The Past, Present, and Future of Portland Real Estate

Learning from a legacy of construction booms and growing pains

By Randy Gragg April 2, 2014 Published in the April 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

In 1990, I bought my first Portland house, at SE 33rd Avenue and Clinton Street. Price: $56,900. A band rehearsed most nights in an old storefront across one street. A loquacious prostitute frequently sunbathed in her apartment’s courtyard across the other. The only restaurant nearby was a smoke-choked breakfast joint called Ruthie’s, where eggs always arrived overdone. I carried my first-ever new TV home from an appliance store, one of the few nearby businesses. Six months later, it was replaced by a grocery store called Nature’s (started by one of the eventual founders of New Seasons). And thus, the neighborhood’s fortunes began their rise. 

In putting together our story about the city’s latest construction boom, I recalled the first boom I watched as a newly arrived journalist. Back then, the urban growth boundary began filling up with housing tracts and shopping centers. Forest Heights sprouted a hillside of McMansions. And along old streetcar paths like Belmont and Alberta Streets, new restaurants and shops blossomed in empty storefronts. The transformation of the old Belmont Dairy into townhomes, apartments, and a Zupan’s Market became the early gold standard of infill development. 

The major angst at the time centered on the row houses rising in neighborhoods like Lair Hill and Buckman. One development, under construction in Northwest, mysteriously burned down. Something called the “Pearl District” grew from old warehouses and empty railroad land. Meanwhile, East Portland’s farms and nurseries mutated into de facto “projects”: a weedy, neglected mix of affordable housing, strip malls, skinny houses, and unpaved streets.

For the most part, the patterns of growth—thoughtful and laissez-faire—that emerged then continue today, just at an increasingly larger scale. Today’s row house is the five-story apartment building with no parking. So far, protests have stopped short of arson. 

Hopefully, the planners who are working on a blueprint for the next 30 years will fix their predecessors’ mistakes—and get as many things right. Recent migration statistics suggest we might be growing much faster than we imagined. Aging boomers desire our healthy lifestyle. Millennials find a petri dish for self-creation. Foodies want better meals. Drought-weary Southwesterners might like to take longer showers. So as you thumb through our future cityscape, go ahead and be shocked, upset, or—just maybe—a little excited about the shift upward in scale and the occasional verve in architecture. More people want to join us. A bigger city is on the way. 

By the way, my old house is now a duplex, valued by Zillow at $416,000. Too bad I sold it in 1996.

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