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Inner Southeast: Going South, or Moving on Up?

Portland's Southeast Quadrant struggles with a new identity, but should artisanal trump app-making?

by: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - If it aint broke: bike frame repair shop Ruckus Composites was lucky to expand into this standalone space on SE Stark by the train tracks as the central east side becomes too crowded and unaffordable for three man businesses.As the city planners work on the Central City 2035 project to update the 1988 Central City Plan, all eyes are on the SE Quadrant, which is getting its own SE Quadrant Plan.

Traditionally a mix of light industry and storage facilities, it has seen an influx of artisanal manufacturing in the last ten years, as well as office workers based in converted warehouses. As services such as eateries and coffee shops spring up to make the area more comfortable, the area is attracting more businesses that want the cool factor of being close-in, without the high rents of Northwest Portland.

Here’s a look at three businesses, one very traditional and two from the new wave.

Ruckus Composites

Shawn Small and his two co-workers fix broken carbon fiber bicycle frames. “A super-common cause of damage is people driving into their garage and forgetting the bike is still on the roof rack,” says Small, showing the splintered top tube of an unlucky Specialized. “Other causes include people falling off, forest fires, and significant others.”

It costs around $400 for these guys to patch up and repaint a bike frame, which is often worth it since frames range from $1,800 to $10,000 new.

“It’s really complicated and it’s hard to make it look good. Anybody can make it rideable but it looks like garbage.”

Ruckus is one of only two places in the US providing such a service so cardboard bike boxes arrive every day from all across the US. In five years Ruckus has repaired 1,700 bikes. Most are referred from dealers, although riders can upload photos through the website and get an estimate.

Ruckus staff have added a paint spray room and a tiny loft meeting space, but there’s plenty of room to swing a Cannondale. They lease a uPrint SE Plus 3D printer, which neighbors often borrow, sending over electronic files and asking for a quick widget. He prints something every day, thrown together in SolidWorks CAD software often in a few minutes. “We used to run upstairs to use someone else’s color copier, so it’s fine,” he explains.

Small grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, fixing everything including tractors. He trained as a mechanical engineer and used to have a cube job at the massive Johnson Controls in Wisconsin. The 30-year-old has been in Portland for six years.

Recently they took two left behind bikes, customized them and raffled them to benefit Let’s Race Bikes, a women’s team racing at national level. The returning heroines did a show-and-tell in front of 70 people in the Ruckus space, with the usual brewery sponsorship to lubricate community.

“We’re trying to do it right, give back to everybody we work with,” says Small. “And we’re also trying to kick out our growth, so we’re doing photos and tips and tricks on our blog, and doing some advertising.”

He was the youngest person on the Stakeholder Advisory Committee of 25 people working on the future of the area.

“There’s so many different opinions of what this neighborhood should turn into. It got pretty heated. With the new bridge (Tilikum Crossing) opening, it’s going to change. We could go out to 82nd but there’s a lot of value to being centrally located. A building like this is really rare, but it’s perfect for us for a long time to come.”

Paul Brong Machine Works

by: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Metal Guru: George Passino, owner of Brong Machine Works, with a logging cable crimp. Brong custom makes machines and parts for a variety of Portland firms. They can make anything out of metal at Paul Brong Machine Works. The brick fronted shop, which sites across the street from Benson Polytechnic, has been there since 1927. Owner George Passino oversees a crew of 16 workers, depending on the crush of orders. And crush happens. When an escalator went out at the airport two days before Thanksgiving, Brong custom made the vital part and had it running in six hours. He estimates they have saved PDX $250,000 this year in repairs to wheels and bearings for the moving walkways.

Brong works with a lot of companies in the SE Quadrant, which includes some northeast streets up to I-84. School Specialty Co is a big customer: Brong designs and makes machines to automate processes at the nation’s leading cheerleader pom-pom maker. East Side Plating, which has five plants on the east side, and Conray Electric, which rebuilds electric motors, both rely on Brong.

“We also built the entire blade runner leg system for a three legged dog in Houston, Texas. Small medium and large.” Because they do custom work, Passino has no interest in mass manufacturing.

“We have a lot of people who come to us and ask us to make this and that, but mass production, that’s not us. It would bore out machinists to death.”


by: KIM NGUYEN - Day shift: Even the woodshop at Plywerk is clean and orderly. Plywerk is typical of the artisanal manufacturing now found in the inner part of the South East Quadrant, where just-in-time efficiency means theres time for a staff barbecue on the loading dock on a sunny day. Plywerk boss Kjell van Zoen was a GTD guy for a while, a proponent of the time management ideas in the David Allen book “Getting Things Done.” He’s relaxed a bit since then, but Plywerks office and woodshop inside the Gardeners and Ranchers building is still immaculate. Every right angle lines up, and every variable is labeled. Plywerk makes plywood and bamboo products on to which images are mounted or printed.

“I studied Toyota and lean manufacturing, or just-in-time as some people call it, and applying their methods three years ago really saved our business.”

It’s expensive being a triple bottom line company, using certified wood products and offering good benefits. And competing with cheap frames from abroad.

Racks of plywood pieces are marked by kanbans made of thin card. When stocks run low, the paper band no longer fits, so staff drop it in a basket. From there it is picked up and the woodshop worker knows exactly how many more to cut.

This is manufacturing with a white-collar mentality. Van Zoen’s software team also designed a sophisticated inventory tracking system that works from when the customer orders online through to sales reports. It estimates how many hours each order will take and staffing needs are adjusted accordingly.

On a recent day the staff were enjoying a barbecue on the loading dock.

“Upstairs is turning into high design office space, which is good for the owner but it’s not so great for the city because we're diluting the manufacturing base,” says van Zoen.

He started the business with his wife, a photographer, at Saturday Market.

“When we were looking it was hard to find anyone who wanted manufacturing. They think of that,” he says, pointing at the murky factory across the street called East Side Plating. “We looked out beyond 82nd Avenue where it's under a dollar a square foot, but then who wants to bike to work out there?”

Central Eastside Riverfront Walk organized by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability

Meet at the PCC Climb Center Auditorium: 1626 SE Water Ave.

Tuesday, July 22 2014, 5-7 p.m.