South Waterfront

An aerial view of the South Waterfront district with downtown Portland in the background.

An aerial view of the South Waterfront district with downtown Portland in the background.

Urban planners often get a bad rap. Their notions of how people want to live, work, recreate and commute often are at odds with reality, sometimes revealing more of an attraction toward what’s cool rather than what’s practical.

But after a long bicycle ride this past weekend, where I ventured into a part of town I seldom frequent, I had to tip my hat. In the case of South Waterfront, a still emerging neighborhood of high-rise condos and trendy restaurants, I think our city planners have done some fine, if incomplete, work.

Maybe I’m overly influenced by the memory of a sunny, Sunday morning ride, when I cruised from our home over the Broadway Bridge, down to Waterfront Park and past the RiverPlace hotel and shops, and found myself in an area that seems to be evolving into an actual community. But this former brownfield south of downtown appears to be coming together

There was a time when I used to do very long Sunday morning runs in this area, back when it was still an industrial no man’s land that was seldom visited by more than runners and cyclists. Now it’s blossomed into an upscale area with a network of bike paths, an aerial tram, upgraded tracks for the Portland Streetcar, food carts and popular eateries (Lovejoy Bakery, Little Big Burger, Cha Cha Cha) and a cluster of condominium towers that are actually attracting residents.

Three public universities joined in opening a Collaborative Life Sciences Building last summer and now even “normal” businesses, like H&R Block, are setting up shop.

The area is easy to navigate, as it’s essentially one north-sound strip with just a few perpendicular streets and a nice little couplet at the southernmost end.

South Waterfront also will connect to the new Portland-to-Milwaukie light rail bridge when it opens in September. It’s a beautifully designed structure and one that I expect will see a lot of traffic. Named Tilikum Crossing, it’s designed to carry light rail trains, buses, cyclists, pedestrians and streetcars, but not private vehicles.

Tilikum Crossing, still under construction, will carry several modes of traffic -- but not private cars -- when it opens in the fall.

Tilikum Crossing, still under construction, will carry several modes of traffic — but not private cars — when it opens in the fall.

The area is still short — way short — on trees, but I noticed several plantings up and down the streets. When they mature, they’ll give the area more of a Portland feel.

South Waterfront is the largest urban renewal project in the city’s history. And during the depths of the recession, when empty condos were being auctioned at bargain prices, some feared the area would be a colossal failure. But the economic recovery and a few years of patience seems to have helped South Waterfront turn the corner.

Would I want to live here? No, I don’t think so. It’s too vertical for my taste and I’m not particularly enamored with the location, far from more established residential neighborhoods.

But for a weekend visit? Sure. And if I were a tourist of means, I could see myself hanging out here.

As a taxpayer I’m grateful city planners had a vision to transform a brownfield into a residential-commercial area with potential to contribute greatly to the city’s tax base. I hope the succeeding years keep the momentum going. I don’t imagine South Waterfront will ever have the appeal of the Pearl District, the city’s similarly transformed urban renewal area. But I will readily admit the area is showing signs of tapping its long-term potential.

Photographs: The Oregonian/OregonLive

Read more: South Waterfront: The failure that wasn’t, Portland Business Journal.

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2 thoughts on “South Waterfront

  1. One other problem with River Place and the South Waterfront is that it’s all built on landfill. I wouldn’t want to be there in an earth quake. I lived at River Place for a total of 4 years. One of the reasons was just that.

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  2. Thanks for the comment. Alexandra. I can see that would be a concern living right at the water’ sedge. That said, did you enjoy your time there, the location and all?

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