A glaring hole in Portland's downtown landscape is closer to being filled. On the whole, that will be a very good outcome for the city — despite any misgivings that critics of urban renewal might have about public subsidies for private development.
The land in question is the 33-acre Zidell property that sits mostly vacant at the west end of the new Tilikum Crossing bridge over the Willamette River. The land has a heavy industrial past, but its environmental problems have been cleaned up and now it is ready to become the final link between the flourishing South Waterfront area and the older Riverplace development and Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park to the north.
Almost certainly, there will be public tussles and setbacks to come (as have occurred with other major urban renewal projects in Portland). But at this juncture, while the land remains largely empty and its potential still limitless, it's worth pausing to consider just what the Zidell property could mean to Portland.
A deal approved by the Portland Development Commission board last week envisions the area blossoming into a hub for employment, recreation and housing. Improvements, amenities and opportunities would include:
• A riverfront park and greenway.
• An access road into this new area of town.
• Approximately 1.5 million square feet of commercial and residential buildings.
• Up to 2,500 jobs and 1,000 condominiums and apartments.
• A dedicated space for affordable housing.
Development of the site also would help bring the west-side waterfront closer to completion, with parks, greenways, transit, offices and homes. With that long-range vision in mind, it wasn't hyperbole for PDC board members to call this deal "historic" and "monumental." However, as always, it's the devilish details that will matter most in determining whether the public's interest will be fully protected as the development moves forward.
So far, the public's investment looks reasonable in comparison to the value it will receive. The PDC board agreed to provide tens of millions of dollars for a new access road, riverfront park, greenway, low-income apartments and storm drainage. The Zidell family will pay $35 million to share in those costs, which then will lead to a more than $210 million investment in the private development of residential and commercial buildings.
The private investments will generate revenue for the urban renewal district that can be used to pay for the public amenities in the development and additional public benefits. That's fortunate, because any plan to build gleaming new office and residential towers in downtown Portland leads to the inevitable question of who gets left behind.
Increasingly, the South Waterfront, Pearl District and original downtown area are easily available to the affluent, but less so to everyone else. Efforts to blend in affordable housing have been partially successful, and it appears that will be the case once again with the Zidell property.
One of the final sticking points in the deal between the city and the Zidell family involved this question of affordable homes. In the end, ZRZ Realty Co., which represents the Zidells, consented to sell the city land for about 200 affordable apartment units. The property will be sold to the city at market rate.
Housing advocates are to be commended for their determined effort to include affordable homes in the plan. That type of advocacy will be needed going forward as well. In the meantime, though, this deal offers Portland too much potential to pass up, and it deserves support from the City Council when it comes before it on June 24.