By Fred Leeson
Portland development officials heard a sobering financial warning Monday about revamping the old Centennial Mills site in Northwest Portland.
Converting the grain mill to new uses probably can't be done without more public money, a member of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission told officials.
City officials, preparing to scour the nation for "creative" developers and builders to redevelop the site, hoped to avoid raising that prospect in solicitations.
"It is so predictable that substantial public support will be needed for this," said Art DeMuro, the landmarks commission member. DeMuro, who makes his living preserving and redeveloping historic properties, didn't characterize a subsidy amount.
DeMuro and other landmarks commission members were asked to review and comment on a draft plan for the 4.75-acre site. DeMuro said he likes the idea of seeking national responses but said it's a "downer" when the public learns later about rising costs and subsidies.
Steve Shain, a Portland Development Commission manager, said the agency plans to send hundreds or thousands of pamphlets to planners and developers across the country this fall to attract candidates to redevelop the site and its empty industrial buildings dating from 1910 to the 1940s. The site is midway between the Broadway and Fremont bridges on Northwest Naito Parkway.
Shain said the agency hopes to select two or three respondents the city would pay to develop proposals. The city and developers would talk about new uses, which buildings could be saved and how to pay for the project.
Shain said he is reluctant to list a potential subsidy in the requests to developers because he fears it would become locked in as an assumption. But DeMuro said the city will get better responses by spelling out potential financial resources.
DeMuro and other landmarks commission members urged city officials to emphasize the site's history to draw interest. Chairman Rob Dortignacq said the mill complex is one of the few early 20th century wharves left on the river.
Until 1970, mills at the site variously produced flour, cake mixes and animal feed. Its proximity to the river and railroad made it a prime industrial location.
The city redevelopment agency bought the site for $7.7 million in 2000. City plans dating to the early 1980s envisioned a park at the site. But nearby Pearl District residents wanted to save some buildings and persuaded the City Council last year to consider redevelopment. Some open space is likely to be included, according to the new draft plan.
Landmarks commission members urged Shain and Karl Lisle, a Portland city planner working on the project, to inform developers of incentives available in Oregon for preserving historic buildings.
Many of the 10 buildings on the site will probably be demolished. "All the buildings have severe structural issues," Shain said. But DeMuro urged the city to request that "iconic buildings at a minimum" be preserved. Two likely candidates are the seven-story flour mill that has a rooftop water tower and a four-story feed mill.
Lisle said the site could become a gateway at the north end of Portland's waterfront, much like the fast-emerging South Waterfront area south of downtown. Condominiums are under construction on both sides.
"The neighborhood really wants something to happen" in the next few years, Lisle said, "not 15 or 20 years out."
"This is a wonderful turnaround from a few years ago," said Richard Engeman, a landmarks commission member. "It was doomed. Now many more possibilities are open to it. I'm glad to see that."