Burnside Bridgehead: Designer's Disneyland

Portland's most adventurous architecture firms have imagine four new buildings for the crossroads of E Burnside Street and Grand Avenue.

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

For more than three decades, Portland has painstakingly regulated the central city’s architecture, making decisions the way old-school Stumptowners choose their rain jackets: good fit and weather protection over style. Architects, much less developers, rarely challenged the practical, no-frills conformity. Until now. Three of the city’s most adventurous architecture firms have concocted a quartet of new buildings for the crossroads of E Burnside Street and Grand Avenue, or the “Burnside Bridgehead”—all destined to widen eyes and quicken the pulse. 

Mayor Vera Katz first proposed aggressive new development at the bridgehead more than a decade ago. After buying up five contiguous blocks, the Portland Development Commission hatched three different major schemes for apartments, condos, and live-work spaces. (One plan, notoriously, called for a Home Depot.) None happened. The agency has been selling off the parcels, separately, to a trio of developers, leaving only the city’s Design Commission to oversee how future buildings might fit together.

With a 21-story, wedge-shaped tower that faces southeast, Skylab Architecture’s Jeff Kovel wants to create a “gateway” and a “funnel” to and from the east side. A block away, Works Partnership’s Bill Neburka and Carrie Strickland hope to build a “dynamic billboard” for the neighborhood’s gritty ethic in a modular, 9-to-10-story live-work center that resembles precariously stacked shipping containers. 

And for what he calls “the weirdest site in town”—the vacant, road-moated half block on the north side of the Burnside Bridge’s eastern end—designer-developer Kevin Cavenaugh plans “The fair-haired Dumbbell”: two six-story office buildings connected by a skybridge and covered in a pattern inspired by wrapping paper his project manager found at the boutique stationer Oblation Papers & Press. “It has to look just like that,” he says of the three-foot-wide butterflies and nine-foot-high birds. “Exactly.” 

Exciting? Chaotic? The architects don’t even know. “There hasn’t been any gathering where we ask each other, ‘What are you doing? Where’s your front door?’” says Cavenaugh. “It’s strange because we’re all friends. It’s a testimony to how busy we are.”

Meanwhile, two other large developments planned nearby could broaden the spectrum even further. The 12-story “Element 78,” a blocky 300-plus-unit apartment, will aim for both low-income and high sustainability rating. At Fourth Avenue, developer Jack Paauw and Myhre Group Architects are readying yet another of the cheaply designed and built apartment blocks that have become that firm’s citywide signature, this one six stories and L-shaped. Widen the circle by a few blocks, and there’s even more: local developer Killian Pacific is readying 257 apartments for the beloved “Goat Blocks” at SE Belmont Street and 11th Avenue, where said creatures have grazed for the past few years.

Only one new project has actually broken ground: a remodel of Stark’s Vacuums’ 91-year-old building. Vacuum cleaner sales have been robust, says president Ken Raasch, part of the family business’s third generation, perhaps thanks in part to the apartments popping up next door and nearby. “We couldn’t be more excited.”


Block 67

Developer: Key Development
Architect: Skylab
Live: 276 apartments
Work: 21,000 square feet 
Parking: 200 cars/426 bikes
Probability: More likely at 13 stories than 21

419 E. Burnside

Developer: Jack Paauw
Architect: Myhre Group
Live: 121 apartments (possibly more)
Live/Work: 2,515 square feet
Shop: 4,480 square feet
Parking: 30 cars
Probability: Unfortunately high
Architecture The parts don’t make a whole.


Block 75

Developer: Eric Cress
Architect: Works Partnership
Live: 60 apartments
Work: 29,630 square feet
Shop: 7,955 square feet
Parking: 58 cars
Probability: 50/50
Architecture: Shipping-container chic

Element 78

Developer: Bridge Housing
Architect: Stack & Ankrom Moisan
Live 300+ apartments
Shop TBD
Parking TBD
Probability Still very much an idea
Architecture We’ll see!


The Fair-Haired Dumbbell

Developer/Designer: Kevin Cavenaugh
Work: 36,000 square feet
Shop: 6,000 square feet
Parking: 24 cars
Probability: Cavenaugh is good at overcoming odds.
Architecture: Gleeful chaos


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