue with Hoyt Street Properties’ request to modify plans after gaining city approval for the recently named Vista Pearl, previously known as Block 20.

Neighborhood representatives said reduction in retail space leads to a “dead zone,” undermining community vibrancy and livability.

People who live and work nearby agree—they want more, not less, retail.

Vista Pearl will look over The Fields from the western edge of the park. This location makes it particularly important, in the eyes of Pearl neighborhood activists, that it have an active ground floor.

“I would prefer not [more] apartments, because I live around here, and there’s not much around here,” said Kelly Robertson, 34, who lives in a nearby building. “Shopping, restaurants, pubs—anything but just residential.”

“If there’s no retail and only a park, it attracts fewer people,” said Nathan Mackintosh, 54, a designer at Mari Design, nearby. “We have just barely enough of a sense of community right now.”

The developer plans to reduce retail spaces facing the park from seven to six, while reclassifying several retail spaces on the south side as “live/work” units. PDNA does not believe “live/work” spaces will function as retail because the developer has built other such units in a way that prevents retail use, the committee wrote in a letter to the Bureau of Development Services last month.

Staci Monroe at the BDS said the bureau’s review for the modifications has to do with exterior changes, and does not address how interior space will be used.

“Review did not consider changes to uses on the interior as both residential and retail are allowed … in the CX zone and Central City Plan District,” Monroe wrote in an email.

On Jan. 23, four days before the city’s decision, Tiffany Sweitzer, president of Hoyt Street Properties sent a terse email to the Examiner: “The six units fronting The Fields Park will all be ‘retail’ units. … There are three units on Pettygrove that will be designated live/work.”

Sweitzer did not respond to follow-up questions arising from the PDNA’s letter of opposition.

Blighted no more

The North Pearl is part of the River District Urban Renewal Area, which the city created in 1998 “to correct blighted conditions.” The blight—defined as lack of development—is long gone, but different concerns now mobilize the community.

Members of the PDNA’s Planning, Transportation and Design Review Committee say they’re trying to make the neighborhood into a vibrant regional destination—not a bedroom community—and that requires increased retail presence.

The neighborhood association also says Hoyt Street Properties isn’t acting like a good corporate citizen.

“We did not receive any prior warning of this change before the notice was sent, nor did the developer offer to meet with our committee again,” co-Chair Reza Farhoodi wrote in an email.

Is it common for developers to submit changes after approval of plans, after ground is broken and construction underway?

“It does happen,” Monroe of BDS said.

Bruce Stephenson

Mackintosh and Jared Hermann, 36, who work in a storefront facing The Fields, wonder if the North Pearl has already become a bedroom community. In many local high-rises, they say, community-use spaces inside or atop buildings often sit empty, while elevators have become one of the main places where neighbors interact.

“It is a lot of sad,” Mackintosh said. “All these buildings have little communal areas that no one uses.”

Those who live and work nearby, like Edward Harrison, say they have to travel to Slabtown or farther for fun, food or fashion.

Edward Harrison

“In this area over here, there’s nothing,” said Harrison, 42. “My wife and I talk about how dry it is here. You just have to walk a little farther to experience anything.”

Harrison’s words echo a concern in the PDNA letter: “the lack of evening street activity” in the area.

“I wouldn’t call it a ghost town [after dark],” he said, “but it’s pretty devoid of things.”

“It is desolate,” Robertson agreed, while hugging her German Shepherd pup.

Retail is tough

Thanks largely to Hoyt Street Properties, the Pearl District has enjoyed a redevelopment transformation in the past two decades. People and companies have come here from around the United States and beyond. The neighborhood planning committee is full of architects, professors and planning wonks: folks like Bruce Stephenson, who teaches city planning at Rollins College and has the Living New Urbanism website.

Stephenson describes the soaring steel, brick and glass buildings in the North Pearl as “modernist” and “machine-like.” Perhaps because of that uninviting exterior, he sees the Vista Pearl site and the 11th Avenue corridor as a crucial walking/bicycling link to Centennial Mills, a vacant landmark along the river awaiting redevelopment.

“Especially the way the real estate market is now, I think the conversation is that [Hoyt Street Properties] can afford, if not to be generous, to be equitable,” Stephenson said.

Equity—it’s not a word often found next to “retail.” While Portland’s red-hot housing market is where the big money lies, traditional brick-and-mortar retail nonetheless grew 3 percent in Portland last year, according to the Portland State University Center for Retail Leadership.

“Retail’s kind of like a teenager,” Stephenson said, comparing residential, office and retail space. “Retail’s had the slowest growth.”

“Yes, Amazon is taking over the world, but to build a neighborhood, and the Pearl District being a small enough community, there’s still a need for storefronts, businesses that live in the immediate vicinity,” said John Carroll, a leading Pearl developer.

“The city does not want to create blank walls that people walk by; they would like to have interfacing with the building,” Carroll adds, speaking generally, not about Block 20.

Kelly Robertson

Is the city seeing more requests to reduce retail spaces of late?

“No comment,” says Monroe, the city planner. “I just think that the residential market’s pretty hot, and a lot of it’s reflective of that.”

It’s no secret that new residential spaces in the Pearl—as in the rest of the city—are scooped up quickly, while storefronts in the same buildings routinely sit empty many months after completion.

Nathan Mackintosh

Although PDNA has pushed HSP and other developers for “active” ground floors, the return to developers for creating such spaces apparently lags behind the residential portions of their buildings. Committee member David Dysert said that’s a burden developers should be willing to carry given the highly profitable luxury housing they accommodate on upper floors. With close to 150 residential units on 21 floors, the Vista Pearl dwarfs smaller structures nearby.

Besides, the cold start most new retail spaces suffer is due to their being on the northern edge of unfolding development. Once surrounded by development, retail activity will rise.

It you don’t build retail at the outset, it will never be added later, Dysert said.

Forsaken promise?

The BDS staff report of last May supporting Vista Pearl says the area “emphasizes the joy of the river, connections to it, and creates a strong sense of community,” and noted that “residential uses are … not intended to predominate” in the area.

Those goals were compromised by the recent adjustments as BDS said it lacked authority to say no. North Pearl people say the city’s approval tilts the future of their neighborhood in the wrong direction.

“There’s this sense of, the city’s not there for us—they wiggle out of this, they wiggle out of that,” Hermann said.

“I think this area needs some stores or restaurants,” said Mary, a Pearl resident who declined to give her last name. “There’s very few [retail spaces], and now there are more people living here who can support it.”