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January 19th, 2011 STACY BROWNHILL | News Stories
 

Creative Tension

Portland’s “New Frontier” of art has a bumpy start.

     
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The first three months at Milepost 5’s Studios in Northeast Portland have been rocky, and residents remain weary after nightmarish plumbing and other problems.

In October, nearly 70 painters, photographers, actors, poets, musicians and other “creatives” moved into Milepost 5’s Studios, 96 apartments ranging from 150 to 350 square feet, with one community kitchen per floor. Next door, 31 artists live and work in the Lofts’ swankier 54 condos, about 477 to 880 square feet apiece.

Milepost 5, the 150-unit, low-income, live/work campus on 82nd Avenue, offers cheap condos and super-cheap apartments (about $200 per month) designed exclusively for artists.

Milepost 5 aims to be a “new frontier” for art, says Brad Malsin, co-owner of the site’s developer, Beam Development. But enormous problems arose before and after the October 2010 move-in.

The opening date for the Studios had been pushed back twice over two months, Malsin says, because permits from the city were sluggish and designs got waylaid.

“Building things is really quick,” says Milepost 5’s creative director Gavin Shettler, hired by Beam to vet applicants and oversee daily operations. “It’s the permitting process that always takes longer than you think.”

Meanwhile, artists were not buying the Lofts’ fancier condos that had already been completed for two years.

“The original hope was to make money off the Lofts and invest in the Studios,” says Beam Development director of operations Jonathan Malsin, Brad’s son. “But we couldn’t have come to the market at a worse time.”

Then opening day finally arrived at the Studios, and brown water spewed from the taps for the first week and hot water was nonexistent for many residents, as plumbing problems haunted the 90-year-old building. The site had been vacant for three years since its previous life as Baptist Manor retirement home.

Beam Development poured “tens of thousands” of dollars into fixing the boiler and steam valves. “It was like chasing a ghost through the building,” says Jonathan Malsin.

It got to the point that resident Amanda Haswell designed a whole series of penned illustrations around the plumbing problems, captioning one, “The plumbers are back to fight. & we hope slay. [sic] the hot water monster.”

The hot-water monster has been slain. But many of the promised community spaces on the Studios’ ground floor, such as a live-music performance venue and a shared shop space with a tool library, remain under construction because of the plumbing and permit distractions.

Residents are frustrated. They say rent abatement does not make up for the problems. Peter Turner, a 28-year-old mixed-media artist, says he loves the place but has his gripes.

“I assumed the rosy pictures on the website were true,” Turner says. “But there seems to be a lack of a business plan, or at least one that’s transparent to the community.”

Beam Development teamed in 2006 with Ted Gilbert, chairman of the nonprofit Portland Affordable Housing Preservation Trust, to buy the property for $2.8 million.

“It’s been one of the most painful experiences of my career,” said Brad Malsin. “I’ve done millions of square feet of commercial development and never seen problems like [Milepost 5’s].”

Malsin thinks the building’s age and fractured redevelopment over time is the culprit. “This is not a project we did to make money,” he says. “We did this to support local artists.”

“This is our family,” says Chihiro Aldrich, a 28-year-old oil-based painter who moved from Eugene to live in Milepost 5. “And we all really want to make this building work.”

“It’s like everyone here is the same species, and we’re all in a zoo together,” says resident Liam Marshall, a poet in his 30s who says his work has improved because his Milepost 5 neighbors motivate him. “I like to think of us all as being really heroic.”


FACT: Milepost 5 (900 NE 81st Ave.) invites the public to a ribbon-cutting festival April 1-3 that will include live music, poetry readings and plenty of artwork. Community members are also invited to the Studios’ open house every first Friday of the month.
 
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