Little Dubai of the Northwest

The South Waterfront is a neighborhood in central Portland along the west bank of the Willamette River, directly south of Downtown. Recently, the district has undergone incredible changes. It has been transformed from a brownfield site into a dense high-rise district, in less than a decade. Even during the current recession, a few large projects are still underway, adding to the growing number of condominium towers that reach to 20 or 30 stories. The site is anchored by the OHSU Center for Health and Healing, which forms one end of the two-stop Portland Aerial Tram system. The tram links the South Waterfront to the rest of the OHSU campus, located at the top of a nearby hill. Additionally, the Portland Streetcar makes its southern terminus here, before returning north and extending through downtown to NW 23rd Avenue.

My visit to the South Waterfront occurred on a cold and partly cloudy spring day, and the rain was falling in intermittent sprinkles. I arrived by lime green streetcar with a handful of other people, having passed through the empty acres that separate this part of the city from downtown, a land waiting for future development. We disembarked at the first station, which is across the street from the OHSU building. As I stepped out, the aerial tram descended from the heavens as if to great me, and I made my way on foot across the narrow street, looking up at the dangling orb as it docked silently at its station. Another streetcar (this one blue) turned the corner to return its occupants to downtown, where I had previously come from. I felt a healthy presence of public transportation, and things seemed ready to move. Few people walked the streets except those entering and exiting the medical building, but I ventured towards the towers. Whether due to the the threat of rain, or the fact that this neighborhood suddenly sprung up out of nothing and hasn't properly populated itself - I cannot say.

Walking south past OHSU, and following the streetcar tracks, I came upon a park the size of one block which covers an underground parking garage. Grilled ventilation shafts protruded through the wet green lawn, indicating that cars lurk below the trees. The next block revealed a much larger park, well designed and complete with undulating hills, native plants in serpentine bio-swales, and low wooden bridges that meander through the space, creating crossing links from one side to the other. A sign says, "Cauruthers Park", but this fantastic green space is encircled with cyclone fencing that seems to say, "not yet open to the public." The new grass and young growies are on the verge of welcoming curious pedestrians, but perhaps at a later visit this place can be discovered. A third park can be identified as the linear green edge along the river that serves as barrier between nature and and Man's magnificent buildings. One one side there is the Willamette River and the dense growth of the opposite bank. On the other side there are close to a dozen new towers that catch the sun on their glass and reflect the billowing clouds. A young man in a black suit plays with his small jumping dog, and a couple of old ladies walk briskly by, swinging their arms much higher than arms are meant to swing. Someone was picks up trash in an attempt to keep things looking nice around the giant wind-swept pine cone sculpture.

Great care was taken to provide an infrastructure of green space in the first stages of this urban planning extravaganza, but the neighborhood is really about the buildings which fill in the spaces between - mostly tall and mostly of glass. The streetcar infrastructure is also impressive, and serves to move people through the space and connect them to downtown. The particular names and characteristics of individual towers are not important to chronicle here, as it is a work in progress. Some interesting shapes are prominent, but all have scattered balconies and smooth glass walls. As more towers are built, the South Waterfront is becoming the Little Dubai of the Northwest - a massive urban conglomeration surrounded by the ordinary and the sparse. Each tower is a little different, but being built all at once, the towers contain no history of individuality and can only be seen, for now, as immense pieces of an assembling whole. It would be a shame if they stop now, as it is incomplete, but the plans call for something great.

Some diversity is emerging, however. To accompany the host of pricey condominiums with wide views of the river and the downtown skyline, the work currently under construction includes a senior living tower community, and an income restricted six story building of rental apartments. There are only a few restaurants and businesses, so residents need to go elsewhere for most of their daily necessities, but someday all the pieces will fall into place and this will actually be a place of its own. Luckily, the streetcar runs on a loop and I board to return to downtown. The rain has started to fall with more authority, telling me to come back again when there is more to see than the progress on the latest tower.