Everything old is new

38 Davis, a mixed-use project in Old Town/Chinatown, provides a snapshot of next generation business and design trends.


Open office design has been in vogue for more than two decades. So has mixed-use development.

As cities densify and millennial-staffed software companies colonize central core neighborhoods, these trends have only intensified. Check out Airbnb's Portland offices, or the remodeling craze underway at the Big Pink, where tech tenants are feverishly tearing down walls to achieve that no barriers, workplace feel. Meanwhile, the mixed-use apartment/retail boom continues unabated in virtually every part of the city.

38 Davis, a new complex in Portland’s evolving Old Town district, represents a fresh take on the collaborative office even as it expands notions of mixed-use development.

The six-story building, which opens this week, is also a feather in the cap of two iconic Portland firms (and longtime partners), Gerding Edlen and Ankrom Moisan Architects.
Mark Edlen Tom Moisan

“What’s great is for two old Portland firms to watch the next generation build this,” says CEO Mark Edlen, who purchased the property from the Portland Development Commission for $2.6 million in 2014.  

Edlen, sitting in one of 38 Davis’ light filled conference rooms, was one of several project executives who gave me a tour of the building Monday.

“The first time I heard about this project, Mark had his salesman hat on and was going on and on,” says Ankrom Moisan chairman Tom Moisan. That conversation took place by phone in 2014. Edlen, a University of Oregon graduate, was driving back from Eugene, where he had dreamed up a plan to house UO business programs, Ankrom Moisan and apartments in a single building.

His dream came true. Located on a former surface parking lot next to the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine, the $42 million, L-shaped structure features several floors of office space topped by two floors of affordable and market rate residential units.

Ankrom Moisan, which employs 240 in Portland and is one of the city's largest architecture firms, is both project architect and anchor tenant. The firm will share the building with two University of Oregon Masters programs, the Executive MBA program and a new Masters of Sports Product Management degree.

Says Moisan: At the end of that phone conversation two years ago, “Mark said: ‘I think this could be the best thing I’ve ever done.’”

That’s a pretty strong statement for a developer responsible for some of the seminal mixed-use real estate projects in the city, most notably the Brewery Blocks, the five block sustainable urban development that helped launch the Pearl District and, arguably, a nationwide urban development movement.

But Gerding Edlen and Ankrom Moisan are clearly hoping 38 Davis will have an equally catalytic effect on Old Town — while also preserving the neighborhood’s rich history, multicultural character and status as a sanctuary for social service agencies and their clients.

“We know social services are going to stay here," says Jill Sherman, a Gerding Edlen vice president. The project delivers much needed affordable and market rate housing, she says. "We are trying to bring more balance to the neighborhood.” (38 Davis includes 65 apartments. Thirty six are affordable and the remainder market rate).

Before settling on the Old Town location, Ankrom Moisan had considering moving its headquarters to a site near the KOIN Tower, Moisan says. The firm ultimately rejected that location as too homogenous.  “It was all office towers,” he says.  Ankrom Moisan’s mission is to make "great livable cities," he adds. “And great cities are diverse.”

About that open office design. 38 Davis has a warehouse aesthetic featuring wide open spaces, operable windows and exposed wood beams, along with themed concrete, metal and glass interiors and furnishings. Sliding doors along the L-shaped hallways open onto large work areas with standing desks, while enclosed “phone booths” offer private spaces for cell phone conversations.

The overall look and feel is that of a repurposed historic building — except, of course, it isn’t historic or repurposed. “We expect people to ask how old the building is,” says Ankrom Moisan executive vice president Murray Jenkins.

For the past 26 years, Ankrom Moisan's headquarters have operated out of a suburban style office building on SW Macadam. The recession derailed the firm’s earlier plans to move, but for some time now the firm has been eager to relocate its offices in the central city, says president David Heater.  

Creative workspaces are highly sought after by the firm’s clients, he adds, and 38 Davis serves as a showcase for the firm’s design talent. The building will also help Ankrom Moisan recruit and retain millennials, who will undoubtedly appreciate the airy, fluid interiors, a “nourishment room” (aka kitchen) with long communal tables, and a concierge — not a receptionist — who will greet tenants and guests at the elevators.

A LEED Gold rated project, the building incorporates a gray water system that uses shower water runoff from the upstairs apartments to flush toilets in the office spaces. 38 Davis does not incorporate the Oregon wood product du jour: cross-laminated timber, a product that was not yet available from Oregon mills, says Edlen.  38 Davis Construction 8 26 16 CBPhoto 35

The building does not have a parking garage, but a contract with a Smart Park lot across the street will provide up to 50 spaces for tenants. Jenkins says the building's hard costs clocked in around $200/square foot for the residential units, slightly higher than the typical project because the team didn’t have to build parking.  Many tenants are expected to use transit or bike to work.

To encourage social interaction, 38 Davis features a shared lobby between office workers, UO students and apartment dwellers. The team is currently scouting a café to activate one of the three first floor retail spaces, which will open onto the shared lobby. To honor the building's waterfront location, the entryway features a backlit steel mural with holes in the shape of the Willamette River.

Other design elements “salute” neighborhood history, says Edlen, who was appointed to the PDC Commission last year. He was referring, specifically, to a “cast iron grove” that will feature eight cast iron columns culled from historic Old Town buildings that have been demolished. An alleyway connecting the building and the Oriental College of Medicine will be open to OCOM students and the public during the day.

But the alley will likely be locked at night, a nod to what Sherman refers to euphemistically as “security concerns” in the neighborhood. To that end, the privately managed community space may be a litmus test of 38 Davis’ commitment to openness and diversity, especially since Old Town business owners have long complained about the problems created by the neighborhood’s concentration of homeless residents.

Of course, these days, urban grit doubles as marketable authenticity — up to a point. The 38 Davis team acknowledges other challenges and contradictions associated with Old Town redevelopment, namely: How do you design a building that evokes historic context without devolving into pastiche?

“We don’t want to pretend; we want to do something new,” says Sherman. She was referring to the cast iron grove, but it’s a design ethos that could easily embrace the entire project. (The project name, 38 Davis, alludes to the neighborhood’s Asian history. Eight represents prosperity in Chinese, and the three refers to the  “triple prosperity” embodied in the structure’s three uses: office, education and residential.)IMG 1482

Unlike other inner city neighborhoods, Old Town/Chinatown has struggled to redevelop over the years. But 38 Davis isn’t the first major project to spring up in the district. Constructed in 2008, the White Stag Block rennovation helped set the stage for neighborhood revitalization. New hotels and tech companies (Airbnb's offices are in Old Town) are also pumping life into the district. 

As the neighborhood's first new construction in ten years, 38 Davis is a snapshot of next generation business, design and development trends. In a nod to the maker movement, for example, the Ankrom Moisan offices will have a “model” room for staff to build physical architectural models —  despite prevalent use of CAD architectural drafting software. UO sports marketing students will be busy learning how to make athletic and outdoor apparel.

In the coming months, hundreds of people — office workers, residents and students — will be moving into a space formerly occupied by cars. 38 Davis is yet another example of the 21-century business and design adage: Everything old, including Portland’s Old Town, is new again.

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UPDATE 8:00 PM:  Today's New York Times featured an article about the new Weyerhaeuser headquarters in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood. The project scope is remarkably similar to 38 Davis. Decide for yourself after reading the article here. 

Linda Baker

Linda Baker is the former editor of Oregon Business

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