On North Mississippi Avenue, a few blocks up the street from the neighborhood's newer crop of businesses—a brewery, a pizza shop, a pet food store, a plant nursery, a few bars—an old, beige cinder-block warehouse has become a center of controversy.
Last year, three developers bought the rundown, bland building and announced plans to build the Mississippi Avenue Lofts. The Lofts would be a four-story steel, concrete, and wood mixed-use building, with retail on the bottom—the developers hoped the new shops would anchor the north end of Mississippi's burgeoning retail district—and condos on top.
In a neighborhood that's seen rapid changes over the past five years, the Lofts project seems like a natural progression. Given the neighborhood's metamorphosis from a light industrial center to a vibrant, mixed-use, transit-oriented neighborhood, it was only a matter of time before the strip's few remaining industrial warehouses would be converted into commercial and residential infill.
The Lofts' developers are aiming for a Gold LEED Certification—a green-building award. The building will include amenities like bike parking for every unit, and the developers have tweaked the building's design in response to neighborhood input, including adding setbacks to the upper floors.
Unfortunately, not all of Mississippi's neighbors are thrilled about the development. A handful of vocal neighbors—most of whom live within a block or two of the Lofts—have dominated neighborhood association meetings and online discussions of the development. Forty neighbors signed a petition objecting to the building, mostly on concerns over the project's height and impact on neighbors' privacy.
"The proposed Mississippi Loft height, 45 feet... will be higher than anything in our historic/conservation overlay area," neighbors wrote. "At the peak of summer our sun will set a good four hours earlier than our penthouse neighbors. The height and the position of the windows above first floor will significantly impact the amount of privacy some of us now enjoy in both our yards and homes. Our current view of the West Hills and the sunset will be taken from many of us."
In December, the Boise Neighborhood Association—which encompasses Mississippi Avenue—voted to deny their support to the project. Since then, anti-Lofts neighbors have attacked the developers—even likening their push to build the Lofts to Bush's march into Iraq.
The Historic Mississippi Business Association, however, sees the project in a vastly different light. In January, the group voted to support the project.
"The Business Association believes that this project will help anchor the north end of the avenue and that this group of designers and investors have created a building concept that could become a prototype of 'green' buildings for condos in the forward-thinking city of Portland," the association wrote to the city.
A few blocks south of the proposed Lofts space, business association member Kay Newell sits behind the counter at Sunlan Lighting, a shop she opened on Mississippi 16 years ago. From her perch, she's watched all the changes over the past few years, and is acutely aware that the corrugated gray warehouse across the street from her shop will probably be replaced with a mixed-use development sometime soon. It will likely be four stories tall, like the Lofts. But she won't object.
"Communities change, and we need the housing," she says. "I'm not totally happy with [the height], but I've accepted it."
Newell, like most of the neighborhood's other business owners, understands that new developments on Mississippi—like other urban developments around the city—need to do three things: increase urban density, reduce urban sprawl, and reduce dependence on cars. And the way new projects can meet those goals is to build taller. "With today's costs, you have to go up," Newell says.
That's a concept that the Lofts' objectors don't seem to understand. Ironically, the neighborhood naysayers touted the same urban development values in their petition—upping density, reducing sprawl, and decreasing car reliance—before contradicting themselves by denouncing the building's height, and making a provincial argument for privacy.
Loft developer Bill Jackson—who says he's had several hundred serious inquiries about the Lofts' residential units, demonstrating the demand for housing in the neighborhood—expects the city's design review process for the project to wrap up any day. But given the neighborhood's oppositional branch, he's expecting an appeal.
"Because of the rhetoric, other developers are going to be hesitant," worries Newell. "We need to act like ladies and gentlemen, or developers will come in and do what they want. Reasonable voices are heard."