With a growth boundary hemming its suburban edges, Portland, Oregon, has long been focused on the now en vogue practice of redeveloping former industrial land, especially in the central city. As far back the 1990s, rail yards to Portland's north gave way to the Pearl District’s condos and art galleries. In the 2000s, the real estate boom brought larger half-block condos, a new medical school campus and even an aerial tram to the newly christened South Waterfront district.
After decades of such infill redevelopment, a 30-acre riverfront parcel now amounts to central Portland’s only remaining major real estate opportunity. So it comes as no surprise that the parcel, long owned by the Zidell Marine barge-building company, is about to undergo a metamorphosis. But this time condos will not be the dominant presence in the Zidell Yards, as it the property is now called, nor will for-profit developers be the driving force. Despite its size, Zidell Yards seeks to be a macro development comprised of many different micro-sized parts: an urban space of tranquil greenery, or a park disguised as a vibrant city.
Transit has been the tipping point for both the Zidell Yards and its neighbor, South Waterfront, because they are both long, thin strips of land bound by the river to the east and Interstate 5 to the west. Traditionally such urban corridors, says consultant David Leland (who also co-developed Portland’s Riverplace district north of the Zidell Yards), are ephemeral, pass-through spaces that lack character but see a constant stream of people moving through. "Most cities don’t know what to do with them," he says. "They’re museums of economic decay." With freeway, light rail and streetcar connections here, though, not to mention the river itself, a new pedestrian bridge over I-5 and downtown just a few hundred yards upstream, Leland believes this corridor can be different.
The pass-through character that often makes corridors unremarkable may actually form the basis of the Zidell Yards’ identity, one very different from the Pearl and South Waterfront: that of a diverse crossroads, be it of transit modes, of people, or of the ongoing industrial history of this land (the Zidells are keeping their barge-building facility on the property’s southern edge) with a higher-technology future.
Ideally situated between South Waterfront and downtown, the Zidell Yards could have easily been developed during the last decade’s boom-and-bust cycle. Walkability advocate and real estate developer Christopher Leinberger has called it one of the top five transit-oriented infill development opportunities in the United States. So why wait until now? “We’ve been here for 80 years," says Matt French of Zidell, a grandson of the company’s longtime president who is overseeing the Zidell Yards. "The land has a lot of meaning to us. It’s always been the family’s commitment to take our time and make sure we do it right."
The Zidell Yards are viewed by the family and by the master plan’s designers, ZGF Architects, as an opportunity to change the city’s relationship with the Willamette river bisecting it down the middle. Portland has traditionally, and somewhat oddly, lacked sufficient places where people can touch the water and swim in it. In the past, pollution had made such activities inadvisable anyway. But the city has spent more than a decade cleaning up the Willamette. What better time to add a beach, or a floating swimming-pool barge?
The ensuing master plan diverts from Portland’s standard grid, with streets curving in parallel to the river. “In America we do streets that run east-west, north-south, on straight lines. Sometimes a little diversion makes you smell the roses,” explains ZGF principal Gene Sandoval. While South Waterfront had planned an ambitiously lush and restorative waterfront greenway that’s yet to be built, ZGF has introduced the idea of bringing the water and greenspaces further inland, both for practical reasons—to filter stormwater before going into the river—and to give the neighborhood a higher ratio of greenery to concrete.
A focal point will also be the land directly underneath the Ross Island Bridge, one of two spans crossing the property. The tall and spare structure, dating to 1926, creates surprisingly little noise below, bringing the opportunity to create a park underneath that merges with the South Waterfront Greenway and possibly the aforementioned beach.
It's as promising a sign as any that the Zidell Yards have already attracted the attention of the Portland area’s lone Fortune 500 company, Nike, which has run out of room at its suburban Beaverton campus. But the Zidell Yards property, if its owners keep their word, is supposed to be about much more than attracting corporate tenants. The crossroads being established here is already becoming a brownfield of dreams.