Featured Stories


Building sustainability: the South Waterfront District

Transformation of former contaminated industrial area is a long-term project


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Cyclists pass the South Waterfront Greenway, an ongoing revitalization project.In January 2003 the city of Portland adopted the South Waterfront Plan, a blueprint for how to at once build out and keep sustainable a former industrial swath of land along the Willamette River in South Portland. After 11 years, you can’t help but wonder: Was this plan fulfilled? And what comes next?

Pete Collins, executive director of South Waterfront Community Relations views the district today in terms of how it compares to its past.

“It was a pretty industrial area that has turned 180 degrees, essentially (changing from) a brownfield to a green field,” he said, adding that of the nine major buildings in South Waterfront, only one isn’t outfitted with an ecoroof.

In its early days it was predicted that South Waterfront’s resident profile would include “younger, professional couples, empty-nesters who have downsized from larger homes, workers in or near the district, Marquam Hill or downtown, small families, and seniors,” as stated in the South Waterfront Plan.

Without a doubt, today seniors comprise a significant portion of the South Waterfront District’s population. And their new home offers them a myriad of opportunities to be sustainable.

Atwater Place is a LEED Gold-certified condominium complex built in 2007. Though not technically a retirement community, the 23-story complex is home to many environmentally minded retirees. One such resident is Fred Gans. A trained architect before moving to Portland with his wife six years ago, Gans served as program director of a multibillion-dollar bond program to construct new green buildings on the nine campuses of the Los Angeles Community College District.

“While we were exploring we looked around different neighborhoods and so forth, and just thought the South Waterfront had so many plusses — where one could really part of the natural environment,” he recalled. “The Atwater … it just had so many benefits.”

But he is quick to point out that sustaining sustainability requires a concerted effort on the part of its residents.

“In the South Waterfront people move in to these buildings that are beautifully designed with respect to complying with sustainability rules and regulations,” Gans said, “but if they haven’t been educated in terms of how to really use the building — for example, I know people who have changed out their faucets to get more water pressure — they don’t understand how that all works together as a system to maintain that sustainability.”

Kitty-corner from Atwater Place is Mirabella Portland, a continuing care retirement community owned by Pacific Retirement Services.

“It’s a really interesting building with a bunch of stuff LEED-platinum,” said Mirabella Regional Marketing Director Adam Payn. “It’s got a bunch of features that are very sustainable.”

The building is outfitted with ecoroofs and solar thermal panels, which assist in water heating. On top of that, Payn said, are energy efficient appliances and low-flow water features, including dual-flush toilets.

“Even beyond the design of the building, we operate the building in a more sustainable manner,” Payn said. “We strive to be as energy efficient as we can in our operations.”

Mirabella Portland makes use of eco-friendly cleaning products and housekeeping services, and, Payn added, “We have four restaurants in the building, and we harvest herbs, spices and vegetables on one of our ecoterraces … about 50 varieties.”

For these reasons, Payn said, “To our knowledge, we’re the only LEED-Platinum building with a continuing care retirement community in the nation.”

“The big thing appealing for us, living in a LEED-rated neighborhood and building, is doing the right thing,” said Mirabella resident Susan Berg. “It feels good to be doing the right thing and being good to our planet and all those things that we should be doing.”

While the senior housing component of the South Waterfront Plan is well underway, other elements are just getting off the ground, such as the South Waterfront Greenway, a strip of protected natural area along the banks of the Willamette River.

Though the plan for the project was accepted in December 2004, funding for its first phase, the riverbank restoration, was not approved until June 2013, 8 1/2 years later. Phase one took five months.

“Because of the endangered fish species in the Willamette,” explained Allison Rouse of Portland Parks & Recreation, “We have had a lot of oversight and have had to be super careful about how we carry out the work — only in certain times of year and with elaborate precautions against releasing sediment into the river during excavation and rock placement activities.”

Throughout the process, according to Rouse, sustainability was promoted.

“We recycled as much concrete and rock debris as we could and any scrap metal we uncovered was recycled; we reused some suitable site soils as deep fill material; and we locally sourced our plant material,” she said.

Funding for phase two has not yet been secured.

With the South Waterfront District ever expanding, so too is its transportation system. Under construction now is a pedestrian-and-public-transportation-only, as-yet-unnamed bridge connecting the South Waterfront to Portland’s east bank, set to open in July 2015.

“I would say the pedestrian bridge helps tremendously,” Collins said.

He added that opening up transportation access on both sides of the district and making sure there is sufficient parking there will contribute to its economic success.

But reducing the need for transportation, Collins said, will be paramount in pursuit of making South Waterfront more and more sustainable.

“Currently we don’t have a grocery store down here,” he said, “so if residents can buy local, organic products made by farmers around here (at the South Waterfront Farmers’ Market) and don’t have to travel very far to get here — walk down from their condo and pick up the produce to make the dinner, it’s reducing a trip to the grocery store, and it’s also just making a stronger local economy.”

All in all, Collins said, a sustainable, bustling South Waterfront District is a work in progress.

“With the economic downturn … there’s development, but it’s probably not as quite the scale that was envisioned with such density, so many high-rises,” he said. “I think the pace and probably the density has changed slightly. I think it’s a longer-term project.”

Drew Dakessian can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and 503-636-1821, ext. 108.