May 15, 2023

Transforming downtown Portland: a three-part series, part two

Part two: doubling down on the arts downtown

Last month we took an unflinching look at the challenges downtown Portland is facing from a commercial real estate perspective, and what might help us recover a thriving downtown core. Despite the sense of disparagement and even hopelessness many feel about downtown Portland, there are positive signs; in the same way new growth springs up after a forest fire, there are success stories being built and re-built.

Coming out of COVID, we’re also accepting that we’re never going back to 2019—and amid all the suffering, this offers us a rare opportunity to welcome bold, new, creative ideas to activate downtown Portland. There are other pivotal moments in the city’s history where we’ve made lemonade. For example, during the 2008 recession, the farm-to-table restaurant movement exploded in Portland thanks to decreased rents and start-up costs, and the willingness of property owners to take a chance on new food concepts. A decade later, our city is known for its exemplary locavore restaurants. And we can also take a more recent page from our history: Over the last decade or two, Portland has embraced its creative and singular culture.

These transformations weren’t done from the top down; they were the result of many, many small decisions that contributed to our strong identity. And that’s what we face today. We can’t fix all the problems without innovation and resources from our government; the situation is far too complex for that. But each of us can contribute to revitalizing our city’s core, in ways that are most meaningful to us.

Northwest Academy: building an arts and education hub

In the fall of 2021 Northwest Academy, a private, arts-focused middle and high school located downtown since 1998, acquired three buildings on its campus at SW 12th and Jefferson, aided by generous support from previous owner John Niemeyer. Now the school is reinforcing its commitment to the arts by attracting arts organizations Capella Romana, Chamber Music Northwest and Young Musicians and Artists as tenants in the Century Tower building. Real estate developer Paul Niedergang, a Northwest Academy board member, is a champion of the nonprofit “Arts and Education Hub” they’re creating in this six-story office building. “We know art is essential to a comprehensive education,” he says, “and as a nonprofit ourselves, we can uniquely value and support our arts nonprofit tenants, and relieve some of the pressures they face in leasing commercial space from for-profit landlords.”

Head of School Chris Schuck says this is not merely a charitable endeavor: “Since our founding, the city has been our adjunct faculty member, teaching us the arts through partnerships with the Oregon Symphony, the Portland Art Museum, the NW Film Center (Now PAM CUT) and many more. Partnering with our tenants to ensure downtown remains an arts district is not only inspiring—it’s essential to our mission to support our students as they discover their intellectual and artistic voices. It recommits us to our work.” 

Northwest Children’s Theater: finding an innovative use for an existing resource

After firmly establishing itself across 30 years of performances in a converted NW Portland church, Northwest Children’s Theater (NWCT) recently moved into a downtown space that had once been a movie theater—but had been vacant for 10 years. It was a textbook example of combining timing and creative thinking to take advantage of the current downtown market.

Nick Fenster, NWCT’s manager, explains: “This momentary lull in the market means we can finally afford to get into downtown. If we could have been here 15 years ago, we would’ve been, and we couldn’t. It was prohibitively expensive. There was no vacancy, there was no opportunity. There certainly wasn’t a four-theater performance space waiting for us to move in.”

And besides finding a virtually tailor-made space for a theater company, Nick saw the move as part of a bigger picture for downtown Portland. “We’re seeing our presence as an asset for downtown and bringing families back,” he says. “I know that people feel a little shaky about downtown right now, but that feels very transitory to us. Over the lifespan we’re thinking of for the organization, this is going to end up paying huge dividends for us.”

With NWCT being part of the Portland cultural scene for so long, Nick understands the intersection of arts and real estate. “I think there’s an interesting conversation to be had about the best use for downtown with the vacancy in the office blocks,” he says. “I’d say pump them full of arts organizations, and give them long-term leases so they can stay when the market rebounds. This is a big moment for nonprofit cultural institutions that had a hard time competing in a red-hot commercial market in Portland. Now is the time to jump in and grab those spaces.”

Mimi’s Tees: spreading love—and opportunities for creators

Mimi’s Fresh Tees combines positivity, art and commerce in a celebration of local creative women. Fourth-generation Portlander Kamelah Adams started Mimi’s in 2018 as an online store, designing and selling T-shirts printed with social justice “conversation starters.” She opened a brick-and-mortar store in Old Town in 2021 that garnered positive press and increased sales, but also drew hate-driven threats to her and her family’s safety.

Kamelah persevered, and last fall relocated her store to a downtown location at 950 SW Morrison. The temporary store goes way beyond T-shirts, offering a retail platform for 10 other female maker/vendors, and demonstrating love over hate through community events, an unwavering focus on social justice and female empowerment, and the undeniable radiance of the owner herself. Photos of black leaders cover the walls, for a straightforward reason: “I want people to know that a black woman owns this store,” she says. Like all downtown retailers, Kamelah is excited to see more locals coming back to the city’s center: “We need to look out for each other, create and frequent vibrant spaces, and reclaim downtown—it belongs to all of us.”

These are just three examples of how savvy creative-arts businesses are doing both a smart thing and the right thing by moving into downtown as part of its revitalization. These creative organizations are showing us a path to our own healing through their determination, their aggressive optimism and their conviction that creativity is essential to Portland’s identity. They’re carving out acts of beauty and hope downtown. Let’s roll up our sleeves, join their effort and make them glad they were at the forefront.

Next: retail and restaurants rise again in downtown.

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