By Jessica Hoch
The ribbon-cutting of Elizabeth Caruthers Park last Thursday sent a strong signal that the idealized South Waterfront District isn’t completely lost to a stalled economy. Quite the contrary, it looks as though the neighbors are finally moving in, and so is business.
Scores of families, dogs and residents joined in on the official opening of the grassy park, an event complete with free gelato and Italian soda. Muffled by the music of the jazz band was even a faint sound of progress, a drill pounding the pavement for a new dentist's office. During the ceremony City of Portland Commissioner Nick Fish promised the future of South Waterfront was finally here.
Residents have long waited for the park to lose the fence and open to the public. It was promised years ago before the housing crisis in 2007 left brand-new condominiums such as the Atwater Place vacant and waiting to be auctioned off for fractions of the original asking prices. Promised to be the next Pearl District, the new neighborhood was practically empty.
But the numbers are starting to look positive. The Atwater Place is selling about a unit a week and is well over half full. Vacancies in the John Ross are almost down to single digits and the Mirabella is largely pre-sold and set to open August 31st. The Ardea and Riva on the Park rental properties are 72% and 85% occupied respectively.
The long-delayed affordable housing unit, The Tamarack, will finally break ground in the fall to build a five-story building and 209 units, which will bring some diversity to the community.
Benjamin Silver is a resident in the Atwater Place. He moved to the district in December because he felt it offered so much more value for the price compared to the Pearl and other parts of Portland.
“When we moved in it was quiet, but we fell in love with the area and with the park now open, it is true what they say, build it and they will come,” said Silver. “The day it opened there were children jumping in the fountain, and people biking and playing with their dogs.”
Like many residents, Silver would love to see a lot more retail, especially a grocery store. So far a few eateries, doggy daycare, a bank and a grocery mart dot empty window fronts.
“When you get a grocery store you know the neighborhood has finally arrived,” said Kathleen Mazzocco of Clear PR, who represents the Atwater. “It took the Pearl 10 years to get a grocery store and with a population of 1,500 we need a bit more, but we are happy with the growth.”
The growth looks like it should continue over the next couple of years as projects are added to the pipeline. The neighborhood will open three children’s learning centers in the fall, including a day care at OHSU and a charter school. The community garden is up to 80 plots. A government agency is planning to add 74,000 square feet to house the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit. The 700-foot Gibbs Street pedestrian bridge passing over I-5, adjacent to the aerial tram, will connect Lair Hill to the South Waterfront and will begin construction this winter.
Access remains an issue. The streetcar runs through, but there isn’t a MAX line. Some residents say they prefer the isolation since it keeps things a little more quiet than the bustle of other districts. That could change if the proposed plans for a streetcar line to Lake Oswego through Moody Street gets more serious, but that is still years away.
For now though, signs of progress on the waterfront and the beautiful new park serve as effective distractions from the empty construction sites still waiting for the shovel.
Jessica Hoch is an online reporter for Oregon Business.