For a half century, the clanging of steel on steel filled the air at Zidell Yards, the stretch of industrial land under the Ross Island Bridge along the Willamette River’s west bank. Now, there’s just the soft hum of traffic from the bridge overhead and a few errant geese.
But consider this quiet like a field gone to fallow. Zidell Yards is waiting to be reborn. Its new development stands to transform Portland’s skyline and maybe its arts landscape as well.
Over the past decade, as buildings and bridges sprang up around the pioneering builders of steel barges, the Zidell family saw an opportunity for what is the biggest undeveloped slice of land in the inner city. So they drew up a master plan that includes multiple office and housing high-rises, 10 acres of parks and open space, and public access to the river.
But it’s something else that has arts leaders excited.
“There are three tenets of our family vision, as we build out this development, and one of them is incorporating arts and culture into the fabric of the community,” said Charlene Zidell, who is officially the director of corporate relations and communications and unofficially the keeper of the arts flame.
Zidell describes an evocative vision that includes affordable artist housing, co-working office space, and artist studios and education spaces that are incorporated into every building in the development.
Zidell has been reaching out to creative leaders to brainstorm what it could look like. She’s getting a lot of interest from groups that are struggling to find affordable office and performance space in the city’s sizzling real estate market.
Portland Baroque Orchestra executive director Abby McKee is dreaming of what would happen if arts nonprofits followed the tech lead and bunked up in co-working spaces built into the Yards’ office buildings.
“Imagine what would happen if, say, 10 arts organizations that each have two staff members suddenly have access to share a photo copier, or there’s a room that can serve as everyone’s music library, rather than being overhead or excess that we all have to come up with separately,” she said.
Kristi Balzer, the executive director of the Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for Girls, is also intrigued by the co-working idea, having talked about it with other groups like X-Ray Radio, Friends of Noise and Third Rail Repertory Theatre.
“It’s a little scary for arts organizations at first because we all feel to a degree that we’re competing for funding and resources,” she said. “So to get people to see that sharing resources and collaborating is the first hurdle to getting at this model. But we can’t do on our own anymore.”
Balzer is also excited by another idea put forth by the Zidell family that would fill another huge hole in Portland’s arts world: to convert the riverside portion of the big blue barge shed into a performance venue. (The rest of the shed will tentatively be split between an anchor commercial tenant, a possible showplace for makers and entrepreneurs, and a hotel.)
“The performance space would be a venue that could be multi-use, as well as workshop spaces above that, practice spaces above that, but then would be calendared for all organizations to use and share,” Balzer said.
Zidell said they’re also looking across the Tilikum Crossing to collaborate with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, which is in the early stages of planning an enormous mixed-use development for its own 18-acre campus.
“One of the suggestions in the city’s plan [for preserving affordable space for the arts] was these art districts,” she said. “So we’re talking to OMSI and OHSU and ourselves — there’s 77 walkable acres between our three sites — about having some sort of common master plan for visual arts.”
Zidell is sending out a request for proposals for a public art plan in the coming weeks, with more ideas to come.
“What about the possibility of having, if you have a festival of some sort and you need pop up spaces for things to happen, you take this arts district and you have places at OHSU’s facilities, at OMSI’s facilities, at ours, where different kinds of events are happening,” she said. “And you create a real center of gravity for the arts.”
With proposals from prospective master developers due at the end of the month, OMSI’s plans are even more nascent than Zidell’s, but president Nancy Stueber said they’re excited to collaborate with Zidell Yards.
“We talk about how we are bookends of the Tilikum Bridge — it is such a major connector,” Stueber said. “We have identified places where people can gather along the waterfront and inside, where OMSI-style interpretive exhibits might take place, as well as public art.”
Charlene Zidell said the family hopes to break ground on infrastructure midway through this year and to open the first building in fall 2020, with several more apartment and office buildings in the following years. And while making a space for the arts is one of the family’s tenets, the challenge is going to be figuring out how to make these big dreams pencil out.
“We have to come up with a different business model — it just doesn’t work for arts organizations,” Zidell said.
The co-working model is one idea. Getting corporate partners to sponsor and share the performance space is another, with a nonprofit overseeing the space. To say nothing of city support. But for a family that turned a scrap yard into the biggest shipbreaking operation in the country, before pioneering steel barges, a little reinvention is nothing new.