Kevin Cavenaugh develops eye-catching projects funded by innovative financing tools. But will his art-infused buildings revitalize or gentrify the city?
It’s a sunny morning in December, and Kevin Cavenaugh is standing on the top floor of his latest creation, the Fair-Haired Dumbbell.
Though situated on a small city-owned traffic island created by the Burnside-Couch couplet (hence the “fair-haired” phrase, a play on “redheaded stepchild”), it will nevertheless be the most prominent and bold building yet in this architect-trained developer’s career. Two six-story office buildings connected by a bridge — the “dumbbell” — will be wrapped in a whimsical, wildly colorful, artist-painted façade, with irregularly placed windows scattered from foot to eye level.
Dressed in black, a self-described sartorial symbol of mourning after Donald Trump’s election, Cavenaugh is feeling confessional about the reception likely to greet this oddball building once it’s completed.
“People are going to hate it. Hate it,” he says almost gleefully, even offering that his wife asked him not to go through with the project for fear its bold look would be controversial.
Yet Cavenaugh, 49, is inherently an optimist. His black outfit is topped with a dyed-blond haircut shaved at the sides, like a cross between a peacock and the rock musician he used to be during his college days at U.C. Berkeley. And besides, he says about the Dumbbell, “some people are also going to love it.”
A rendering of the Fair-Haired Dumbbell
Cavenaugh, who founded and leads Portland’s Guerilla Development, would rather people hated the building than find it boring — the kind of bland, cookie-cutter architecture that is shaped only by a desire to maximize profits.
To be sure: Cavenaugh is not the only local developer who favors uniquely designed spaces populated by local businesses. Developer Tom Cody of Project has a similar recipe for success, for example, as does the trio behind Urban Development + Partners. But perhaps more than most in his profession, Cavenaugh takes pride in making his buildings artful and funky. Each project is a labor of love, one this former Harvard Loeb Fellow not only develops but essentially co-designs.
“I want to live in a city where people are OK with 20% instead of 22 and a half,” says Cavenaugh. He’s referring, specifically, to the rate of return he received on one of his projects, a micro restaurant complex in Northeast Portland called the Zipper.
The building’s exterior façade features a series of fins painted with imagery that, when viewed from a moving vehicle, appears to move like a cartoon in a flipbook. If Guerilla Development hadn’t invested in its eye-catching lenticular façade art, the rate of return would be a little over 22%, Cavenaugh says.
“I want to live in a city where that artwork matters,” he says.
It’s the kind of attitude that goes over well in a city beset by a rental crisis that is putting many artists on the streets. But it also puts Cavenaugh in a bind. He has spent well over a decade creating artist and creative class-friendly buildings in up-and-coming areas, but in so doing, it’s arguable that he helps those areas gentrify and become prohibitively expensive for the very demographic he hopes to attract.
Often putting creative design over profits, Cavenaugh has not been left untouched by the boom-and-bust cycles of real estate, nearly going bankrupt five years ago in the aftermath of the Great Recession. But he’s a creative thinker, innovating new means of crowdfunding projects and seeking to solve Portland’s affordable housing crisis without subsidy. And he’s optimistic about the city’s future.
“I know that Portland has more good developers than most cities, and that’s good for the city,” he says. “We’ll be fine. In fact, I believe we’ll be better than fine.”
Born and raised in suburban Fremont, Calif. between Oakland and San Jose, Cavenaugh came to Oregon in 1993 after studying architecture at U.C. Berkeley and completing a two-year Peace Corps stint in Gabon, where he built houses and schools. In Portland Cavenaugh initially fixed up old houses, but his real breakthrough into development came at his next job, at FFA Architecture and Interiors.
“He was always very enthusiastic, and it seemed as though he was on a different course than some of our other architectural interns,” remembers FFA principal Troy Ainsworth. In those days, Ainsworth adds with a chuckle, Cavenaugh was more clean-cut, sporting khakis and button-down shirts. But he was still different. “A lot of the younger designers are all about pure design or they’re about technology,” Ainsworth says. “But Kevin was interested in how the project gets figured out more holistically, not only design but finding the site, financing, working with people. Fairly quickly senior management started to team up with Kevin because he had ideas about developing projects.”
Cavenaugh once described combining design and development as a chance to use both the right and left sides of his brain. The projects he began constructing in the 2000s all offered not simply design whimsy but practical thinking about how to make community-gathering places. It’s not that he’s a genius, but he is someone who thinks local and, the whimsically colorful nature of his building exteriors not withstanding, conceives his projects as social spaces where people come together.
“Kevin is pretty intentional about his buildings really being part of the community,” says Lisa Abuaf, Central City manager for the Portland Development Commission. “And if you look at his projects, they’re populated with small local businesses.”
Cavenaugh’s first two developments, 2001’s Ode to Rose’s building and 2002’s Box + One, were both located in up-and-coming Portland neighborhoods (Beaumont in Northeast and Kerns in Southeast), and anchored by popular eateries on the ground floor (Fife, Noble Rot Wine Bar and Crema Coffee + Bakery) with outdoor seating. Uncommonly at the time, Box + One’s front façade was a large glass garage door, enabling Noble Rot to spill onto the sidewalk like a Parisian café.
“We became fast friends with Kevin,” recalls Leather Storrs, chef and co-owner of Noble Rot. “He ingratiates himself with tenants in a way that’s unusual. He’ll make promises in the name of friendship that may not be in his interest as a businessman.”
When Crema Bakery’s owner wanted to sell the business a few years later, then-employee Collin Jones faced difficulty securing the financing to buy it. So Cavenaugh personally guaranteed the loan, even though he had already sold the building and had no financial interest.
“I’d never dealt with a someone like him before in terms of the relationships,” remembers Jones. “He’s very much hands-on.” Recently Cavenaugh invited Jones to open a second Crema Bakery in the Dumbbell. “I’ll bet Peet’s Coffee would guarantee more in rent than I would,” Jones says. “But that’s not what Kevin’s interested in.”
The Burnside Rocket building, constructed in 2007, was larger and more ambitious, earning a LEED Platinum rating (the highest available) for its sustainable features and winning an Urban Land Institute Global Award for Excellence. The $3.9 million structure was Cavenaugh’s first to feature a colorful, artist-painted exterior — a badge of honor displaying to the community and to potential tenants that this was a place friendly to young creatives and embodying the “Keep Portland Weird” bumper-sticker mantra.
“Kevin’s projects are distinctly personal, but he gets enough voices involved to make them practical and sustainable,” says Storrs, who moved Noble Rot to the top floor of the Rocket building. “He’s a risk taker, and that’s fun. But he does extend himself.”