Landmarks Commission offers advice on Old Town Chinatown Block 33 (images)

A mixed use development on Old Town Chinatown Block 33 has gone before the Historic Landmarks Commission to receive Design Advice. The project by William Kaven Architecture for developer Guardian Real Estate Services would include retail, residential and offices uses, over three levels of below grade parking. The ground floor of the building would be almost entirely retail, while the four stories above it would be occupied by office space. The top five floors would include approximately 167 apartments units, with a mix of affordable and market rate units.

Old Town Chinatown Block 33

The project site is a full block, bound by NW 4th Ave, Davis St, 5th Ave and Couch St. It is located inside the New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District, which has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1989. The site has been used as surface parking for decades.

Old Town Chinatown Block 33

The building would be arranged in a U shape, with a south facing courtyard at level 5. Exterior landscaping, designed by Lango Hansen, is proposed at levels 1, 3, 5 and 9. Proposed exterior materials include brick, aluminum curtain wall, aluminum storefront, and metal panel.

Old Town Chinatown Block 33

As currently proposed the project reaches a height of 125′, which exceeds the 100′ maximum height currently allowed on the site. Under the proposed Central City 2035 Plan—currently at the Planning and Sustainability Commission and set to go before City Council this spring—the allowable height on Block 33 would rise to 125′. For the project to make use of that increased height it would need to be submitted for review under the new code, which is set to come into effect in 2018. If the project is reviewed against the current code it would be limited to 100′ in height.

Old Town Chinatown Block 33

At the corner of NW 5th and Davis one of the commercial lease spaces is being designed by accommodate a restaurant, with a recessed outdoor seating area facing the transit mall.

Old Town Chinatown Block 33

Old Town Chinatown Block 33

Old Town Chinatown Block 33

A memo to the Historic Landmarks Commission, published before the January 13th advisory hearing, outlined potential areas for discussion. These included: the compatibility with the historic district, which is primarily comprised of shorter, partial block buildings; the materials proposed; and the ground level treatment. Much of the discussion centered around the scale and massing of the building, with Commissioners noting that although there are some building that reach the 100′ maximum height (including the Grove Hotel, approved by a split decision) none of them occupy a full block. During the hearing Commissioner Minor offered her thoughts on the scale of the project:

I guess I have some comments just about massing, and that does include height, obviously. It’s part of our discussion about compatibility. I would definitely counsel the applicant to look more carefully at the forms in the district, especially those of the contributing buildings. They’re pretty simple. They’re blocky. The historic lot divisions were generally no more than about a quarter block, although historically I know that there were at least a couple half block buildings. I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to seeing a mass that is up to a half of a block. But I am not convinced right now by the massing that tries to divide the building up into a plinth with then some kind of pieces overhang in some cases, or are at least coplanar with that lower plinth. If you are going to try to push the height limit envelope here–and I’m trying to re-gauge down to 100′–there is one contributing building which is at 90′ [the Mason Ehrman Building / PDC building]. I think you have an opportunity there to make a fairly direct relationship, and get yourselves perhaps that 100′, and have it look like you’ve really studied that building. You do need to do a lot more context study. You need to come in and show us, one-to-one, these are the size of storefront bays, for instance, instead of showing these kind of gargantuan bays. It’s not reflective of the district. You need to have a much more fine grained understanding of the scale and proportion of the building at the ground level especially.

Old Town Chinatown Block 33 is currently scheduled to return in front of the Historic Landmarks Commission for a second Design Advice Request Hearing on April 10th.


34 thoughts on “Landmarks Commission offers advice on Old Town Chinatown Block 33 (images)

  1. Looks pretty cool and futuristic, and it might make that area less of a dead zone.

    Of course, nobody will agree with me on the first point. Cue the comments of your readers, who would rather the property remain a surface parking lot forever than feature a single design element not to their tastes.

  2. I think is a great looking building. I think it is appropriate that is distinct from the historic buildings. I also think the size could be a real benefit fo the district. It is no secret that this part of town has struggled for decades. Replacing a surface parking lot with a large, high quality building that aspires to activate 4 block faces should be seen as nothing bu a boon to the rest of Oldtown/Chinatown. This type of development actually does a lot for preserving the historic buildings by invigorating the area and bringing more residents and businesses to the streets. This will add value to all the buildings around it. As someone who loves Oldtown/Chinatown and treasures the history, I say you can’t build this fast enough!

    • If you “treasure” the history then lets build something there that respects the history with contextual empathy. Like I said there is an egregoius amount of development happening in the pearl and there is an attempt to build that reflects the context not wipe it out. If this building is built its going to stimulate more building like that and totaly destroy the place that you “treasure”.

  3. You can hardly blame the Historic Landmarks Commission and the Portland Chinatown History Foundation for being uncomfortable with this. One could debate the height, but the larger concern is the scale and expression. This thing could have been designed for almost anywhere else but Chinatown. It would be better received in the Pearl District. Let’s face it, in a neighborhood of small-scale buildings on 1/4-block (or smaller) sites, any full-block project will have a tough time fitting into that context. I agree that the designers need to get back to work. This proposal is not very different than the firm’s first proposal which also felt out of place.

  4. I agree DMS… Come on Guardian!!…..lets tone down the fact you’ve got lots of money to spend on a BIG SHINY BUILDING but lets have some contextual empathy here… it can be “futuristic” (whatever that means any more) and you can look around you and see whats going on around the neighborhood. There is no refernce to ANYTHING in that neighborhood in that building. If you go to the Pearl where there is an agregious amount of development happening, there is at least an effort to blend things in with the neighborhood. If Guardian is serious about stimulating that neighborhood lets go back to the origional idea for that neighborhood, that block. UWAJIMAYA asian grocery store. They pulled out when the economy was b ad. Guardian, Woo them back! That neighborhood would explode with cultural revival with their presence.

    • Agreed. We should just keep it a surface parking lot. Far more quaint, charming, and more in tune with the “character” of the area.

        • Your comment leads me to believe what side of the political fence you lean towards. Pretty much the same place I know Guardian does. No capacity for analytical conversation.

          • You’d guess wrong, I suspect. I’m not a leftist-prog type at all and don’t read the Guardian. The point is this: I’d like to see every surface parking lot and vacant lot in central Portland converted to a multistory mixed-use building in the next five years, as it would expand our housing, office and industrial capacity, while creating a far more compact walkable city. The majority of the commenters here would prefer that absolutely nothing be built if it fails to conform to their rigid and somewhat arbitrarily-derived aesthetic standards. No, you want something else built instead, but if we obstruct every building not seen as aesthetically perfect by those who care most about aesthetics, we’ll either never build anything or we’ll build far too slow. Personally, I wouldn’t care that if I hated the design of this building. A multistory mixed-use structure of any sort would be superior to this plot’s current use.

            I hate the way they Yard looks, but I still prefer it to what was previously there. I’d rather have an occasional ugly building slip through the cracks than grind all development to a halt due to my personal aesthetic preferences.

          • LOL Guardian is the developers of the property …..NOT the news paper!!! and I was refering not about the left but the right (R) and im not advocating NOTHING being built…. Im encouraging thoughtful building…. that design is not “cool” looking. its cliche and ugly and looks like everything other thoughless piece of…. thats being pushed throw because of greed.

          • Analytical think requires knowledge of context… just proved my point about you and Guardian (the developers. not the newspaper)

      • Chris, please, you can readily see that commenters here absolutely do not wish for this black-hole of a parking lot to continue to suck life out of Chinatown. We want a better building to fill the void.

  5. If you want a visual of the lack of context look at those tiny little red street light that distinguishes that neighborhood from the rest of the city…. its like size of the ship from Independance Day….dwarfing everything else around it!

  6. “LOL Guardian is the developers of the property …..NOT the news paper!!!”

    Fine, whatever. The details of an ad hominem don’t matter.

    “im not advocating NOTHING being built…. Im encouraging thoughtful building….”

    Regardless of what you explicitly advocate or encourage, mandating that all new construction be approved by a consensus of aesthetes would result in a near-halt or extreme slowdown of construction. Those would be the consequences of what you advocate, regardless of your intention.

    “that design is not “cool” looking. its cliche and ugly and looks like everything other thoughless piece of”

    I think it’s cool, you think it’s ugly. I don’t think should have building codes that mandate a specific aesthetic. There are community covenants for those who wish to have control over what color their neighbor paints their door. I don’t think it has any place in the largest city in the state. There are smaller cities and suburbs for people who demand rigid control over architectural aesthetics. In Portland, as long as a structure meets zoning and environmental health and safety regulations, I say build it.

    “…. thats being pushed throw because of greed.”

    You can apply the greed word to any business that makes money. As long the company provides a useful product or service, I don’t particularly care what their motivation is.

    • So let’s throw away historic guidelines and references and just say “hey bro looks cool” Or “nah bro totally not cool” and your next idea will probably be watering everything with electrolytes cause their good fer ya I’m sure. And the details are important if you’re going to debate and not sound uninformed (really wanted to say stupid). “I don’t read the Guardian”

      • That is exactly what we should do, because building more close-in units fast should take precedence over pandering to the arbitrary aesthetic tastes of RPTrick.

  7. IMO the HLC should be nipped in the bud and simply have a consultative role (behind the Design Commission) in appraising new development. I’m sympathetic to the concerns expressed here about scale. However, I am adamantly opposed to faux-historicity in contemporary architecture; that approach, which the HLC seems hell-bent on enforcing, stifles creativity and disrespects actual historic buildings. Having a clear contrast between different eras of architecture helps create an authentic sense of history and is an expression of a city’s cosmopolitanism.

    It is particularly ironic that the HLC has no power, most of the time, to prevent the demolition of Portland’s historic fabric. If you really want to rail against greed and the sociopathic economics of capitalism, look no further than the Temple and Lotus buildings, or even the Fishels building on E Burnside. I’d prefer to give the HLC the power to bring the hammer down on developers seeking to maximize profits at the expense of Portland’s 20th century architectural fabric rather than watch them attempt to grapple with the aesthetics of contemporary infill.

  8. Overall, not a bad building, but totally in the wrong place. it is a neighborhood of smaller buildings, each with their own identity and then someone wants to land this monstrosity right in the middle of it.

  9. One hopes for more civil discourse in this region of the web than we see here. Let’s hope the effects of our tweeter-in-chief are not trickling this far down . Adults must remain adults even on the playground.

    This site/program is a tricky one. An entire block development must address a context of 1/8 block massing with an overlay of China/Japantown influences and history. I understand why many here are uncomfortable with the proposal but I’m having a hard time visualizing how one would respect context without creating an assemblage of faux separate buildings. That concept is under construction currently in the Conway blocks and was well received by the Design Commission. Yet some find this approach an empty gesture. Perhaps the HLC should require multiple buildings on this site if respecting context is the chief requirement. Perhaps if the program was not merely mixed use but a significant cultural institution the architects would be allowed a longer leash to stand out with brazen contrast.

  10. Andrew N and david dysert make some great points.

    If people are upset that this dwarfs context, then change the zoning code so people can’t build this high and developers can’t consolidate a full block of lots in old town.

    Personally, I like the podium and stepback approach as a way to try to fit into the scale, though I don’t think the project team is implementing that over the entire site. I think the southern half of their proposal fits in more than the northern half. I’m also doubtful about that rendering’s slick glass and metal panel box actually looking that way once it’s built.

    I think the HLC needs to be reined in, or get more in line with the SHPO and other national approaches to historic preservation. New stuff can stand out – it makes the historic stuff that much more impressive. If we want OTCT to thrive in the future, we need to get the drugs out of the neighborhood, and get private developer money into the neighborhood to build out the parking lots and seismically upgrade the buildings. Right now the HLC is making it hard to achieve those last two objectives by limiting the scale of what can be built in the area. The HLC means well, but not even the design commission has the same power to force developers to reduce a project’s FAR or # of stories to match an aesthetic agenda.

    As a side note, though we may disagree on what’s best for this site, let’s not attack others on the board. We’re all reading this website because we want a better portland – we just have different ideas about what that means.

  11. This actually creates a very interesting conversation with the other buildings in the area. It begs the question: Are the bays of the other buildings currently existing even optimal? Are the buildings themselves optimal?
    I don’t think so, and I don’t think we should be giving nods to buildings that may hold back a brighter future for Portland. What buildings in that area need to be admired anyway? Most, if not all, have a very limited human experience designed into them due to the construction type.

    However, I do think the full block is a bit much, especially on the North end. It creates a “front” and “back” side of the building. Which I think given the fact that this is not an infill site, should be adjusted. The South end of the building opens up quite nicely, but the North end seems like an after-thought. Beautiful design overall.

  12. I realize that something must eventually be done with this block. But having such an out-of-place building in the middle of Old Town is, frankly, gross. Anyone who would call it a “dead zone” is either uninformed or thinks the only valuable type of building is a dog boutique with white sidewalks. I’ve spent my entire life working and/or within 10 blocks of that area. It is not and was not in my lifetime, a dead zone.

    • It hasn’t as yet. The second Design Advice Request is now scheduled for June 10th, which could change again.

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