Buy one, Get One Free!

Instant Downtown:  Atwater Place at left

Instant Downtown: Atwater Place at left

Atwater Place, a condominium project in the South Waterfront district near downtown Portland, will tomorrow be auctioning off 40 of the 150 or so units it has failed to sell, at prices starting at a bit less than half of what the 60-odd original buyers paid just two years ago.  It’s another victim not just of the recession, but rather of the boom preceding it, wherein otherwise reasonable developers, city officials, and the state’s largest employer, OHSU, all succumbed to the extraordinary popular delusion that a fallow industrial district a mile south of downtown could, with the right improvements and transit connections, overcome its bad location, access issues, and complete lack of urban amenities to become The Next Big Thing.  Well, it’s big, anyway.

South Waterfront from the aerial tram

South Waterfront from the aerial tram

It all looked so good on paper back in the day.  OHSU was growing by leaps and bounds, and continually threatening to expand in suburbia, since its Marquam Hill site was full to bursting.  The city had had enormous success in redeveloping former rail yards and industrial blight north of downtown into the glittering Pearl District, merely by adding two parks and a streetcar through the magic of tax-increment financing, and letting developers do the rest.  Condos were selling at ever-escalating prices, faster than they could be built.  Biotechnology was touted as the growth sector, and OHSU planned to take a leading role, establishing a biotechnology campus in South Waterfront that would provide upscale employment to go with the upscale condos.

Kind of a lot of space out here...

Kind of a lot of space out here...

A yawning gap in the Willamette River Greenway that lay between Riverplace to the north and John’s Landing to the south was aching to be filled with a glitzy, eco-friendly “neighborhood” in a forbidding no-man’s land where they used to scrap ships.  What could go wrong?  Plenty.

First of all, the streeetcar would have to be extended a mile, from CHNN Headquarters on Park Avenue to the site.  No problem.  Second, and somewhat more problematically, some way had to be devised for all those doctors and scientists to get from OHSU to the waterfront, where nearly 1000 feet of elevation, a freeway, and a dizzying array of boulevards and bridge ramps made the trip take up to 20 minutes by car.

The tram is snazzy, and a mere $4 for a round trip.

The tram is snazzy, and a mere $4 for a round trip.

How about a $50 million aerial tram?  Go for it.  It all happened so fast.  No sooner was the tram completed than OHSU started cutting back.  Turns out you don’t create a “Biotechnology Center” out of thin air, and OHSU stopped building after one facility was complete.  Condos, one thirty stories high, popped up like mushrooms after a rain, and here, in the middle of nowhere, a high-rise district appeared as if by magic, and sold like hotcakes with similarly magical money.  The boom was on, and then it was off, just like that.

If you lived here, you'd be broke now....

If you lived here, you'd be broke now....

Riding the streetcar down there today, I was struck by the raw distance that separates South Waterfront from anything resembling urbanity.  One must nervously pass under a roaring tangle of the Marquam Bridge’s overhead freeway ramps, then past an enormous Superfund site, once described to me by a soil scientist as “a mess,” under  yet another bridge, and past a barge factory to get to the island of sparkling green Nirvana we Portlanders have come to expect of our downtown neighborhoods, only to be greeted by a spookily uninhabited fake urban paradise, devoid of any life except increasingly desperate real estate offices.

Atwater Place itself looks pleasant enough for the mandatory glass box of the era; it’s lushly landscaped and has a nifty fountain court.  But to those 60 buyers who paid upwards of $700,000 for units now being offered at $350,000, I must ask, have y’all every heard of the first three rules of real estate? Location, location, and location, and this joint ain’t got it.  You can’t create “urban living” where none existed before, and had the boom gone on for the twenty years it might take to connect your district to downtown, the constant construction entailed would still make your life a living hell in the process.  Back when the boom was still on, newly minted South Waterfront “residents” proudly called themselves urban “pioneeers.”   Yeah.  Like the Donner party.  Real urban pioneers that have revitalized old industrial districts like the Pearl across the country endured homeless, hookers, and drug dealers to live in areas close to downtown that had both historic character and people, whether desirable ones or not, and have been remarkably successful at it.

The pioneers of South Waterfront weren’t so adventurous…  they wanted “urban” living untainted by urban realities, and chose a Disney version of city living, where the only (imagined) inhabitants would be just like themselves, a gamble which clearly has come up snake eyes.  But what are they worried about?  The low prices will bring in the riff-raff.  Who’d a thunk?

21 Comments

  1. rmp says:

    David Sirota in an article in Salon.com today came up with a term to describe how Reanti-thinkingcans condemn Obama for exactly the same thing their drinking buddy Dubya did. It’s called, “selective deficit disorder.” I think what you have so ably described could be called, “selective urban disorder.”

    Washington’s selective deficit disorder: They blew billions on wars and bailouts, but spending cash that actually helps people seems to bother politicians
    http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2009/09/19/sirota_deficits/index.html?source=newsletter

  2. cocktailhag says:

    I read that. It’s kind of stunning sometimes, the disconnect. The tram was pretty fun, though, and fast. I can see the damn thing out of my window, and it took me until now to ride it. Very Disneyland.

  3. Jim Montague says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t the tram originally built because of the road ice that developed on really cold days up on the hill, that in the winter prevented people from getting to their jobs at OHSU, for up to two weeks at a time?

    • cocktailhag says:

      Yes, the hills are horrible in the snow and ice, but it’s not like the 20,000 OHSU employees could all make it to South Waterfront, park, and take the tram.

    • Gareth Price says:

      I worked at OHSU for 6 years and in that time there were perhaps 5 or 6 daysin total when I couldn’t get to work on the bus. I believe the tram was built so that all the bike commuters would not have to cycle up the hill.

  4. Jim Montague says:

    Its been a couple years, but if I remember correctly, they thought that it could easily handle all the people they thought would buy in Waterfront park, What a grandiose scheme. Didn’t they also paint the cars in a way that would protect the privacy of the people who lived below the tram?

    • cocktailhag says:

      They frosted the glass from about waist height down. Those neighborhoods, clobbered by freeway construction and urban renewal in the past, were understandably skeptical. In actuality, though, the tram only passes over about two dozen houses closely enough to compromise their privacy..

  5. Jim Montague says:

    Maybe when the dizzy Molly Bordonaro decides to run for Governor, she can arrange for a photo shoot of her shooting deer from the tram. Get the NRA and the anti-PETA vote all in one.

  6. Reading this, and looking at the first picture, I was reminded of Century City, which rises full-grown from the brow of Zeus, part 2001 and part Stonehenge. Wonderful views, but you have to drive 20 miles to get anywhere which might actually be called somewhere, and if you die, you’re already buried. All they have to do is weld the door to your condo shut.

    Le Corbusier started all this, back in the days when an imperial detachment was the most prized form of aesthetic grandiosity. One would have thought that Brasilia, with its surrounding ring of ever-expanding favelas, would have put an end to it once and for all. No such luck, at least not so long as people continue to have misplaced ambitions, and more money than sense. (Just for kicks, I googled Century City condos. There’s one available at 2055 Avenue of the Stars for only sixteen million five hundred thousand dollars. No meltdown here, it seems.)

    One wonders what sort of savage urban landscape we’d be left with if these monstrosities ever did turn into slums. Something from Godard, maybe, like Aphaville, or Weekend. Or even cheesier, like Escape from New York. If this were to happen in LA, I’m not sure anyone would notice, but in PORTLAND! Now there’s an icy-fingers-on-the-back-of-the-neck-thought….

    • cocktailhag says:

      South Waterfront is a lot like Century City, but at least century city has Wilshire nearby; and isn’t wedged between a river and a freeway. It seems unlikely to ever become a slum, but equally unlikely to become especially desirable, either. Too much architectural homogeneity, and too much “can’t get there from here.” As an urban dweller, one considers the restaurant or store a block or two away “close,” and the one several blocks away “far.” We walk, but not for over a mile under freeways and past superfund sites. The streetcar becomes a necessity, but yet it shuts down after midnight, like Cinderella’s carriage turning into a pumpkin, so the “urban pioneer” of South Waterfront has a long, scary, walk from the theatre or nightclub. This seems so obvious now…
      Why wasn’t it obvious then?

    • Jim Montague says:

      No meltdown indeed. Candy Spelling Aaron’s widow, recently put up her Holmby Hills home for $150,000,000, she then hiked down the hill to Century City, and signed a contract to buy a 16,500 square foot condo for $47,000,000. Isn’t downsizing wonderful?

      • cocktailhag says:

        I heard about that. I guess Candy needs a Bloomingdale’s downstairs like I need the beer store. (Deschutes’ full line for $5.49 all month….) My friend Rebecca used to live on Charleville in BH, and we actually walked to Century City, and as we rounded the corner and saw the “Bloomingdale’s” sign, glowing in the night sky, she yelled, in her best Jewish American Princess voice, “Thar she blows!” Good times. We didn’t see Candy that night, though.

        • Jim Montague says:

          I know Charleville, There used to be a Hamburger Hamlet on Rodeo Dr just above Charleville, and a place called Nutcorn, which made the most fantastic caramel corn with pralines and almonds which John F. Kennedy supposedly was crazy about. All gone now, probably moved to Century City.

          • cocktailhag says:

            There was no decent food unless you went all the way to Beverly, back when Rebecca lived there in the late 90′s. Barney’s, however, was quite close, (not that I’d ever buy anything there) and there was a hardware store across Wilshire that wasn’t too bad. It was right by the Peninsula Hotel, as I recall, Rebecca’s distinctly LA “French Chateau” style eight-plex. When Rebecca moved out, Delta Burke moved in to her old apartment….

          • The old Wilson’s House of Suede, at the corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica, is now a Starbuck’s, I’m told. In a pinch, I’ll bet you could snag some embalmed biscotti there. Just don’t jaywalk your way from the fountain.

          • cocktailhag says:

            My mother had an unnatural devotion to Starbucks biscotti, and Anise, the most disgusting kind, no less. She even tried to force-feed it to people. When she worked at the yarn store, with other older ladies, one of them broke a tooth due to her zeal. After that, I had an easier time “just saying no.”

  7. dirigo says:

    Don’t know if the following shows itself in the design and financing of buildings (though it might during construction, near the concrete truck, or the “roach coach” coffee wagon), but it’s some food for thought, like a walnut chip stuck in the throat, or, as Scrooge once put it, in dismissing Marley’s ghost: a bit of “underdone potato.”

    “Most men, when they they are thinking, are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

    – Knute Rockne