The Towne Storage Building, Former Low-Rent Creative Mecca, Went Full San Francisco
On June 6, Autodesk unveiled its new office inside the 102-year-old Towne Storage building near the Burnside Bridgehead. Once a hub of artist studios and spaces, the iconic red-brick building began a massive renovation and structural upgrade in 2016. Now, the California-based 3-D drafting and engineering software firm has moved more than 200 employees into the building's six floors. Autodesk makes a range of products for architects and engineers but is best known for AutoCAD, an industry standard for designing everything from high-rises to musical instruments to cars.
The results of the upgrade is, not surprisingly, an exercise in hardcore tech office porn: sexy dark and light woods, accented by brick with occasional splashes of brightly colored paint. The aesthetic is a clash of old and new, with paint and writing from some of the old tenants still preserved on the brick walls.
The fourth floor, where the engineers and Inventor product team now work, adopts a “bridges” theme, while the fifth floor has “mountains” and the second floor "breweries"—each distinct area intended to make wayfinding easier. On each story, the open floor plan is divided into what Autodesk calls “neighborhoods,” with rooms and breakaway spaces that look like tiny houses for small and large groups. A quiet/meditation room on the fifth floor features massage chairs and windows that open to the afternoon sun (when it’s not hiding behind the clouds). But that’s not the best view in the building. The sixth floor rooftop opens to the Willamette, with a vista stretching from the Morrison Bridge and toward the Steel Bridge—and you can take your dog along with you, too, because the whole building’s dog-friendly.
Of course, the sale and subsequent renovation of the Storage Building was met with some, er, pushback. In 2015, 500 working artists were evicted from the building on short notice, and struggled to find new spaces after they were kicked out (as Portland Monthly reported in 2016).
"We had a one-year lease, and about six months into that they told us that the building was sold and that we were gonna have to leave, effectively breaking our lease," recalls former tenant David Abel of that time. "We had just put a lot of effort into getting set up and trying to develop awareness, so it was a very unwelcome and difficult situation. There were a lot of tenants in the building."
Abel says he was able to negotiate a settlement for moving expenses, but it took him several months to find another space. For many, the building's evacuation became a metaphor for a changing Portland, and artists bemoaned the loss of a central creative hub where some reported paying as little as $1/square foot. But Autodesk, which signed its lease on the building in May 2017, says the move wasn’t as heartless as it seemed.
“The real story was that the building was about to fall down,” says Autodesk’s vice president Greg Fallon. “One of the engineers said the building was unstable. It was unsafe. So something had to be done, and I’m grateful to the buyers of the building that they didn’t knock this building down. Because they very easily could’ve just knocked this down and put up something new.”
Fallon says several current employees once rented studios in the building. In further homage to Towne Storage’s former identity, Autodesk has started a "manufacturing incubator" in collaboration with Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE) and Uncorked studios, called PIE Shop, that gives artists and entrepreneurs free use of the company’s software and workspaces, including the kitchen, as well as access to business, manufacturing, and product development advice from Autodesk mentors.
[Editor's note: we've corrected some minor inaccuracies about the floor design and added information about PIE Shop.]