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June 8th, 2005 Zach Dundas | News Stories
 

CREATIVE BIND

Artists want it. Developers want to build it. So why is cheap live/work space hard to find?

     
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You don't have to be a painter, sculptor or graphic designer to know that Portland is bursting with creative types. In the past few years, this city has attracted thousands of the young, the hip and the artistically inclined-exactly the kind of people who might want to wake up in the dead of night, roll out of bed and tune in the muse.

"Living in your work space allows you to define yourself," says Sean Healy, a Portland painter. "Some of the draw is just hard economics. Some of it is the ideal of the bohemian lifestyle. And you're in there 24/7. If you have an idea, you don't have to go far."

For many artists, however, simply adapting a bedroom or a basement just won't do. Painters and photographers deal with nasty chemicals. Sculptors need to fire up kilns. They need vents, drains, sprinklers, raw concrete-space more industrial than domestic.

These are the people David Gold had in mind in 2003, when he and a partner bought the massive old Columbia Sportswear warehouse that sits in the shadow of the St. Johns Bridge.

Gold saw the 280,000-square-foot building as a potential paradise of the hybrid housing known as "live/work," home for "creatives" who would jump at the chance to bed down where they worked.

Gold is something of an idealist; he installed a one-of-a-kind eco-roof rooted in recycled carpet atop the building and travels the world studying sustainable architecture. But he's also a developer. He knew what market he wanted to tap.

"There is so much demand, it's incredible," says Gold. "I get calls two or three times a week: 'I'm an artist, and I'm looking for space.' You could fill these things in a second."

He even persuaded Portland's City Council to give him a special exemption. Though the property is zoned for industrial use, the council agreed to let people live there.

Unfortunately, a zoning change isn't all you need to make a building habitable. Every structure in which people sleep must satisfy myriad safety requirements enshrined in city building codes. The codes are designed to thwart slumlords and prevent fire hazards. They are not designed to allow people to live in enormous old warehouses, and the Columbia Sportswear building's problems proved both numerous and complex.

For example, the building-actually 15 different structures cobbled together-is far larger than city codes say residential buildings should be. Fire-safety issues often bedevil live/work projects, because in general they require fireproof separation between commercial and residential areas. Gold discovered that his building's size and weird construction meant he would have to split it into six zones, separated by fire walls extending from the basement to the rooftop.

Gold estimates that he would have needed to spend $500,000 to bring the building up to residential code. That expense would have jacked up rents beyond what the very artists he wanted to rent to could afford.

Today, the warehouse-redubbed Cathedral Park Place-is a reasonably successful complex of airy work-only studios, occupied by photographers, a screenprinter, an art restorer and others. Gold, however, is frustrated by the demise of his original vision.

"We have no interest in operating a fire trap," he says. "On the other hand, we don't think that requiring the same standards you'd require of a brand-new apartment building makes any sense at all. What people who want live/work want is funky, creative, cheap space where they can sleep."

Portland artists and other developers share Gold's frustration. They say live/work is trapped in a paradox in Portland. Artists want it. Developers want to build it. But code requirements make it maddeningly difficult to deliver live/work projects at prices that artists can afford.

It's not as if there's no live/work space. Plenty of the tony Pearl District's buildings are officially live/work; for example, the new Park Place condo tower, where prices start at $295 a square foot, includes four loft-style live/work townhouses. And there are a few buildings closer to the means of actual artists. The 47 spaces of Old Town's Everett Station Lofts are managed by the Minneapolis nonprofit ArtSpace, which keeps rents as low as $510 per unit.

Still, people involved in the Portland art scene say the existing supply doesn't even come close to meeting demand.

"It's to the point where I don't even keep track of who's looking for live/work," says Gavin Shettler of the Portland Art Center, a nonprofit gallery and arts-resource hub.

Some artists and other young, creative types play cat-and-mouse with fire and building inspectors, carving out illegal living quarters in warehouses or garages.

"I brushed my teeth into a bucket every day for three years," says Paige Sáez, a 27-year-old painter and installation artist who used to live illegally in a work space in Southeast. Sáez is searching for a place where she can live as well as create; she describes Portland's live/work scarcity as the "bane of my existence."

At root, Portland's live/work problem is a crucial challenge to a city that has staked its future on dense development, creative industry and attracting newcomers-the last edges cities have in a country where heavy industry is all but dead.

"Our future isn't in building airplanes or anything like that," says Gold. "Our future is in these people."

All over America, cities are pursuing creative industries with a near-religious fervor; the "creative class," a term coined just four years ago by economist Richard Florida, is practically a worn-out cliché. But as Portland economist Joe Cortright has pointed out, the Rose City has actually already attracted a disproportionate mass of young, educated workers. (See Q&A, page 23.)

Live/work, then, is seen by its advocates not just as an amenity for artists, but as a key economic tool for the post-industrial age. In fact, the concept largely exists in its modern form thanks to the slow-motion death of America's manufacturing sector. In the '70s, planners, developers, artists and architects pushed for changes that would legalize new uses for the abandoned factories, warehouses and workshops festering in cities across the country.

"Because of shipping containerization and off-shoring and a whole host of other changes, you had this shift in downtown life," says Thomas Dolan, an Oakland architect who is arguably the foremost practical expert in the field. "And here are people who want to occupy these buildings."

For starving artists, the chief lure of live/work might be the chance to roll together studio and bunkhouse in one rent check. But the concept also appeals to more conventionally professional creative workers.

"Most of my client contact is out in the field," says Dan Young, a Portland architect. "It just seems sort of ridiculous to drive to an office, then drive somewhere else to meet a client."

For their part, many developers are confident of the potential market.

"The people who might want this kind of space exist at all economic strata," says Pete Eggspuehler, a former Portland Development Commission planner who now works for Beam Development. "Maybe it's 400 square feet [renting] for $1 or so a square foot, or maybe it's something a little higher." (In the controversial jockeying over the five-block Burnside Bridgehead development, Beam proposed almost 300 tiny live/work spaces.)

"There's a ton of demand," says Ben Kaiser, a developer who recently converted an old electrical facility on North Williams Avenue into five live/work condos. "But it's tough to get it to market at a price anyone can afford." Kaiser's five units sold for $170 per square foot. "I don't think you could get that project to market for any cheaper than that," he says. "But the disparity is, do you consider that affordable? It's pretty low for this market, but could an artist afford that?"

Certainly, Portland's red-hot real-estate market doesn't help. "I remember when garages undereneath the Broadway Bridge were full of artists," says Sean Healy, who moved here in 1994. "In the booming market, they can sell that kind of space to put condos on. It's forcing people into basements and illegal live/work."

But developers say the biggest barriers to affordable live/work lie in the city's building rules, which exist not to foster funky boho crash pads but to prevent shoddy construction, overcrowding and fire danger.

According to Suzanne Vara, a longtime official with the city's Bureau of Development Services who has studied live/work, potential projects tend to run into problems for several reasons. Live/work developers are often trying to revitalize the most marginal buildings, with the thorniest code issues.

It's not that it can't be done, Vara says. Portland's building department tweaks code requirements to accommodate complex projects all the time. The trouble is, even meeting those adjustments is often expensive.

"Most buildings people want to change to live/work are not going to be two-story office buildings built in the '80s," Vara says. "Every building is likely to be a challenge. And it tends not to be the people with money who want to create sexy, edgy spaces."

Live/work's mongrel nature tends to invite other punishing costs. The city charges developers a fee to offset the stress their projects add to infrastructure like sewers, transportation and parks. Adding residential space to a commercial building (like an old warehouse, for example) kicks in the most severe fees: over $5,000 per unit.

"People who want to do these sorts of projects often think it will be cheap and easy, and what they find is that what they want to do triggers the highest possible fees," Vara says.

Portland's city government has yet to take the sort of steps other cities-notably West Coast rivals Seattle and Oakland-have to encourage live/work projects by easing their cost and regulatory challenges.

In Seattle, the city's housing office provided partial subsidies to three highly successful live/work projects. (Two more are in the works.) The city tapped nonprofit organizations to manage the buildings and requires that rents stay low. Seattle also passed an ordinance requiring most new residential developments to include commercial spaces on their ground floors, creating another potential supply of live/work space.

In 1999, Oakland's city council passed a special building code, designed to define (and encourage) a variety of live/work formats. The new code creates a separate classification for old commercial buildings being converted to live/work, something no other American city has done. The tailored rules also relax certain safety requirements. For example, in many cases developers no longer must separate living and working areas in a unit. Elevated sleeping bunks are exempted from handicap-access rules. Exiting and window requirements are eased.

Oakland's reform was a key plank of Mayor Jerry Brown's effort to lure 10,000 new residents to downtown, and it has spawned a series of high-profile, arts-oriented projects.

Brian Wannamaker, a Toronto-reared developer, has devised a different way around the problem in Portland. He bought the Falcon, a three-story apartment building on the blighted corner of North Killingsworth Street and Albina Avenue, in 1998. And rather than negotiate the city's many obstacles to creating live/work space, he did something different. He has renovated the apartments upstairs and is converting the Falcon's basement into 27 work spaces, which he'll rent for a modest premium to artists who live in the building.

The Falcon's solution will strike some as imperfect because it doesn't fully integrate living space and studio space. It is, however, permitted and underway.

"A lot of people go about this in a way that's just cost-prohibitive," Wannamaker says. "You end up either warehousing artists, or the sterility of the Pearl District."

Wannamaker's jujitsu is still a long way from the comprehensive solution other developers-and many artists-would like to see.

"It's not like we encountered a bunch of people at the city who were being mean and nasty," says Gold. "It's just that it's at a point where the politicians have to decide to help make this possible."

On Monday, City Commissioner Sam Adams presided over an informal meeting in a City Hall conference room. At the table were arts activists and housing experts, as well as Gold and other developers. The group ran through a laundry list of potential funding sources and incentives for affordable live/work-a headache-inducing catalog of tax credits, grants, abatements, bonds, land trusts and fee waivers. "Live/work brings together housing money and economic-development money," Adams noted. The most definite step right now seems to be a tentative plan to build a city-backed live/work project on excess land along I-405 downtown.

As the city ponders its options, people like Sáez-the painter who brushed her teeth in a bucket-are left searching for a place to do their thing in a city that loves artists but hasn't quite managed to weave creative (even chaotic) space into its urban mindset.

"I don't think what I'm looking for is that unreasonable," Sáez says. "I just want a sink and a stove and raw space. No fuss, no muss."

JOE CORTRIGHT

Getting "creative" with a Portland economist.

The phrase "creative class"-and why Portland should try to attract, then keep, its well-educated members-buzzes regularly among the city's decision-makers. And on a national level, the topic is front and center in economist Richard Florida's new book, The Flight of the Creative Class (see review at wweek.com). Cutting through the jargon of the new "knowledge-based" economy falls locally to Portland-based economist Joe Cortright, who sat down with WW to discuss creatives, the "gay index,'' the new economy and what that all means for Portland.

WW: What, exactly, is the creative class?

Joe Cortright: That's a big part of the debate: How do you define these folks? Richard Florida defines them as people in certain occupations that include artists, authors, engineers and designers, but basically includes all teachers, managers and doctors. According to him, one out of every three people who works on a regular basis is a member of the creative class. But to me, it's unclear that that's a cohesive group in any meaningful term. My focus is on college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds. What we're both trying to get at is, "Who are the people creating the new ideas that help drive the economy forward?"

Can't older people be creative?

Absolutely, but young people are the most likely to move. Between the time you turn 25 and the time you turn 35, your likelihood of moving across state lines or cities drops by about half. So, as a practical matter, the only people you're going to get to move are people in that age group.

Why do cities want these people?

In this increasingly knowledge-based economy, a critical resource for employers is talented people. The places that are most attractive to young, well-educated people are the places that will be most successful.

So how does Portland fare?

It's not that we attract huge numbers of people; it's that the people who come here don't tend to move away. And that wasn't the result of any conscious public policy. In fact, having been involved in making economic policy in this state for the past two and a half decades, I can assure you that I never heard anyone say we need to attract these talented young people to be successful.

Then why pursue these people if they're coming anyway?

It clearly benefits our economy to have these folks coming to our community, and you want to be aware of that. But that doesn't necessarily mean every place has to have gay bars just because Florida says the gay index is directly related to the strength of the creative class. What you do to make your community distinctive is more important.

Gay index?

It's a measure of the fraction of any community that is cohabitating same-sex couples. Florida showed a pretty strong correlation between the percent of the population that's gay and how technologically oriented they were and the size of the creative class. But I think Florida's main point is tolerance. Does your community embrace newcomers and integrate them well? It's something that will attract more talented people and enable them to be entrepreneurs.

What else attracts well-educated 25- to 34-year-olds to Portland?

In addition to climate and location, the other things have to do with the fact that the city is walkable, bikeable and transit-oriented with a lot of small neighborhoods and businesses. It's a community where it's relatively easy to get connected and find people with similar interests. It's got a political system that's open to newcomers.

Your report shows Portland still has a low number of young African Americans. Why?

Portland did gain some, but not nearly as significantly as it did Hispanics, Asians and whites. The basic attraction for 25- to 34-year-olds is other 25- to 34-year-olds with the same interests. Atlanta and Charlotte have a vibrant scene for young African Americans. Portland doesn't. These places are the same kinds of magnets for African Americans that Portland is to bike-riding, beer-drinking environmentalists.

Wouldn't we be better served if a Fortune 500 company moved here, no matter how boring it is?

You have to ask yourself, "What would cause a Fortune 500 company to be here?" The only one with its headquarters in the metro area is Nike. And it's here because some crazy young people got this idea, back at a time when adults didn't sweat in public if they could avoid it, that running would be a way to be healthier and have a better life. So Phil Knight started selling shoes out of the back of his car in the 1960s. The issue is not to wish for a Fortune 500 company to drop out of the sky and anoint your community. It doesn't happen that way. ADRIAN CHEN


The Columbia Sportswear building played host to the Modern Zoo arts festival in 2003.

Read Portland State urban-studies prof Ethan Seltzer's review of Richard Florida's new book, The Flight of the Creative Class, at wweek.com.

For more on Seattle's city-backed live/work program, see www.cityofseattle.net/housing/ArtistsHousing.htm .

Architect Thomas Dolan helped write Oakland's live/work code. An extensive explanation of how it works can be found at his website, www.live-work.com .

Brian Wannamaker plans to add a tavern to one wing of the Falcon Apartments basement. The building's wireless Internet service beams into the surrounding North Portland neighborhood. Its website is www.falconartcommunity.com .

WW intern Adrian Chen contributed to the reporting of this article.

Cortright is the head of Impresa Consulting and co-author of the report "The Young and the Restless: How Portland Competes for Talent," available online at www.restlessyoung.com .

 
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