By Spencer Parsons
This past spring, I was part of a group of five neighborhood professionals – three architects, a designer / builder, and a land use attorney (me) – who collaborated on behalf of the Concordia Land Use & Transportation Committee (LUTC) to address neighborhood compatibility issues with the proposed Bighouse Development at the corner of NE 30th and Killingsworth Streets. These concerns arose from the drawings developer Brian Spencer of Ascend Holdings and builder Rick Porter of Union Corner Construction provided at the February LUTC Meeting. Mr. Spencer agreed to review any recommendations we might provide.
In early April, the LUTC submitted the “Bighouse Redesign Team’s” conscientiously researched and carefully considered design changes intended to dramatically improve the building’s integration into the long-standing character of this unique intersection at the heart of Concordia – without negatively impacting its functionality or the project’s overall economics.
Problems with the proposed design
The most obvious shortcoming of the planned 4-story, 30 unit apartment building is that the design is totally tonedeaf in relation to the surrounding quaint yet vibrant “mini” commercial node.
First, though the lot is zoned “Commercial Storefront,” it provides a bare minimum of ground floor business space, sacrificing most of this valuable commercial real estate in exchange for three residential units.
Who wants to live on the ground floor at such a busy intersection, with passing pedestrians, a constant stream of cars and busses, and ambient noise from nearby stores and restaurants at all hours? The blinds will be pulled on the first floor residences 24/7. Count on it.
Additionally, none of these units open on to the street, a fatal flaw for any design striving for a compatible character. The stated reason they must face inward, with a single shared outside entrance, is for “security” purposes, though many close-by residential and commercial units open to the sidewalk without a problem.
Compare the Rexall condo building, a few hundred feet south on 30th, where all ground-floor units face outward – some are residential, some commercial, and their use changes periodically as occupants change. Opening the Bighouse ground level units to the street would preserve future flexibility for commercial use. However, walling them off from the outside blocks the building from community integration, both literally and figuratively.
What the regulations say
Portland Zoning Code (PZC) 33.130 calls for new developments that “enhance the economic viability of the specific commercial district” and directs them to “preserve and enhance older commercial areas … compatible with the desired [storefront] character”. It explicitly intends accommodating and fostering “a full range of retail, service and business uses with a local and regional market area” and that all new buildings are “pedestrian-oriented” and built “with a storefront character.”
What we’ve asked for
While the Team determined the development, as proposed, does not progress the City’s vision for commercial use of this site, our list of suggested modest modifications sent by the LUTC to Mr. Spencer and Mr. Porter were prudently crafted to address the design shortcomings without going back to the proverbial drawing board.
The first and most significant item on our list requests conversion of the three ground-floor residential units to commercial use, or at least making them mixed use live/work spaces with separate entrances to the sidewalk.
We also asked that an acoustical engineer be engaged to mitigate Killingsworth’s heavy traffic sounds and noise from nearby businesses, both of which will negatively impact the first floor living experience.
Also recommended are several affordable improvements to the building façade to better link it with the neighborhood, including — but not limited to — delineating the building base, upgrading exterior cladding, adding cornices, improved exterior lighting, and integration of sunshades, awnings, and public art elements to enhance the exterior and deter vandalism. The Team’s complete report is posted under the “Bighouse sidebar” on the CNA website.
Where we are now
Unfortunately, the answer is not clear. Mr. Spencer agreed to respond to our requests in writing at a meeting last month between he, Mr. Porter, CNA Board Chair Isaac Quintero and myself that Concordia University’s CFO Denny Stoecklin facilitated. However, while we appreciate finding out on May 16 that his “design and construction teams have had discussions,” as of press-time we still have not received anything in writing addressing the recommended specifics, other than an email indicating “some of the façade, lighting and shadings enhancements are being considered.”
It is fair to say neither we, nor anyone at CNA, knows what, if any, changes might be incorporated into what is perhaps the most significant new Concordia development since the transformation of 33rd & Killingsworth. It may be time for others to begin asking …
Spencer Parsons is a land use attorney whose home and law office are both in the Concordia Neighborhood. Reach him via email or call (971) 279-2018.