The Design Issue 2016
KEVIN CAVENAUGH is one of Portland's best-known and most creative developers. His company, Guerrilla Development, is responsible for such inventive, eye-catching buildings as the Zipper on NE Sandy, the micro restaurants of the Ocean, Burnside Rocket (one of the first LEED Platinum commercial buildings in the world), and the upcoming crowd-sourced Burnside Bridgehead project (called the Fair-Haired Dumbbell), among others. And he has lots of ideas about the hot Portland topics of gentrification, displacement, and affordable housing. During Design Week, he'll be giving a breakfast lecture on the not-at-all-surprising topic "risk."
MERCURY: How difficult is it to include a sense of artistic risk in your developments when there's so much financial risk involved?
KEVIN CAVENAUGH: Weaving art—either directly as public art, or simply via strong design—into my projects is the easy part. I start with a seed of an idea, then I go out and find a piece of dirt, or an old building on a forgotten intersection. Then I toggle back and forth between each hemisphere of my brain. I start with a design I love, then I run the numbers and see if the project is viable. If it isn't, I start over again—all while keeping the experiment, the "big idea," at the core of the development.
It's not really that risky from my perspective. By the time I have a design that works, both aesthetically and financially, I'm feeling pretty confident about it. The funny thing is, the risk I undertake with my projects has more to do with each development being hard for a bank or an investor or a city employee to analyze. There typically aren't [design proofs] out there to back up the idea. That's the true risk—convincing others that what might look like a silly building (the Zipper, the Fair-Haired Dumbbell) is actually a well-conceived piece of engineering, architecturally and financially. I'm very proud that my developments are as profitable as a lot of the vinyl-windowed, extruded-lot-line shit getting thrown up around town these days.
Do you think it's possible for most developers to start recognizing two of Portland's most pressing issues, gentrification and affordable housing, and thoughtfully work them into their plans?
Actually, Portland has more thoughtful developers than most cities. I know of eight, and I'm sure there are more in the woodwork. They are good guys (and one woman, at least in my list of eight), all striving to do the right thing every day. We're a lucky city to have them in our midst—but the bad guys far outnumber the good; and I don't see a way to fix that from where I'm standing.
So let's pretend these "bad" developers are hanging on your every word—what are the top three things you'd ask them to start doing?
1. Stop living in the left hemisphere of your brain. Visit there half of the time, to make sure the numbers work—but please, oh please, allow the creative designer trapped in you out for some air. OR...
2. Hire a creative right-brainer and actually listen to them. Give their ideas credence and don't just try and monetize each compelling architectural move.
3. These buildings will be around much longer than any of us. Think in terms of 100-year investments—not 18-month exit strategies.
When you imagine Portland in the future, what do you see?
My wife calls me dangerously optimistic, so my answer to this question will be a happy one: I'm damn excited about the future of Portland. I could look at today's housing prices and whine about how I bought my first house in town 20 years ago for $16,000—with my buddy's credit card. But instead, I see that Portland is still the cheapest and coolest city on the West Coast, and I don't see that changing 20 years from now. Sure, it'll get much more expensive and we'll lose a lot of the Satyricon rawness, but we'll continue to be an inventive and entrepreneurial town. That's in our DNA.
The buildings will get taller and the design bar will get raised (thankfully). Higher-wage jobs will arrive and lower-wage folks will get pushed out to the edges (sadly). Quirky retail shops will be the anomaly, not the norm (maddeningly). However there is ALWAYS a new frontier. In 20 years, the coolest intersection of Portland might just be SE 122nd and Flavel, because that's where the artists and designers and fabricators all live while working out of their garages. Or on the edge of Beaverton, or in the heart of Gresham. Seriously.
I moved my family into an old auto-body shop on NE Sandy two years ago, like... to LIVE. My guess is that 20 years from now I could do the same thing. It'd just be a different body shop in a different part of town. As long as the city is open to folks living and working in weird ways (and they certainly are), Portland will always be a cool and interesting place.
Risk: Kevin Cavenaugh
Gerding Theater at the Armory, 128 NW 11th, Fri April 22, 8:30 am, free