Back from the Grave: The Return of Transit Oriented Development on North Interstate Avenue

Killingsworth Station. Image courtesy of the Oregonian

Two project along Interstate Avenue long thought dead, Jarrett Street Lofts and Prescott Station, have come back to life and a third, Killingsworth Station, that had been on life support for years was recently completed. Both of which fullfil the intentions of the city and regions investments in light rail to spur transit oriented development in inner Portland rather than greenfield development on the periphery.

According to the Portland Development Commission, the Interstate light rail line and Urban Renewal Area (URA) was designed to:

  • Spur mixed-use development along the light rail corridor and station areas while distributing public investment fairly and evenly among other impacted areas within the district.
  • Create new jobs and housing opportunities for a range of incomes as well as for existing residents.
  • Develop new housing that is transit supportive, compatible with the existing neighborhood, maximizes infrastructure improvements, reuses vacant and underutilized property, and strikes a balance between homeownership, rental, and displacement of existing residents.
  • Create wealth through expansion of existing businesses, fostering a healthy business environment, and generate family wage jobs.
  • Improve transportation corridors to encourage the use of alternative modes of travel, maintain and improve access, create a pedestrian-friendly environment, and mitigate traffic impacts associated with new growth.
  • Promote community livability through strategic improvements to parks, open space, trails, historic and cultural resources, and community facilities.

The rail line cost $350 million and was completed in 2004. Unfortunately, while it was completed in the midst of the condo boom, by the time developers began proposing projects the steam was running out of the real estate market. While a few projects managed to get built, several large projects that were proposed faded with economy. In the years since, the City has adopted the North Interstate Corridor Plan to encourage dense development along the light rail corridor and which allows for buildings up to 125′ tall (about 11 stories) in station areas with design review and special conditions. This creates great opportunity for transforming the relatively sleep and small scale street into a major urban avenue that will help define the area.

What could have been: The Montanas, Proposed at one time for near the Lombard Max station. Image from Myhre Group Architects.

Prior to the real estate crash, only a few projects of any significance to the character of Interstate Avenue got build. They include the Patton Park Apartments (2009) developed by REACH, an affordable housing group, and designed by SERA Architects. The 54 unit mixed-use project was built on land provided by Trimet. The transit agency bought the land to support the development of affordable transit oriented development. Details about the project from REACH can be found here. The other development of note is the Overlook (2008), another mixed-use project consisting of 24 condos over a bit of retail. For more information Brian Libby did a good story on it when it was build that can be found here.

Patton Park Apartments. Image source unknown.

Since the onset of the Great Recession very little building has occurred anywhere, let alone North Interstate, and what has has largely been heavily subsidized. A example of this is Killingsworth Station (pictured at the start of this article) at the corner of Killingsworth and Interstate. It is a four story mixed-use project developed by Winkler Development in partnership with the PDC and designed by Vallaster Corl Architects. The project contains 57 ownership housing units above retails condo space. It only managed to get built due to a very high level of subsidy form the PDC, Trimet  and Metro. I often question the use of taxpayer subsidies for projects that in the end are still not that cheap and do not serve those who might otherwise be displaced. That being said the project is a strong urban addition to the area. It creates a substantial street wall at a key intersection in contrast to the two single-story buildings and a gas station that occupy the other corners. It also brings housing and eyes to the street and, assuming the retail space is ever leased, provides an active and engaging edge to the sidewalk.

Just three blocks to the north the Lofts at Jarrett streets is back from the dead and well underway at the northeast corner of Jarrett and Interstate after many years of promise. The project consists of 30 apartment over almost 2000 square feet of retail in four stories. Like Killingsworth Station it will help to activate the street and reenforce Interstate as a important avenue.

The Lofts at Jarrett Street. Image from the project website.

The second revived project is the Prescott Station at the corner of Skidmore and Interstate. It is of a truly different scale than anything built thus far on Interstate. It is to have 155 market rate apartments over 9,500 sf commercial spaces and underground parking. That would be more housing units that all the other projects mentioned combined and at 6 stories it would be the tallest thing built of the street yet. According the DJC it is permitted and has financing so should break ground in March. The development group is connected to Sierra Construction, which is also behind the proposed New Seasons at Williams and Fremont. The architect is the Myhre Group, who are also designing a number of small infill projects around town, most notable the apartment building under construction next to Hollywood Theater. Prescott Station would be a major milestone fo Interstate and hopefully a symbol of things to come.

Prescott Station. Rendering from the Myhre Group Architects.

Despite all of the investment by the PDC and other agencies in Interstate Avenue, in many ways the street is a failure as an urban corridor. For containing some of the highest capacity transit in the metro region it lack any sort of density – most of the area around the stations are comprised of single family houses or very small scale apartment complexes of two stories or less. It also lacks activity or sense of place that would make it an attractive location to area residents or to visit from outside the neighborhood. Walking the Avenue the experience is lack luster as you pass sad low-slung buildings and single family houses. The street use to be a major corridor into the city as the route for highway 99 through Portland. Now, as a major transit corridor it needs to embrace its role as an important avenue once again. The projects discussed above represent steps in the right direction. Each project fills in a little piece in making a great street. Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future these will be isolated incidents of dense urbanism in an otherwise small scale street. Hopefully these island of urbanism will soon be joined by other projects and gain the critical mass of residents and activity needed to start to feel like cohesive places. Only then will Interstate live up to the aspirations of the Portland Development Commission and its potential as one of the great avenues of Portland.

UPDATE: Another apartment project has been proposed at 5118 N. Interstate, just south of Patton Park Apartments. The details are vague as the information comes from the city of Portland land use intakes. An early assistance request was submitted on February 23rd by Ankrom Moisan Architects, the same folk who designed the Milano Apartments currently under construction down the hill at NE 1st and Multnomah, for a four story apartment building on a site that currently occupied by single family homes.

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2 thoughts on “Back from the Grave: The Return of Transit Oriented Development on North Interstate Avenue

  1. Seems like a lot of the retail space in these buildings is sitting vacant. Do you know if anyone’s leasing space now, particularly in the under-construction Prescott, which has tons of it? Thanks for the article.

    • Thanks for your comment. You raise an interesting issue. I do not know of any leasing activity. Killingsworth station has been open for quite a while now, still has most of its space available and the two spaces they have filled have a child therapy clinic and a used book store – not exactly hot retail tenants. Jarrett street lofts and Prescott station are both adding more retail space. The problem seem to be that interstate is what it is. With the exception of Pause, Fire on the Mountain, New Seasons and a few others there is not a lot of destination shopping or dining like there is on Mississippi, Alberta of Williams and what is there is isolated. Much of the street is still cheap hotels, dive bars and fast food and despite the MAX line there is not much foot traffic, a tough place to be as a retailer. I’m hoping that if there is enough new development in a given area a bit of a walkable shopping area can develop and retail can take off. In the mean time, developers have to keep building retail space that will suffer. It is interesting to note that there are two new apartment projects in the works, one near N. Sumner and Interstate and one on the north side of Overlook Park, and neither have any retail. Maybe thats the future.

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