New ideas proposed for redevelopment of Centennial Mills
Aug. 8, 2013

New ideas proposed for redevelopment of Centennial Mills

POSTED: Thursday, August 8, 2013 at 03:30 PM PT
Early Centennial Mills redevelopment concepts envision green space on roof-top decks, covered exhibition areas and a public dock. Designs are preliminary and will continue to evolve over the coming year. (Hennebery Eddy Architects)

Early Centennial Mills redevelopment concepts envision green space on roof-top decks, covered exhibition areas and a public dock. Designs are preliminary and will continue to evolve over the coming year. (Hennebery Eddy Architects)

The years have not been kind to 103-year-old Centennial Mills. Piers are rotting; floors are on the verge of collapse; foundations are ready to buckle.

“Not only is it in really poor shape, but it’s in continuously worsening shape every year,” said Gregg Sanders, an associate principal at Hennebery Eddy Architects.

Deterioration documentation from just four years ago is outdated already. That puts a bit of a kink in Harsch Investment Properties‘ efforts to redevelop the former flour mill. The riverfront site, vacant since Archer Daniels Midland Co. closed the mill in 2001, has since weathered significantly.

Preservation of much of the site will likely be limited. But Sanders and others have ideas about how some buildings can be saved and the property can be revitalized.

“The other thing this shows is what an absolute jewel the feed mill is,” Hennebery Eddy Architects principal Tim Eddy said while pointing to a rendering during a design charrette on Monday. “The openings, the proportions, the large amount of glass – it’s just a wonderful building.”

The four-story feed mill is one of three iconic buildings the group hopes to preserve. The others are the five-story flour mill (with a water tower), and grain elevator A due east of the flour mill.

Challenges abound. Sanders said the feed mill is the most adaptable space, but it’s only 15,000 square feet. The flour mill is 25,000 square feet, but its floors are falling apart. The grain elevator has a 4,000-square-foot footprint, but no floors in what would otherwise be a five-story building.

Virtually everything else could be torn down, rebuilt or replaced.

Early concepts envision razing the Portland Police Bureau Mounted Patrol Unit paddock and building a seven- to eight-story mixed-use tower; trading a warehouse in the heart of the site for a creative office/retail building; and swapping a decaying wharf for a floating dock.

Two warehouses along the northern section of the river could come down temporarily for repairs to rotting foundations, and then be rebuilt as exhibition space. One rendering shows people meandering at a classic car show beneath a ceiling composed of glass and solar panels. For Jordan Schnitzer, Harsch’s president, that public space was the answer to a riddle that had plagued him since the first design charrette took place in May.

“My big concern was: How are we going to get the public down here?” he said. Each warehouse “would be a fabulous performance and people space.”

Sanders said the team isn’t interested only in making Centennial Mills a destination, but also a 100-year place. So, various potential program elements are being explored.

“More than just a physical structure, (Harsch) wants it to be an emotional thing,” he said. “Jordan has stressed that he’ll know when it’s right when he feels it.”

The team is hoping to preserve at least one of each of the different types of historic buildings – i.e., mill, warehouse, grain elevator – and construct new buildings in their image, though not by creating faux facades. Sanders said to think of it as a multigenerational family of buildings.

“Where you imagine two buildings kind of getting married and having children,” he said. “And then those buildings take components of the two parent buildings, but they don’t look exactly like the parent buildings.”

Early concepts of the central retail/office building, for example, envision two gabled feed-mill-like office buildings rising from a two-story retail podium. Schnitzer, who is sensitive to the project’s scale, wasn’t sold on the massing of that design, so it will likely change.

Another draw would be a grand pedestrian bridge extending over Naito Parkway from Fields Park. One option has it running through the narrow corridor created by the flour mill and grain elevator C (the most northwestern building, which will either be preserved or rebuilt) and spilling out onto a public plaza for food carts and street performers in the heart of the site.

Like Italy’s iconic Ponte Vecchio, Schnitzer is thinking big. He envisions en emblematic structure with a famous name like Frank Geary or Maya Lin attached.

“Let’s not just make this thing a bridge,” Schnitzer said. “Let’s go out with an international competition to make it, really, a destination kind of thing – so it’s not just a passageway, but in essence a piece of art.”

Feasibility, however, is still important to Schnitzer.

“It’s going to be all office,” he said while discussing the program for the upper floors of the retail/office building. “The demand you need of people to justify that much retail just isn’t going to be down here.”

Early designs envision parking beneath both the new apartment tower and the site’s northwest quarter. Eddy pointed out that because crews need to restore foundations there anyway, it would make sense to build parking at the same time.

Also, a significant portion of the site will include a public greenway, though its size is being discussed. James McGrath, an urban designer and infrastructure engineer at CH2M HILL, suggested larger may be better because it’s a Superfund area. Nearby industrial users who are unable to do the same might be willing to invest, he said.

“There might be some hidden money here,” McGrath said.

During the design charrette in May, attendees advocated for creating public access to the river, and on Monday one idea called for replacing the rotting wharf with a floating dock. In this concept, the pier wouldn’t need to be repaired and the amount of public space would expand. Renderings portrayed people launching sailboats, prepping kayaks and sunbathing.

“There’s no other place in Portland where you could have a large group of people on a dock,” Eddy said. “There’s your toes in the water.”

Designs will continue to evolve over the course of the next year. Additional firms involved include SERA ArchitectsMeyer Scherer & RockcastleOlin StudioGlumac and KPFF.

Sanders said that redevelopment of Centennial Mills is a challenge, but also a rare career opportunity – one strengthened by Schnitzer’s willingness to explore the site’s cultural significance.

“Even though there is pressure on schedule, there is a willingness to explore that I think most developers wouldn’t be willing to do,” Sanders said. “They want to push, push, push. Jordan appreciates the art of the project and really wants to explore what that means.”