While shiny high-rise developments in the Pearl and South Waterfront have hogged headlines, the most important urban renewal project in recent Portland history has attracted little attention: The renovation of the White Stag Block and the surrounding buildings in Old Town is changing the face of the troubled neighborhood and landing the city a top-notch grad school.

The $32 million restoration of a trio of historic buildings at the foot of the Burnside bridge—soon to be home to the University of Oregon's Portland Center campus—is, according to developer Art DeMuro of Venerable Properties, the catalyst that will finally pull Old Town out of its multidecade slump.

"The university accepted the role to be the first in a stagnant area…the 800-pound gorilla that would attract a lot of redevelopment," DeMuro says.

The buildings comprising the 135,000-square-foot project have been stripped to the studs as their cast-iron façades have been restored to their original, turn-of-the-century splendor. Seismic upgrades and green features have been added in hopes of snagging the building a coveted LEED Gold rating.

At the project's completion in March of next year, UO will consolidate its numerous Portland operations (the Lundquist College of Business and the School of Architecture and Allied Arts, among others) under one roof. Currently, around 200 professional and graduate students attend UO schools in Southwest, Northwest and Northeast Portland. The new development will make room for a total of about 500 Portland students.

If UO purchases the building after eight years—as it currently plans to do—it can accommodate an additional 200 students.

"We want to increase our presence in Portland," says Terri Warpinski, vice provost for academic affairs and community engagement. "We currently don't appear as present because we're so dispersed."

The most important function of the new center is to more than double the capacity of Portland's only architecture grad school. Currently located at Southwest 2nd Avenue and Ankeny Street, the local branch of the university's award-winning School of Architecture can accommodate only 85 undergraduate and master's students.

The new center will also allow additional space for a master's in strategic communications through the university's School of Journalism, more capacity for law students, and a possible master's program in Pacific Rim transactions through the law school. The university also plans to provide space for 200 students in its non-credit Learning in Retirement program, which offers lectures and short courses to the AARP set. The School of Education will offer a Ph.D. in administration.

The top two floors of the 100-year-old White Stag building are well suited for architecture education: North-facing monitor windows allow light to flood into the fifth-floor studio, landing softly on the white-painted ceiling, the building's original wood floors, and gigantic fir beams that have been sandblasted to their original light color. Enormous windows just above the tree canopy look out on stunning views of downtown and the Willamette River. A wide staircase allows ample light into an additional studio space on the fourth floor.

Floors two and three, and the other two buildings in the project, will accommodate lecture halls, classrooms and 40,000 square feet of market-rate tenant space that will house United Fund Advisors and, hopefully, other tenants.

The Bickel Building, a four-story masonry office structure on the corner of Northwest Naito Parkway and Couch Street, is the oldest of the project, built in 1883. Its façade is a textbook example of the cast-iron-fronted style of late 19th-century Portland architecture. Badly damaged by fire in the 1950s, the building's façade along Naito was covered with a brick wall until now. With the wall razed and the columns restored, the corner will become the entrance to a new Duck Shop.

According to Warpinksi, the role of UO in Portland isn't to compete with other institutions, but to offer programs that are unique to the university. Portland State University, for example, also offers architecture education, but only at the undergraduate level.

"Portland operations will never become a center of undergraduate enrollment," she says.

As it turns out, UO has been operating in Portland since the late 19th century, when it opened a law school (now Lewis&Clark Law School) in 1884 and, in 1887, the medical school that would later become OHSU. The current Portland center, though, has only been open since 1987.

The university's architecture school is considered one of the best in the West. Local big-name architects Brad Cloepfil (of Allied Works), John Holmes and Jeff Stuhr (Holst Architecture) and Stewart Moisan (Ankrom Moisan Associated Architects) are all alumni. Having a powerhouse design school in what is rapidly becoming the Northwest's architectural hub will greatly affect the neighborhood, the city and the region—indeed, it already has.

Not long after the university announced its renovation plans in September 2006, international nonprofit Mercy Corps announced plans to build its new world headquarters in the adjacent Skidmore Fountain Building, moving from its current home by the Ross Island Bridge.

Then, this spring, the Naito family announced it will team up with Beam Development to redevelop nine blocks in Old Town along Northwest 2nd Avenue. The plan, according to Beam's Pete Eggspuehler, will include a mix of historic renovation and new construction, plus the restoration of the neighborhood's original alley system to allow for pedestrian traffic and retail frontage between the historic buildings.

The plan calls for "creative" office space, workforce housing and perhaps a hotel on a surface parking lot across from the Mercy Corps building—the block that currently houses food vendors for Portland Saturday Market. The entire market, in turn, will move across Naito Parkway under the Burnside Bridge. The controversial move is slated to happen before the market reopens in 2008.

Ankrom Moisan is crafting the Beam/Naito master plan, which includes the architecture firm's own headquarters. According to Eggspuehler, it wouldn't have happened without the Naito family, or without the university: "That was really the big catalyst. The Naitos actually sold the property for less than the value to get it jump-started. It's important to find a tenant that respects that type of history—the history of the building and the desire to be part of that."

The overall prospect for the district is an exciting one: The convergence of a major academic institution, a large and influential nonprofit and one of Oregon's largest design shops is an economic developer's dream come true.

"Old Town is on the edge of having a major renaissance, [and] we'd like to contribute," says Kip Richardson, director of business development for Ankrom Moisan.

It's about time.