Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How To: Fail? Temporarily, At Least

Given the notoriety local mega projects around the Metroplex have garnered, and rightly so in many instances (see: here, here, and here), I found a recent article on the perceived failings of a project in almighty Portland to be particularly interesting. Portland has been working on this thing we call "new urbanism" aka old urbanism but ideally without the freeways and more ideally without the phony, nostalgic architecture for much longer than we have. So they tend to get things right more often than Dallas has, but only through trial, error, and a better (or more willful) understanding of transportation policy/planning's implicit effect on urbanism.

To link to it once again, the article is We Built This City in the Portland Mercury about the South Waterfront in Portland, Oregon. The south waterfront sits somewhat isolated on a peninsula like sliver between the Willamette River and I-5, not unlike Delaware exists in relation to its downtown of Philadelphia.

If the article doesn't get at the primary issue within its body, it at least alludes to it in the title. No, it wasn't built on rock n' roll, but it was built on the faulty logic "that if you build it, they will come" that often torpedoes the best (and most ambitious) of intentions. It was a movie. It makes for a great soundbite, but as far as real estate strategy, if it isn't demand driven, it is likely doomed. Like in Field of Dreams, they built it and only ghosts came.

I like ambition as much as the next guy, but if it isn't tempered either by a deep understanding of urban dynamics (the kind of thing most in real estate either get only by intuition or luck) or extremely patient money, it is doomed to be considered a failure.

However, much like Las Colinas, the fundamental flaw with the South Portland waterfront is only one of timing and possibly ambition, not in fundamental (or unmanageable) failings in the vision or planning. Unlike Victory and Park Lane Place locally, the South Portland Waterfront got pretty much everything right. It just delivered too much product, too soon, to an overly narrow market segment. It has transit service, a grid of streets, and nigh flawless architecture (from an urban design perspective) that engages the public realm.

From a design perspective, its failings are of the nitpicking sort: the trees planted were mere saplings, some of the retail spaces are too withdrawn behind thick columns hindering visibility, but most importantly, many of the buildings are overscaled. Not just for the street, but for the market.

On this project in Portland, despite the architects' best efforts to accommodate the density in an engaging, urbane manner, the density and mass still overwhelms. High end "urbanism" often ends up being anything but urban. It is defensive. It doesn't interact with the street. It looks and feels exclusive, which when solated is fine, but when it dominates then it undermines the participatory interaction of urbanity. Portland is more of a middle class city, with middle class sensibility and middle class urbanism.

Its perceived failings are only that it was too ambitious. Market and timing are the flaws. So now it sits empty. But, it won't for long. The plan delivered a supply of only high end condos when that market was saturated. How many rich people are there in the world? Not everybody can purchase a $1 million condo. Other classes want the amenities of urbanism as well, but where is there product choice. The City does have plans for affordable housing in and around the development, none of which has yet to be delivered.

There is a worry of no retail and no grocery stores, but those are both eggs moreso than chickens within urbanism. They will come. As will more chickens, once land, housing, and construction prices find their right value. Particularly if a broader demographic range of residential fills in the blanks, which it will. The developer(s) just went for too much too soon. The scale of development is more befitting of Canary Wharf in London than it is Portland. However, Portland is still a desirable City, particularly for recent and soon-to-be graduates.

The worry now might only be that the intensity of development overvalues the rest of the land when the remaining development probably wants to be low- to mid-rise. See the remaining voids surrounding the initial phase of development below.

Eventually, it will be successful. Somebody will have to take the loss for when the high end condos get marked down, chopped up, or auctioned off to find where the market really is without the voodoo of a funny money housing bubble world.

To examine another worry, aka barrier, I want to step back for a moment to the contextual map. See how the South Waterfront has little to no context. It is in effect a cul-de-sac. In fact, the streetcar line even terminates and turns around within the development.

Healthy cities are represented by a typical conical shape to their skylines. They build up to something in the center. The point of highest interaction and desirability. The point(s) with the greatest metabolism in the exchange of goods, services, needs, wants, desires, laughs, and love. Yes, there can (and should) be multiple centers probably within the imposed hierarchy of a locally applied Zipf's law. Centers don't want to be at the end of the road.

The Pearl District, in aqua, is considered a huge success. Of course, it beat the bursting bubble to the punch and has largely been built out. But it also was right next to downtown and infilled with an appropriate scale. It had more to build upon.

Pearl District.

Just below is the South Waterfront, zoomed in. You can see how it is isolated. There is a possibility that because of the lack of context that it will never fulfill its promise, or saturate its supply (especially not at the prices pro forma'd). But, part of me still thinks that like Las Colinas, 20, 30, or 40 years down the road, its barriers will be removed as values change and as the City grows to a point that it needs Vancouver-style development within its geographic restraints. Cities like Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Manhattan, and Hong Kong have nowhere to go but up.

The other issue is the scale of the development across the highway. It is all low-scale, 2- and 3-story single family homes, duplexes, townhomes, and small apartments. There is a disconnect between the two sides of the highway (beyond what the highway already does), that is of scale.

Two adjacent areas so at odds in scale and density are often incompatible. While they can be designed in a way to not negatively affect one another, the lower-scaled area rarely has the density to support the rents and retailers that the high density developers expect. Once again, the purpose of graduated density. Density is attracted to activity. In abstract, activity doesn't happen at the end of virtual cul-de-sacs, it occurs at intersections, at crossroads.

Will Portland's desirability and livability ensure that its population might double? Will the neighborhoods adjacent experience the pressure towards more density? Will I-5 be rerouted in order to stitch the neighborhood with the waterfront? Or at the very least be lowered much like it is through downtown? The only thing for certain is that proper urbanism and a flexible framework will allow such changes and the desirability of Portland will ensure that this particular area achieves livability if not lovability eventually.

Timing aside, it is probably more density than the site wants to hold, which probably only means losses in the short-term for the investors of those specific buildings. In a much less exaggerated way, it is like me saying I want to build Vancouver in Italy, Texas. I could make it as "livable" as I like, but it has to be viable first. That isn't to say that Portland won't see the kind of influx of population to build that kind of demand, but it may just take a few decades.

In the shorter-term, there is certainly value in the remaining parcels for low- and mid-rise residential for middle income housing and below if the land prices can allow it. I think I would probably also recommend that the ground floor of the remaining buildings be "flex" at most, to allow the retail to properly fill in where it now sits empty and to ensure a concentration of retail as the new neighborhood matures.