A solution may be surfacing to the problem that bedevils Portland's artists, small-scale craftspeople and other creative workers: lack of cheap space where it's legal to both live and work.
Attempts to create low-rent digs often hit a paradox. Any structure where people sleep must meet city safety codes. But building to code usually makes space too expensive for any real-life working artist to afford.
Witness the Pearl District, where many pricey condos are billed as "live/work." (See "Creative Bind," WW, June 8, 2005, for a more detailed explanation of the conundrum.)
"It becomes lofts for rich people," says local architect Bill Neburka. "I thought there must be a way to build...so you don't put in live/work one day and see a Starbucks on the corner the next."
Neburka and partner Carrie Schilling think they've found the answer: a design for a boxy-but-crisp building honeycombed with raw, utilitarian 600-to-800-square-foot cubes.
Mostly quasi-industrial work space, the rooms would include IKEA-built kitchenettes and futon-ready sleeping nooks. The architects estimate a standard rent of around $500 a month, which is comparable to some rates for conventional low-income housing. For example, a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment (with no legal work space) at North Portland's New Columbia housing project rents for $555 a month.
The still-unbuilt concept is also notable for what it leaves out. Namely, the can.
No unit has its own bathroom. Rather, occupants would share facilities grouped in the building's center.
Neburka and Schilling say that would tame construction costs and act as an effective yuppie-repellent to depress rents.
"It is a strange but simple solution," says Jesse Beason, City Commissioner Sam Adams' pointman for efforts to encourage live/work construction. "We like that it's market-driven, rather than one that looks for a city subsidy."
Adams' office recently hooked Neburka and Schilling up with city inspectors, who gave their design a provisional thumbs-up on safety issues. Now comes the quest for willing builders, financing and land.
By the end of April, Adams' office will launch a search for potential developers.
The architects have sketched out a version of their design that would fit an inner eastside lot owned by developer Brad Malsin, an avowed fan of live/work. (That particular location, smack in the middle of the East Bank industrial area, would require a special zoning waiver from the city.)
Ultimately, they would like to see several versions built in different locations, testing the market for their intentionally spartan experiment.
You're making it less enticing in a way," says Schilling. "That can be tough for some developers to think about, because you're willfully restricting your profit if you build one."