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Communities all over the world are struggling to build effective strategies to address their key challenges, from climate change and equity to housing and revitalization. In response, the AIA’s Communities by Design program brings together architects and other professional disciplines to work alongside the residents, professionals and institutions of host communities on key local issues. Every project is community-driven and includes meaningful public participation in an intensive process to match professional expertise with public values and aspirations for a place. 

Lessons from the Pearl District: Designing Complete Places

By Joel Mills posted 10-28-2020 11:26 AM


In Portland, Oregon, a derelict warehouse district with rampant vacancy was transformed during the last two decades of the 20th century into the “Pearl District,” a neighborhood known worldwide for its vibrant life and unique character. One local reflection captures the area’s transformation:


“Ever squinted your eyes and tried to imagine something that’s only in your head? That’s how it was for those of us who looked over the rail yards and abandoned warehouses of inner northwest Portland some 20 years ago. Rundown and dilapidated, it was a sight that even the best of us squinters had trouble overcoming. And yet, slowly, a largely forgotten part of Portland’s past became an urban icon of living unlike anything the country had ever seen: A unique blend of verve and vibrancy, with more than a passing nod to Portland’s uncommon brand of originality. Today, the Pearl District has earned a worldwide reputation for urban renaissance. Diverse, architecturally significant, residential communities thrive here. Galleries rub shoulders with restaurants, shops open to parks, and no one has to squint anymore to see the magic that’s taken hold. The Pearl is the story of a vision come to life.”


Like all great urban transformations, its beginnings were planted in a participatory public process. As one account notes:

“A pivotal 1983 American Institute of Architects study of the district, “The Last Place in Downtown,” laid the groundwork for designating NW 13th Avenue as a National Historic District. The corresponding tax breaks proved a powerful fertilizer. In 1986, a group of investors bought 40 acres of largely empty railroad land stretching north of NW Hoyt Street for $6 million—about 30 cents per square foot. Two years later, Solheim and Gray pioneered the district’s first official residential conversion, the Irving Street Lofts, and a short walk north, Bridgeport Brewing Co opened its first brewpub.”

Key to its success was a commitment to incremental development built on a series of public-private partnerships that embedded concepts to realize their urban vision. For instance, the city tore down the Lovejoy ramp, a piece of transportation infrastructure that posed a significant barrier to neighborhood connectivity – something many cities are struggling with today. They negotiated with developers to include key components in developments that benefited urbanism. For instance, decades before many cities, they included provisions to relax parking requirements, to match public investments in transit and public space with increased densities in residential development and to include affordable housing mandates from the beginning. A system of connected public space was envisioned, a street car facilitated transit, and they respected the historic urban fabric at every stage.

As one account noted, the development was based in a “three-part pact to steer the creation of a new urban neighborhood that would become the densest in the region and the envy of developers, mayors, and urban planning wonks worldwide. The first move: the city would tear down the Lovejoy Ramp, regarded as a barrier dividing the future neighborhood. For that, the developers agreed to build a minimum of 87 housing units per acre through the district. If the city built a streetcar, the developers would raise the ante to 133 units per acre. Three new city parks would net at least 150 units per acre. Thirty percent of the housing, the developers and city pledged, would be affordable.”


Historic buildings underwent remarkable transformations to preserve the historic character of the neighborhood while adapting to new uses. The five-block development of the former Blitz Weinhard Brewery was transformed to include a supermarket, offices, and the first LEED Gold residential development. The 1891 armory became the nation’s first LEED Platinum theater. Despite the neighborhood’s growth and lively scene, intentional strategies to balance housing largely avoided the ‘hipster gentrification’ so reviled in other urban settings, so it developed as both a stunning example of historic urban character and one of the most balanced neighborhoods in the city, despite perceptions. Watch this short film for a deeper exploration of the Pearl District’s stunning achievement:


The Pearl District has become a model for urban transformation worldwide. In 2016, a representative of Transport for London cited the Pearl as that city’s model for future growth in former industrial areas as the city plans to focus on former industrial areas to accommodate an additional million residents by 2025, and 3 million more by 2050. What can your city learn from the Pearl District experience? What lessons do you have for urban transformation? We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas!