Portland, home of the TOD

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Prince George
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Portland, home of the TOD

Post by Prince George »

The Queen and I took ourselves and the princelings for a couple of days in Portland, Oregon. Having been in Seattle for a couple of years now, it's interesting that there is quite a common opinion that Portland is just a bit cooler, a bit more hip, than Seattle, even though there's quite a bit more money up here. Not that Portland's poor, but it lacks the big obvious companies like Microsoft or Amazon. It makes up for that with its reputation for being very forward-thinking, progressive, and for having more of a "design culture" than Seattle. So we headed out, camera in hand, to take a look at some of the examples that Portland has to offer. The gloomy, cloudy weather doesn't help the photos, but that's what you've got to accept up here in the Pacific Northwest. We're going to share this in a few stages, clustering them around some themes.

(At the risk of preaching to the choir ... ) In particular, Portland has had policies governing its land use and development that have made it an example that many other cities are examining - Adelaide being one. Portland was one of the first US cities to pursue the TOD model, for example, building extra density around their light rail (aka MAX) and streetcar systems.

One of the most successful of their TODs (judging by the level of satisfaction reported by the residents) is Orenco Station. Strictly speaking, it's not actually in Portland proper, but in Hillsboro some 15 miles west of downtown Portland, about a 45 minute trip on the MAX (there are a lot of stops along that line, including many in town). The area gets an interesting write up here,
Orenco Station has emerged as perhaps the most prominent laboratory in that regional experiment, in part because it offers a real-world test of a great many specific aspects of that program. In Orenco Station there is a pedestrian axis to the light rail station, around which a grid of alley-loaded "skinny streets" extends; a walkable town center of mixed-use shops, services and residential; "liner" buildings with limited on-street parking and lots tucked behind; a range of housing types and prices, from $79,000 to over $500,000, as well as rental units; pedestrian-friendly street design and scale; "granny flats" and live/work units; loft units above retail; and of course, much higher density than is typical for the American suburbs, up to 25 units to the acre.
All told, the development covers an area of some 200 acres. By comparison, the St Claire development at Cheltenham is about 158 acres.

The town centre is a collection of mixed use buildings (naturally). The buildings were all in a retro style, and that seems to be very common for these developments in the states - multi-use ideas get pitched with phrases like "traditional town planning" and they have a sentimental soft-spot for "the good old days". This area is a few minutes walk from the MAX station, which we'll get back to later ...

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Behind the town centre is a multi-family housing area, which is predominantly "brownstone" row houses

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The lower level confused us - the Orenco Manor Suites is a hotel, and it's not clear just how much of the building was used up by the hotel. Judging by the fact that the signage wasn't very prominent, and that this is hardly a tourist drawcard (says the people that went there to photograph it) we're guessing that it is just the basement level. It would be a shame if the location closest to the shops and transport had visitors rather than residents.

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This central street (which the master plans refer to as the "pedestrian axis") leads to a central park, which seemed rather empty, being just an expanse of lawn. Perhaps there's a playground somewhere else, but if not it seems that the planners are expecting the area to have more dogs than children. BTW, in the distance you can just make out the top of the big Intel centre that's just to the north of Orenco. And to the southwest there's a centre for Lattice Semiconductor - those jobs are likely one of the important success factors for the area, and that doesn't get discussed much in the press about the area (that's a bit hard to duplicate elsewhere).

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The bulk of the area is single-family houses: smaller houses on smaller blocks than in many typical suburbs. The streets are narrower than most new suburbs and the houses don't have parking to the front. Instead the parking access is from alleys to the rear of the blocks. The streets were almost all straight and had footpaths - which you can't assume will be present in every suburb, even ones from the 70s. The houses aren't set back very far from the street (there isn't room on the blocks) and sported some pretty neat side gardens, none of the houses had tall fences, everything was chosen to emphasize a friendly, neighbourly kind of vibe. Judging by those studies into the resident's satisfaction, it seems to be working.

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There are some parts of the development that (in our opinion) haven't really worked out properly, places where the initial good intentions seem to have been derailed. For example, this corner of one of the buildings in the town centre:

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It's clear from that window in the bevelled corner facing this little plaza that this spot had been intended to be the entrance to a shop in that part of the buliding. Instead, the entire ground floor was just the one business (a kitchen shop) that had two other entrances that they were using and so had shelving in front of this spot. More serious was that the planning team sold some of the parcels of land closest to the station, which has left there both an empty lot and (right by the station) a superfluous grassed area along the "pedestrian axis" that leads people from the station into the town centre. This feels like a spot that deserved something with a bit more interest than just a big empty space for the commuters to hike past.

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On the other hand, from the It-could-have-been-worse Department, on the opposite side of the train tracks is the kind of condominium complex that you see all over the country (albeit a reasonably nice looking one) - a bunch of 3/4 story buildings with open lawns and carparks around them, but no services to see.

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Rounding out the visit, the station itself is very plain, as all the MAX stations are. Some of the other cities that are persuing TODs around rail stations feel the need to make the stations into sci-fi themed works of art (some of the ones planned in Seattle seem to be heading this way, for example). Evidentally Portland doesn't feel that way. And, finally, a couple of shots from inside the MAX car - note the hooks for hanging bikes

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Re: Portland, home of the TOD

Post by monotonehell »

Interesting area. Unlike most suburbs it's very neat. The local government must put a lot of resources into sanitation and maintenance. Retailers often want to reconfigure their exits, to avoid shrinkage from shop lifting.

Pity the designs for Cheltenham haven't turned out in this vein. Here's hoping the Clipsal site turns out better.
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Re: Portland, home of the TOD

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monotonehell wrote:Retailers often want to reconfigure their exits, to avoid shrinkage from shop lifting.
Yes, I understand why they would want to close off an entrance, what I was referring to was that it seemed the design's intent was to accomodate several smaller shops and instead it was leased to a single large one. To my mind, that was a mistake.
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Re: Portland, home of the TOD

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the use of levels is quite interesting in what is probably quite a flat suburb. Many of the pikkies show a few steps up to the house/condo front door (as well as the lower courtyard level at the Manor Suites), and bulging front lawns - almost makes it look more than 3D. I also like the coiffured look of the gardens - neatly cut hedges, rows of trees that will end up being reasonably tall, etc.

Also note that the roads/footpaths are very plain in most photos. No fancy coloured paving, no cobblestones nor patterns - just clean lines. I like it - which surprises me.

Not many people around - esp at the shops. Was it mid-week (people at work) when you took the photos? or perhaps you waited for people to pass before snapping?
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Re: Portland, home of the TOD

Post by Wayno »

Oh, and is there any form of 'lessons learned' publication stating the good/bad aspects of the Erenco Station TOD? You know, what would we do differently if we could simply 'Ctrl X' and start again...
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Re: Portland, home of the TOD

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Wayno wrote:Not many people around - esp at the shops. Was it mid-week (people at work) when you took the photos? or perhaps you waited for people to pass before snapping?
We were there at about 10:30 AM on a Friday, there were a few more people out than appear in the photos (taking a walk, doing a little gardening), but still not very many. Anything that close to something like Intel runs the risk of being a "bedroom community"; Orenco was a cut above that, but it was nothing like the downtown areas (which we'll post some pictures of soon)
Wayno wrote:Oh, and is there any form of 'lessons learned' publication stating the good/bad aspects of the Erenco Station TOD? You know, what would we do differently if we could simply 'Ctrl X' and start again...
The Planitzen article had a useful list:
Some key "lessons learned":

• Density demands design. Abstract land use designations are only the beginning, and the essential task is to create a coherent neighborhood structure with livable features and services.
• Build a great team. Assemble a skilled and talented consultant team early on, led by private entities with vision and risk-management skills, to closely collaborate and problem-solve together.
• Bring the jurisdictions onto the team. Major challenges are still posed by obsolete national building codes, traffic engineering practices, and local zoning; and their solution requires the close cooperation and collaboration of public entities – from elected representatives down to desk staff – as well as skilled private consultants.
• Do your homework. The devil will be in the details of the design. Start with good market science, not only in assessing what buyers have already bought, but in understanding potential buyers and envisioning what they will want and need. Then be prepared for lots of detailed problem-solving and research.
• Learn from history. There are many valuable lessons in successful older neighborhoods, and in how their mix of uses functions successfully. Do not slavishly copy, but do not ignore the great problem-solving resources collected in traditional design.
• Keep a firm hand at the tiller. Do not let disparate owners or builders destroy the standard of design quality. Do not surrender control prematurely.
• But let the design evolve. At the same time be prepared to allow many inputs and many hands, and let the design evolve with changing real-world conditions, while preserving a coherent neighborhood structure.
That article also mentions what a loss it was the the train-station was on the edge of the development rather than more central to it, and that the team had lost control of some of the blocks of land close to the station.
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Portland's Pearl District - the old

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Just north of Portland's downtown (as in - walking distance) is the Pearl District, one of the most successful urban renewal projects in the country. Until the 1990's, this area was warehousing, light industry, and railyards (the wikipedia entry has a good photo from the 80s), it started to attract the art and design crowd, which really is the classic start for an area undergoing renewal. They are attracted to the area by its low rent, their presence leads other people to notice the area properly and they like what they see, and new developments follow.

We spent quite a bit of time walking around this area and were very impressed by it. This whole area would be worth touring via Google street-view. I'm going to post some photos of the area in a few stages, clustered around some common themes. Let's call this first one "what's old is new again".

In the Pearl District's case, there has clearly been a very large amount of development over the last decade, and that presents something of a problem. The new buildings are expensive, while there is some attention given to providing affordable units within the area, the typical condo costs several hundred thousand dollars, and housing costing 1-2 million dollars is not unusual. Those costs then threaten to drive out the very businesses and people that make this area successful - the Pearl District is known for being the centre of Portland's (very healthy) design community, losing the galleries and design houses would be a significant blow to the area's hip vibe. I'm sure that anyone that has followed the changes in Rundle Street since the mid-80s can understand what I mean.

So it is interesting to see just how much older building stock is still preserved along with the new in the Pearl. Some of it has been touched very little, some of it has had the exteriors preserved and the interiors changed, but what is also worth noting is that the buildings themselves are rarely of "historical or architectural significance". The nearby areas of Skidmore and Chinatown are "National Historic Districts", which is closer to our definition of a heritage list. For these buildings in the Pearl District, it is not their design or history that makes them significant, but the uses that they can be put to.

This is something that we think this board gives insufficient thought to: buildings do not renew an area, people do; the buildings are important only insofar as they support people. Older building stock supports different uses than newer stock and that itself is reason to take seriously the need to maintain a variety of buildings, and not just the preservation of our history or architecture.

Starting with one of the spots that I really liked, NW 13th street is in many ways untouched during this renewal phase. The buildings were clearly all warehouses and most of their entrances are elevated truck bays. The Pacific Northwest College of the Arts is there, housed in a very plain concrete building with some two-tone grey tiles slapped on. The other buildings have galleries, restaurants, studio-lofts all just occupying buildings that have hardly been touched since the 50s. Even the street itself still looks like it's expecting delivery trucks - it has no footpaths, instead pedestrians simply share the middle of the street with cars and bikes. To cap it off, we were there while the area was hosting an art street sale.

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This shot is from the top of one of the loading bays, now the entrance to a cafe. The elevated view from the tables gives a good view over what's going on along the street itself.

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Throughout the Pearl there are examples of older buildings used for a variety of businesses, and less often converted into housing.
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This small site was almost an urban ruin - the hull of an old building that now hosts the Portland Farmer's Market

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The Gerding Theater at the Armory, home of Portland's major theatre group. Just across the street was the Deschutes Brewhouse in their former brewery.
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And, as a special reward for getting all the way to the end - Powell's Books. Since the mid-70's, Powell's has been on this site at the edge of the Pearl. Over the years, they have bought the adjoining properties to fill the entire block (Portland's blocks are small, and streets are narrow). Rather than bulldozing and rebuilding, they just knocked holes through the walls to produce an enormous strange, rambling store crammed with books both new and used. This really is the kind of building that you only get when the occupant also owns the building. No developer is going to build something like this, too much risk of never getting a tenant; safer for them to stick with generic boxes.

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Re: Portland, home of the TOD

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to take seriously the need to maintain a variety of buildings
Very much so. How do you convey the importance of keeping nondescript warehouses, '60s boxes and the like that have little architectural significance or distinctiveness on their own, but contribute to the variety of styles in the one area? Even more importantly, how do you codify that? Intrinsic aesthetic appeal is often an entirely subjective matter - we know we like variety and colour and the merging of the old and the new, but how would we write that in the context of 'you sir can knock down your building but you sir may not'? In that respect, you'd love to have a panel of knowledgeable sorts assessing each application entirely on its merits so that subjective factors could be brought into things, but you'd have lawyers all over that in three seconds.

As your photos prove, even falling-down shells can be valuable to an area. The term 'eclectic' is thrown around far too often these days, but in many instances that's just what makes an ideal streetscape - an eclectic mix of this and that and everything else. For the most part, we've done a very good job of keeping Rundle Mall, Hindley St and Rundle St like that, with a marvellous mixture of buildings that, on their own, really aren't anything special, but as a whole add to the character and uniqueness of an area. On the other hand, I find the south end of KWS to be particularly uninspiring, even with the new buildings going up, simply because there's less higgeldy-piggeldy and more 'sameness'.

A good thread. It's rare to have insights on these matters from Australians living abroad. Keep them coming!
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Re: Portland, home of the TOD

Post by Wayno »

thanks muchly PG, i'm enjoying reading this thread. You could write a book on this subject - A TOD Too Far perhaps?
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Re: Portland, home of the TOD

Post by Prince George »

Cheers Omi, Wayno,

One of the things that we have seen a few times is the difference between the owner/occupier vs the distant landlord. There was an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations where he was in New York visiting some of the remaining "old school" places that he cut his teeth on when he arrived in town about 30 years earlier. These were the remnants of old New York, the kinds of places that have been disappearing as places like Times Square or Hell's Kitchen "clean up their act". The common thread: at the places that remain, the business owned the building.

So, for me the key is to find the things that will help distribute ownership among as many people as possible. Likely that means constraining the size of blocks that can be developed (in area, if not height) rather than building monoliths a la the big rectangle on the Repco site.
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Re: Portland, home of the TOD

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Prince George wrote:So, for me the key is to find the things that will help distribute ownership among as many people as possible. Likely that means constraining the size of blocks that can be developed (in area, if not height) rather than building monoliths a la the big rectangle on the Repco site.
Agree - distributed ownership (read: affordable mixed-use property?) is one of the keys to the eclectic puzzle...
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Re: Portland's Pearl District - the new

Post by Prince George »

The other side of the Pearl District's rennaisance is amount and variety of new building that has happened in the area. Many many new condo or apartment complexes have been built, the huge majority of which are mixed-use (as you'd expect, in a location so close to the downtown). The developments particularly impress with the variety that is on offer - as I've already suggested, I think that this is in large part due to Portland's small block size, but I believe that this area was never subject to something like a "master plan" or had a single group that co-ordinated all the development that happened there.

It also didn't hurt that the area already had a connection with art & design, which likely meant that the people that were attracted to going there had high expectations for what they would see there. Something upscale and urbane, Manhattan-esque. Whatever the reason, the results are pretty compelling (with a couple of exceptions).

The Pearl covers a very large area, so there was a pretty significant amount that we didn't get to see. One thing that I particularly wanted to find was Ziba's (a Portland design company) new headquarters.

First, if you had to sum up the Pearl District's TOD nature in one image:
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This row of townhouses was a slightly unusual sight (there aren't many in this part of town). I wonder if they are comparatively old in the neighbourhood, perhaps from before the time that the location took off?
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Around Jamieson Square, which is one of the many public areas that they provide among the developments. I think that the second one, showing some of that variety of building sizes and shaping, is especially interesting - larger format version here
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That building had an attractive courtyard that it wrapped around, but I think the big gate telling the rest of the world to keep out was a bit out of character for the area.
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This otherwise simple building had a nice eye-catching detail. Rather than presenting a flat wall, the large windows are cantilevered out just a little bit at an angle, providing a little syncopation for that face. This is up one side of the "Go by Streetcar" building that was back at the start.
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The entire area in this shot was railyards only 15 years ago. It's still maturing, it's not got the organic feel that the places further south had. It's interesting too that to the south, where the older buildings still remain, most of the new buildings are in a massy red-brick style that echoes the originals still around them; to the north, where there is less or no buildings to be retained, the red-brick gives way to sandstone and concrete. Those colours looked rather drab on this cloudy day (and bear in mind it's cloudy up here 6+ months of the year).
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At the (currently) northern-most end, Tanner Springs Square. This area felt a bit less successful than the one at Jamieson Square, partly because there's less people around there but also because there was less for people to do, and the buildings around it had an air of sterility.
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Looking from Tanner Springs back to the Downtown, it certainly had an enclosed feeling, but lacked interest down on the street. Why has that building on the left not provided anything on its ground floor? Note also, narrow street, wiiiide footpath (and a boardwalk at that)
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Unusual diving-board balconies out the back of this tower
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I wish we'd gotten a better angle on this building, with the retro early-modern grill detail running up the sides of its towers, like those early Manhattan towers (the RCA tower in the Rockerfeller Center, for example). And I'm a sucker for multi-paned windows.
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I found this building pretty interesting - with balconies on one side but not on the other, is it a mix of offices and residential joined side-by-side? And if the right hand side is office space, notice that it has opening windows. Lord, I wish my office had that! (Actually, a window would be a good start ...)
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From the they-can-fit-in-when-they-want-to department, the big-box Office Max was better looking than their average example. The photo doesn't do it justice, but the exterior had a seal-skin colour and suede texture
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Finally, I was left feeling like the area could do with rather more colour than it had. I know up here in Seattle, we rather crave what colour we see - over winter, the landscape changes to just greys and greens, and the bulk of the houses and buildings are in similar muted colours. I got excited at the sight of a florist with their displays out on the footpath. A little more visual stimulation would have gone a long way
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Re: Portland, home of the TOD

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I often think that people are afraid of height in residential developments, and to be perfectly honest, if they only looked at Southbank or (almost) anything Meriton then I wouldn't blame them at all. Far too many residential towers are dreadfully cheap-looking hovels of limited aesthetic value, cowering behind juvenile applications of repetitiveness and sameness that attempt to justify their dubious facades. I look at the pictures above and, for the most part, I see a successful application of classic architectural features to modern developments - Streamline Moderne-esque curved windows, red brick detail, multi-paned windows, full-height concrete flares, pointy roofs with overhanging eaves, and so on.

To a large extent, Australian architects are caught up in an obsession with a deliberate omission of detail as opposed to proper minimalism or International-style design - that is, flat walls, no eaves, stark colours and featureless windows are included under the impression that they are successful celebrations of classic modern design. In practise, this is utter nonsense; the refuge of the ill-educated. A white wall sans cornices and grey carpeting is not minimalism, nor is a flat exterior wall with ill-considered jaunty colours and prominent downpipes 'modern' design, yet mainstream architects and designers attempt to pass off dreadful developments as such. I fear that this approach is becoming so common in Adelaide's mid-density developments that it is harming the acceptance of additional apartment/townhouse blocks, particularly given the conservative nature of many residents. I point to the Freedom Apartments proposal as one such example of a deliberate omission of architectural distinctiveness under the guise of modernity that does nothing more than scrape the bottom of the barrel of aesthetic desirability (Want a window? Here are some square things! Want another tower? Here's a rectangle thing that looks like the first one!).

Call me a bitch (which is probably true, incidentally :wink: ), but people are inherently tentative of changes to the norm. We have to show them how a new way of living - a mid-density, apartment-oriented way of living that is as desirable as a free-standing house (which, as its main advantage, can be altered in accordance with the whims of the home-owner). Developers have so much more to gain from clever approaches to design that excite the eye rather than bore it to death.
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Re: Portland, home of the TOD

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By coincidence, today I saw an obituary for the Portland property developer Bob Gerding. It turns out that he was responsible for several important projects in the Pearl District that I was not aware of when we visited, including one known as the Brewery Blocks
It was standing on the deck of the Wieden + Kennedy building, Gerding once told me, that he gazed out at the mostly lifeless Blitz/Weinhard brewery along Burnside and got the idea for the Brewery Blocks. This next major Gerding Edlen project would go on to become the most successful mixed-use development, and the biggest green architecture development, in Portland during this era of economic boom.

The five-building Brewery Blocks, all LEED-rated and designed by GBD Architects, were a national leader in sustainable design, proving that environmentally-friendly building practices were not merely the domain of a small fringe movement, not a place of cob benches and rammed-earth, but the future of mainstream building in America and the world. Such pioneering green architecture also reflected the values of its two partners, both lovers of the outdoors and Oregon patriots.
You can see the brewery itself in the middle of this aerial view, the other four blocks of this development are to the west, northwest, north, and northeast of the brewery. On the west side you have Powell's books. We certainly spent some time in that part of town, I just wish I'd paid a bit more attention while we were there.

And notice that there are 5 blocks all designed and built by the same people, and they don't all look alike.
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Re: Portland, home of the TOD

Post by jk1237 »

wow, I didnt know this thread existed. Interesting. Thanks Prince George. I like the look that many 'condos' have been built with a lot of brickwork, compared to the rather bland concrete slabs that 90% of ours seem to be built with
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