Portland's Centennial Mills, seen from the Willamette River. Brian Libby

Jordan Schnitzer wants to turn the long-dilapidated Centennial Mills into the city's next revitalized neighborhood—even if it means reaching into his own pocket.

Walking through Centennial Mills, a cluster of abandoned early-20th-century mill buildings along Portland's Willamette River just north of downtown, it's easy to see both deterioration and potential.

With a golden patina to their aged brick, these former flour and seed mills provide a striking contrast to the shiny new condo towers of the adjacent Pearl District, and their proximity to this burgeoning area could also make for an ideal riverside destination.

But since operations ceased in 2000, the combined 11 buildings have decayed swiftly. On a recent visit, swaths of water-damaged upstairs floors were marked with spray paint to warn of potential cave-ins. Raccoon tracks were among the subtler examples of animal intrusion, and visitors had to wear face masks.

It's telling that producers of NBC's supernatural show Grimm (which is filmed in Portland) have repeatedly requested to film inside Centennial Mills, the city's last large industrial relic. But the developer heading efforts to preserve and redevelop the property—Jordan Schnitzer—has always turned them down, with dreams of restaurant patrons and happy children filling the space over TV werewolves and jackals.

As president of Portland's Harsch Investment Properties, Schnitzer oversees the management and development of some 130 buildings around the country. Still, he is probably better known as an art collector and philanthropist. Schnitzer's father and grandfather made a fortune in the scrap metal and steel industries along this waterfront. And in a city that lacks the kind of private-sector wealth enjoyed by Seattle or San Francisco, the Schnitzer name has been attached as principal donor to countless arts and social causes—for example, the art museum at the University of Oregon.

Most recently, the family announced a $1 million gift to the Confluence Project, a multi-site installation being created by Maya Lin along the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington. Jordan Schnitzer himself is one of the nation's foremost contemporary art collectors, with works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Chuck Close, Elsworth Kelly, and Kara Walker, among many others, in his combined personal and family collections.

Jordan Schnitzer (Harsch Investment Properties)

Harsch's headquarters in downtown Portland doesn't have any project photos on its walls. Instead, scores of paintings and sculptures by internationally renowned artists are interspersed liberally among the desks and file cabinets, as if to express the blend of business and philanthropy.

"It's run like a family enterprise, and they have a different metric," says Bruce Wood, a project manager at the Portland Development Commission—the city's urban renewal agency—who worked at Harsch in the early 1990s. "It's about art and legacy. Jordan is very charismatic, and he's at his very best when he's involved in civic causes because he loves that stuff.

"And this project needs something like that," Wood adds, "because if you look at the numbers … it would never happen. This project is that complicated. It needs somebody who's going to put a little more into it."

Many of the Centennial Mills buildings have already deteriorated to the point where they can't be saved, including a group of interconnected wharf buildings stretching over the water, which are in danger of imminent collapse. Schnitzer blames local government for not taking better care of them in the 14 years since the last tenants moved out and the city took ownership.

"I guess I'm wearing my civic hat first on this," Schnitzer says. "Certainly, if we wanted more real estate projects, there would be easier ways to do it. But it's one of the few sites left on the waterfront that tells of a time and place in the past that was a critical building block of this community. That's why I think there was a human cry when the city was going to tear it all down."

Centennial Mills in 2010 (Tim Roth/Flickr)

The original plan was to tear down the mill structures for a public park, before citizens waged a successful preservation campaign. Then, in 2006, the city contracted with a California developer to renovate Centennial Mills, but the recession hit and the deal was canceled, prolonging the inaction and decrepitude.

Schnitzer's plan is to retain the complex's two largest structures, the flour and feed mill buildings, while creating about 224,000 total square feet of residential, retail, and office space with a floating boat dock on the water. He has approached Frank Gehry to design a glass-ensconced event center and Lin to design a pedestrian bridge over busy Naito Parkway. All this would cost an estimated $115 million, and there is a $38.5 million gap between what the company is willing to invest and what the Portland Development Commission has set aside for the project ($16 million).

The developer is cautious about using his foundation as a bailout or extra capital source for Harsch, but from time to time, Schnitzer has underwritten public projects, be it a restoration of the circa-1926 Astoria Column in Astoria, Oregon, or the creation of Director Park, a popular downtown Portland plaza. And he's determined not to let the opportunity to revive Centennial Mills slip away.

"If it takes a little more money, maybe we reach into our foundation pockets to come up with some more money," he says. "We're not going to do this project unless we can do it right."

Despite the funding gap, Schnitzer and the city expect to hammer out a deal soon. Earlier this month the Portland Development Commission approved an expedited process for hiring a demolition contractor to tear down the non-salvageable buildings. And its board is scheduled to vote on a redevelopment plan in January.

New condos and apartments line the waterfront near Centennial Mills. (A.Davey/Flickr)

If and when it's completed, the new Centennial Mills could become not only a gateway to the Pearl District, where tower cranes are busy erecting some of the city's tallest condo and apartment buildings, but a citywide destination. Though Portland is situated along the Willamette and just a few miles south of the mighty Columbia River, the city has traditionally lacked waterfront settings where visitors can eat, shop, and play.

Schnitzer believes that as a young city, Portland has all the more responsibility to protect its modest heritage. "The cities on the East Coast aren't even that old," he points out. "You go to Europe and you see things a thousand, two thousand years old. So therefore I think we have an obligation here to preserve those things we have, because we have so few of them."

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