Jobs Watch: The return of the mega project

The economy must be picking up again, because the focus in Portland has shifted from hanging on for dear life to Utopian exercises in rebuilding. There are now three redevelopment projects in the works midway between my home and my office, and each has potential. Taken as a whole, they could provide a nice boost to a job market that needs all the help it can get. Or they could represent the latest in a series of misguided attempts to use public money to create private-sector jobs.

In addition to the Blazers and Nike and their compelling ideas for turning the Rose Quarter into JumpTown, the Portland Development Commission is also dusting off two long-delayed proposals to upgrade under-used chunks of land near the Willamette River.

The first project involves the old Centennial Mills waterfront property, between the Fremont and Broadway Bridges downriver from Union Station. I’ve read the project proposal from developer LAB Holding LLC of Costa Mesa, Calif., and I have to say that other than the excessively cute quotes praising food, I am impressed. The idea is to connect the Pearl District with the river through a mix of food market stalls, gardens, retail shops, kayak rentals, restaurants, galleries, a culinary school and offices. A pedestrian bridge would span SW Naito Parkway. An amphitheater would face the river. There are plans for an orchard, a grain garden, a greenhouse, even a tree-house and an outdoor fireplace. No one can accuse this team of lacking ideas.

The economy must be picking up again, because the focus in Portland has shifted from hanging on for dear life to Utopian exercises in rebuilding. There are now three redevelopment projects in the works midway between my home and my office, and each has potential. Taken as a whole, they could provide a nice boost to a job market that needs all the help it can get. Or they could represent the latest in a series of misguided attempts to use public money to create private-sector jobs.

In addition to the Blazers and Nike and their compelling ideas for turning the Rose Quarter into JumpTown, the Portland Development Commission is also dusting off two long-delayed proposals to upgrade under-used chunks of land near the Willamette River.

The first project involves the old Centennial Mills waterfront property, between the Fremont and Broadway Bridges downriver from Union Station. I’ve read the project proposal from developer LAB Holding LLC of Costa Mesa, Calif., and I have to say that other than the excessively cute quotes praising food, I am impressed. The idea is to connect the Pearl District with the river through a mix of food market stalls, gardens, retail shops, kayak rentals, restaurants, galleries, a culinary school and offices. A pedestrian bridge would span SW Naito Parkway. An amphitheater would face the river. There are plans for an orchard, a grain garden, a greenhouse, even a tree-house and an outdoor fireplace. No one can accuse this team of lacking ideas.

Will it produce jobs? The developers promise “multiple tiers of job creation” at the redeveloped property, starting with 150 full-time construction jobs and leading over time to 1,000 full time office, restaurant and retail jobs, 250 part-time postions and up to 100 seasonal opportunities. Add to that the entrepreneurial opportunities that go with new food markets, schools, and art spaces, and the deal starts looking pretty sweet indeed.

I’m sure developers make employment promises like this all the time to land contracts. But it’s hard to fault a plan for building on the success of the Pearl District and focusing on art, food and the river. It seems like a smart mix to me, but I’d be eager to hear from readers with a sharper eye for the specifics of design.

Less is known about the rebirth of the Burnside Bridgehead plan, another long-stalled project with visions of grandeur. The original proposal for this four-block portion of land on the east side of the Burnside Bridge has vanished along with the original developer, Opus Northwest, but Portland developer Brad Maslin and architect Will Bruder are still in the game. They’ll be joining PDC officials for a public forum tonight from 5:30 until 8 at the Olympic Mills building, 107 SE Washington. Given the encouraging evolution of the Central Eastside over the past decade and the impending development of an eastside streetcar line, interest is sure to run high.

It is good to see people thinking big again. Anytime something gets built it means jobs, and these are three properties that could use some help. But not every mega-project that relies on public funding turns out as planned. Just ask the banks trying to offload condos in South Waterfront. That mega-project also sounded like a great idea at the time, and who knows, maybe it will pay for itself over time. Or maybe not.

I tend to be a sucker for big ideas. But I’ve learned over the years to keep my money in my pocket until I see evidence. I’ll believe 1,000 new jobs at the old Centennial Mills building when I see them. The same applies for JumpTown, Burnside Bridgehead and whatever other super-projects are being cooked up now that the money is finally starting to move again. I'd be interested to hear what you think.

Ben Jacklet is managing editor of Oregon Business.

Oregon Business Team

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