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Greening up Rose City's brownfield

South Waterfront a haven for greenminded seniors


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - The South Waterfront district has emerged as a model green community on the site of a once-polluted industrial site.Eleven years ago this month, the city of Portland adopted the South Waterfront Plan, a blueprint to convert a once-contaminated industrial site into a national model of sustainable living.

After 11 years, you can’t help but wonder: Was this plan fulfilled? And what comes next for the 38-acre high-rise community in the south part of downtown Portland?  

“It was a pretty industrial area that has turned 180 degrees, essentially (changing from) a brownfield to a greenfield,” says Pete Collins, executive director of South Waterfront Community Relations, which promotes sustainability and transportation options for the neighborhood.

How green is it? For starters, of nine major buildings at South Waterfront, all but one have ecoroofs. 

And in a city known for its eco-concious young adults, South Waterfront has turned out to be a magnet for environmentally minded seniors, including what is believed to be the nation’s greenest continuing-care retirement community.

In South Waterfront’s early days, developers predicted a residential mix of younger, professional couples, empty-nesters downsizing from larger homes, downtown-area workers, small families and seniors.

Not all those groups materialized in the exected numbers. As a result, seniors comprise a significant share of South Waterfront’s population. And their new home offers them a myriad of opportunities to live sustainably.

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 retirees, such as Fred Gans. Before moving to Portland with his wife six years ago, the architect directed a multibillion-dollar bond program to construct green buildings on 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 pluses — where one could really be part of the natural environment,” Gans recalls.

But he is quick to point out that sustaining sustainability requires a concerted effort by residents. For example, some residents have changed their faucets to get more water pressure. They don’t understand how the building systems work together to foster sustainability, Gans says.

Green and gray

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

The building is outfitted with ecoroofs and solar thermal panels, which use the sun’s rays to heat water. Each unit has 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,” says Adam Payn, Pacific Retirement’s regional marketing director. For instance, Mirabella makes use of eco-friendly cleaning products and housekeeping services. “We have four restaurants in the building, and we harvest herbs, spices and vegetables on one of our eco-terraces ... about 50 varieties,” Payn says.

You won’t find that array of sustainability features at the Mirabella in Seattle or the company’s other facilities.

“To our knowledge, we’re the only LEED platinum building with a continuing-care retirement community in the nation,” Payn says.

Mirabella resident Susan Berg says she enjoys living in a LEED-rated building and neighborhood. “It feels good to be doing the right thing and being good to our planet,” she says.

Slow path

Some features of the planned community 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 plans for the greenway were adopted in December 2004, funding for the first phase — the riverbank restoration — wasn’t approved until June 2013, more than eight years later. Once funded, that part of the project took five months to finish. 

“Because of the endangered fish species in the Willamette,” says 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.”

Sustainable practices were stressed throughout the process, Rouse says. “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.”

Funding for phase two has not yet been secured. 

Bridge to eastside

In contrast to the slow progress on the waterfront trail, the South Waterfront community is awash in mass transit investments. There’s the aerial tramway, a new trolley line, and, starting next year, light-rail service. The yet-to-be-named TriMet bridge over the Willamette, set to open in July 2015, will connect South Waterfront to Portland’s east bank. The bridge will be used by pedestrians, bicyclists, buses, MAX trains and emergency vehicles — but no other cars and trucks. 

South Waterfront residents will have less need to own a car, or even drive one.

Though the district lacks a nearby grocery store, in 2012 it got its own weekly farmers’ market, another plum sustainability feature.

“If residents can buy local, organic products made by farmers around here 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,” Collins says, “and it’s also just making a stronger local economy.”

That local economy took a hit when many condo owners suffered foreclosures during the Great Recession. Since then, expectations have changed for what once seemed like a miniature boom town.

“With the economic downturn ... there’s development, but it’s probably not at quite the scale that was envisioned,” Collins says.

“I think the pace and probably the density has changed slightly,” Collins says.

“I think it’s a longer-term project.”