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Retail alley opens in city's West End

Union Way shops and eateries connect Powell's, Stark Street


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The challenges and triumphs of the Union Way project in downtown are discussed by developer co-owner Tom Cody and architect Thomas Robinson.It’s not unusual for older buildings to be remodeled for different uses. It is unusual to put a passageway through an entire block of older buildings to create a new retail experience, however.

That’s the idea behind Union Way, a 10,500-square-foot corridor and collection of shops that runs north to south through the 1000 block between West Burnside and Southwest Stark streets. It is the brainchild of owners and developers Tom Cody and Jonathan Ledesma, who wanted to take advantage of all the foot traffic generated by Powell’s Books on the north, the Ace Hotel on the south, and the Living Room Theaters.

Thomas Robinson of Lever Architecture worked out the details. He drew inspiration from Parisian passages and Japanese alleyways.

“We wanted to really open up this block and create a unique destination in what we feel is a really exciting part of town,” Cody says.

The block may be best known for the low-income Joyce Hotel, the Fez Ballroom and numerous gay nightclubs that have come and gone over the years, including the Fish Grotto and Boxxes. Altogether, the block holds the four-story hotel, the three-story ballroom building, and four one-story buildings.

“It’s pretty low density for a downtown block, and we didn’t want to change that,” Cody says.

Seemed mysterious

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Shoppers are finding a growing number of new stores at Union Way, which was built through the middle of a downtown block.To fulfill their vision, Cody and Ledesma bought two adjacent one-story buildings in the middle of the block. Aura nightclub faced Burnside. The Red Cap Garage nightclub, which once housed a taxi company, faced Stark. They then gutted the buildings from sidewalk to sidewalk. Before the retail spaces were framed in, all that was left were the outside brick walls and the large wooden trusses holding up the roof.

As the project continued, the new interior walls were lined with light Pacific Albus poplar hybrid wood and a series of large skylights were installed in the roof. The combination gives the passageway and shops a bright, airy feeling, even on gray days.

The $4.5 million project created a nine-foot-wide corridor that extends upward 16 feet to large skylights in the roof. Ten retail spaces have been built off each side of the corridor, which changes in elevation about two-thirds of the way toward Burnside.

Cody, Ledesma and Robinson recruited all of the tenants for the project, seeking out a mix of Oregon and national businesses with unique characters. Perhaps their biggest success so far was persuading Oregon’s Danner Boots to open its first flagship store in the state. Other local shops are the Spruce Apothecary bath products store and the Quin candy store. National companies include Steven Alan clothing store and Will Leather Goods, based in Eugene.

A restaurant and bakery also are going in. Many of the shops already are open, and pedestrians in the area have been discovering Union Way without any kind of grand opening event. When all of the spaces are occupied, the large outside doors will be open from 7 a.m to 10 p.m.

“Someone will be open those hours,” Cody says.

During the construction, workers discovered internal doorways connecting several current and former businesses, providing interconnections throughout the entire block of buildings. Although functioning as fire exits, they also allowed the hotel tenants and nightclub customers to move freely within the buildings without going outside. All were closed off for code reasons.

“It seemed very mysterious,” Cody says.

The next project

Union Way is part of a wave of development in the West End of downtown Portland. Recent major nearby projects include McMenamins Crystal Hotel and Zeus Cafe at 303 S.W. 12th Ave., and the conversion of the former Django Records into West End Bicycles at 1111 S.W. Stark St. The Panorama nightclub previously had been converted into the Living Room Theaters at 341 S.W. 10th Ave.

Cody and Robinson first met at Harvard, where they took a class together. Cody was studying urban design and Thomas was studying architecture. This is not the only project on which they’ve collaborated. They also are working on the Art House, the first student housing project for the Pacific Northwest College of Art. It is scheduled to open in coming weeks.

The pair are looking for their next project.

“Ideally, we’d like to repurpose another older building. That way we feel like we’re really giving something back to the city,” Cody said.