East Side Reinvented

In Portland’s historically industrial area, businesses new and old are popping everywhere — creating jobs.

PDX eastside

Photo: Larry Letters

A  blend of owner-occupied light-industrial spaces, and a whole generation of new businesses in creative and professional fields; it’s not blue-collar or white-collar—it’s a mix of both. The low-key but enterprising scene is typical of the Central Eastside, where about 1,100 increasingly busy businesses keep more than 17,000 Portlanders employed. According to statistics, as the nation plummeted into recession, the Central Eastside added several hundred jobs.

Espresso machines hiss away at countless coffee bars, new exciting restaurants, nonprofits and a large selection of design and tech businesses. Add into the mix the older manufacturing industries served by working docks and rail yards, whole sales of produce, auto body shops and too many other interesting businesses to mention. Here you have the antithesis of our neatly layered, office-over-retail downtown across the river.

The story heard over and over is that the new professional and creative businesses like being close to those legacy industries. In the Central Eastside, you can really operate in that Portland-centric way, getting most of what you need to run your business from local sources.

Of course, two traditional catalysts of neighborhood revitalization—public money and development moxie—play a starring role. Beam Development, a one-time upstart, reengineered the area’s core by rehabbing about 334,000 square feet of dusty old industrial monoliths into shiny “commerce centers” that collectively now enjoy a vacancy rate of about 2 percent (compared to 12.7 percent downtown in the second quarter of 2010). This summer, Beam signed on to redevelop the moribund Convention Center Plaza building, an old Sears warehouse, signaling that the long-stalled redevelopment of the Burnside Bridgehead—four city blocks, more than 176,000 square feet of disused asphalt on the east end of the bridge—is finally inching forward.

Since declaring the district an urban renewal area in 1986 (allowing money to be borrowed against future increased tax revenues), the city has leveraged a range of new buildings, renovations, and big infrastructure projects. First the $30 million Eastbank Esplanade, which opened in 2001, reestablished a long-severed link to the Willamette. In 2012, the streetcar’s $148 million eastern extension is poised to open the district to thousands of downtown and Lloyd District workers. In the semi-distant future, the proposed Portland-Milwaukie MAX line, slated to cross the river near OMSI, could transform the district’s sprawling southern end. Add in the hundreds of small, enterprising old-line businesses, artists in search of cheap rent, entrepreneurs, and even the skateboarders who guerrilla-built and now run Burnside Skatepark, America’s finest anarchist sports venue, and you have the type of place almost unheard of in 21st-century America: a central-city neighborhood that simultaneously feels like a stronghold of a bygone era and a potential forerunner of Portland’s industrious, self-made future. It’s becoming a 24/7 environment where you can find a great bar next door to a factory or an advertising studio. And the best way to experience it is to walk around the neighborhood. Welcome!

To read more, please visit the Portland Monthly Magazine, http://www.portlandmonthlymag.com/real-estate/articles/east-side-1010/1/

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