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eco angeleno

Neighborhood Rehab: Lessons from The Pearl and Portland’s Industrial Revitalization

Michael Hinrichs, Communications Director, Los Angeles Sustainability Collaborative.


 There is no question that Los Angeles is building momentum towards solidifying itself as a green city and a leader in sustainability. However, when it comes to its revitalization

Tanner Springs Park in Portland's Pearl District

Tanner Springs Park in Portland’s Pearl District

efforts on a neighborhood scale, I’ve found that Los Angeles still has a lot to learn, and plenty of room to grow.

Nine months ago I relocated from Los Angeles to Portland, where I’ve moved into a part of town that used to be total industrial squalor. Deemed the “Northwest Industrial Triangle” in its prime, by the 1980’s the area quickly became known as a perfect representation of the industrial decay with abandoned and crumbling buildings, contaminated soil and transient activity. Today the area is known as the “Pearl District,” which is widely known for being the “swanky” or “chic” section of Portland, and in fact, for being the contrast to Portland’s overall hippie/hipster reputation. That’s not to say it’s not an interesting community, but I don’t think you’ll necessarily find the Pearl showing up in any episodes of Portlandia (…and yes, everything in Portlandia is EXACTLY how it really is). Despite its upscale reputation, the Pearl still bears an industrial history woven into modern city design. It’s a magnificent example of how to revitalize an entire district using aggressive sustainable policies and a dynamic integration of historic relics.

As I become increasingly engaged in the community and learn more about the history of what once was in the Pearl, I can’t help but reflect on the various neighborhoods in Southern California that could benefit from the thoughtful and innovative revitalization efforts that went into this community. Typical revitalization fixes like filling potholes, re-sodding little league fields and trimming trees are great and all, but these things don’t make “neighborhoods” as much as they make nice streets. They help a community achieve a certain image, but the image is all too often nothing more than a façade.

Pearl Town-homes (formerly a warehouse and rail loading dock)

Pearl Town-homes (formerly a warehouse and rail loading dock)

After months of living and breathing the street life of Portland’s Pearl District, a once warehouse dominated district, now turned arty-chic, I wanted to share some key factors that I believe made the Pearl’s revitalization so successful; and what could be replicated in Los Angeles:

A Vision to Bank On
An achievable vision for the former Industrial Triangle was clearly the cornerstone of actual development. A committee of twenty-six leaders, comprised of elected officials, developers, engineers and community leaders, developed an aggressive yet realistic plan for the area that promoted high-density, environmentally-friendly, historically-respectful design and development. It wasn’t an overreaching policy document for all of Portland, but rather it was a tailored vision specific to an area with specific problems.

Active Political Support
In 2001, the Portland City Council unanimously adopted the Pearl Plan, thus signaling to private industry that if they could meet the aggressive expectations laid out in the plan, projects would have political champions throughout the permitting process. Political leaders were supportive in the media, they fast-tracked permits that showed conformity to the plan and they engaged the public to build unity for their vision. That is HUGE. When is the last time the LA City Council unanimously voted for a development project and continually went to bat for the supporter’s side?

Portland's Keen Garage

Portland’s Keen Garage

Protecting Historical Significance
Residents and politicians alike rarely support the complete forced overhaul of a neighborhood into an entirely different culture. Knowing this, architects, engineers and scientists were tasked with creating spaces and policies that preserve culturally significant aspects of the Industrial Triangle. The result of their collaboration is what makes the Pearl a thriving district today. For example, columns from the old highway bridge stand as artwork in front of LEED-certified skyscrapers. Old water drums, industrial walls and gutted wooden beams create the foundation of the artwork and water pathways in a public park that doubles as a groundwater treatment project. Keen, a leading footwear company, is probably the epitome of what the Pearl plan’s sustainability guidelines aimed to create. Keen renovated a 105 year-old building without changing the outside brick, and somehow only generated less than one dumpster of waste, salvaging nearly everything inside and repurposing it as furniture, décor or straight up recycled infrastructure.

Tailored Policies District-By-District
The Pearl District’s model had influences far beyond the neighborhood boundaries, as it has now redefined Portland’s growth strategies and high-density planning. The City is identifying other neglected areas and district visions are either in their infancy or are on their way to full implementation, each emphasizing a tailored conservation of the district’s past.

Los Angeles leaders have a unique opportunity to look at Portland’s success and better understand that even though overarching goals are amazing sound bites, they often do not form to full implementation. That is why an eco-district philosophy, like the one used for revitalizing the “Northwest Industrial Triangle” could work wonders for Los Angeles neighborhoods that desperately need a second chance to thrive.

The Lovejoy Column

The Lovejoy Column

With new and spirited leadership at the helm, Los Angeles has a chance to create a citywide vision for rebuilding neighborhoods. Perhaps it can draw from San Diego’s concept of a “city of villages” approach, acknowledging that community cultures and history widely differ, but together they create an overarching reputation. Districts should be actively identifying opportunity areas and communities that can serve as pilots for the eco district blueprint, and if successful, the blueprint could be replicated in other communities. As seen in Portland, with political leadership’s support, there will surely spark innovation and investment from the private sector. Smaller eco district developments around LA will lead to an aggregate change and preserve community identity. In rebuilding the Los Angeles “neighborhood”, let’s get back to basics. It’s a strategy that works great in my profession, it worked in the Pearl, and I’m confident it can work for Los Angeles.