Placemaking in the Pearl

Date Posted: 04.24.2017

Portland’s Pearl District has transformed from a neighborhood of warehouses, light industry and rail yards to a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood and one of the country’s most desirable locations. Located just northwest of Portland’s downtown, the area is now known for art galleries and lofts, the famous Powell’s City of Books and new, residential, retail and office. City policy shaped this change in the mid-1980s when the district was zoned as mixed-use as part of Portland’s growth management policy that places new development in cities to preserve farmland and forests. Concurrently, Portland invested in transportation infrastructure and now the Portland Streetcar has two lines through the Pearl District, furthering the transformation toward a walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood.

One street in particular gives the Pearl District its character: Northwest 13th Avenue. The area was designated a National Historic District in the late 1980s and still retains historic brick buildings with their distinctive loading docks facing Northwest 13th Avenue. Now, café tables line the loading docks while pedestrians, cars and bicycles share the street.

At the northern edge of this historic district, Security Properties is building Block 136—a new transit-oriented mixed-use project designed by Mithun. The development occupies a full block with Northwest 13th Avenue at its western edge and the historic district to the south. To the north, the neighborhood transitions to a taller condition with new steel and glass residential buildings.

The design concept for Block 136 responds to this junction between old and new, and the context of the much-loved Pearl District. Fitting the texture of the historic neighborhood, the development is comprised of two buildings on the block. The 13th Avenue Office Building is a brick-clad office-and-retail 75-foot tall structure that echoes the historic buildings, while Heartline is a glass and steel 150-foot tall residential highrise relating to the neighborhood to the north.

To determine the elements of a successful project in this location, Mithun’s interdisciplinary team of architects, landscape architects and interior designers observed Portland patterns, the neighborhood texture and listened to the community desire for office workers to add to the 24/7 character of the neighborhood. The holistic solution responds with a true mixed-use project with office, retail and residential activated around a publicly accessible courtyard between the two buildings.

Block 136 has a car parking ratio of .5 for the residential building and just 80 spots for retail and office employees—appropriate for a city with a strong bicycle culture and in the transit-oriented location a block away from the streetcar line. The project celebrates bicycles with 350 bike parking spots—more than for cars. Bike amenities accommodate both buildings and include a daylit bike club room with a kegerator, lounge, training cycles, repair facilities and private lockers.

Spaces at the ground floor of each building activate the courtyard while the block’s four streets enrich the pedestrian experience. Combined, all these elements are designed to contribute to the Pearl District’s vibrant culture. The generous courtyard between the buildings spans the length of the block and faces south to create a comfortable and engaging place where people eat, play bocce and sit in the welcome northwest sun.

The 13th Avenue Office Building’s wood structure offers a modern interpretation of the historic loading areas with a dock along the length of the historic avenue. Outside, a market hall with restaurants and retail spills out onto this raised “dock” which extends into the courtyard. This sensitively scaled building responds to community desires by providing an active mix of daytime and nighttime uses. Inside, the building echoes the beautiful character of the area’s historic retrofits. Designed to attract the creative-class tenants found in the Pearl District, the building features exposed wood beams, operable windows for natural ventilation and all the systems of a modern building.

Along Northwest 12th Avenue, the Heartline residential building responds to the neighborhood that changes from the historic dock street to a compact residential environment with townhouses lining the street. Here Heartline’s design elements balance pleasant pedestrian and resident experiences. Townhouse entries are stepped above the street level with landscaped and artistic screening layers that create ample privacy for the exterior spaces, while adding identity to each unit. Inside, elevator lobbies and hallways are filled with daylight. Units have operable windows for natural ventilation and fantastic views, while full balconies complete the feeling of connection to the outdoors.

Both buildings will feature green roofs with spaces for people to work, gather, relax and grow and cook food. Art will be incorporated throughout, with pieces by local artists. In sum, Block 136 delivers a vital combination of contextually sensitive places in sustainable LEED Gold-targeted buildings and landscape.