Portland’s groundbreaking live/work space for artists, Milepost 5, has provided affordable space for hundreds of artists over the years. Its offbeat history offers a mix of lessons about mashing up art and commerce. The company that brought it to life is about to sell the complex to a company that specializes in redeveloping affordable housing.
As Kimberly Bookman was driving from South Carolina to Portland four years ago to become a full-time artist, she stumbled into a huge opportunity.
“I was looking on Craigslist for spaces or rooms, and I came across Milepost 5,” Bookman said. “I just sent them an email saying that I would be there in a few days and I would come to the office, and I was interested in the room.”
Bookman submitted a portfolio and got approved for what she still calls the best deal in town — studio apartments that start at $375 a month. Bookman made use of the on-site wood shop and galleries to grow from palm-sized sculptures to lavish female forms frocked with dried flowers, paint, and pageantry.
She had two solo shows at Milepost 5’s Denizen Gallery last year, including “Death By Glitter,” which Bookman calls “the largest pieces that I’ve ever done. And it was great.”
Watch Kimberly Bookman’s “Death by Glitter” below.
Will Elder had a formative two years at Milepost 5, on his way to becoming an artist and curator. Barely two years out of Cleveland High School he moved there in 2010, elated with his 200-square foot apartment, multi-generational neighbors and the anything-goes atmosphere.
“Sometimes,” Elder said, it felt, “a little chaotic. And I think that had to do with the number of parties happening there, which was fun at the time, but could be exhausting.”
He remembers the signing of his lease as being an incredibly quick and easy process.
“And I think it was because they were so eager to get people in there, to start renting,” he said.
It was the height of the recession, and Elder surmises the project was hemorrhaging money.
Brad Malsin, the founder of Beam Development, did most of the heavy lifting to get Milepost 5 off the ground. He’s open about the problems in the early stages of the project.
“It certainly didn’t turn out like we originally envisioned it.”
Brad Malsin is the founder of Beam Development — better known for a different kind of project, renovating historic warehouses into coveted upscale workspaces. Beam did the big lifting on Milepost 5, partnering with an affordable housing trust. The project’s advocate was then-Mayor Sam Adams, who was trying to make space for artists in a city that, even in 2006, had started getting too expensive for the creative class. The city’s financial contribution was relatively small — a loan in the lower six figures from Portland Development Commission.
Beam and its partner bought and renovated the old German Baptist retirement home on Northeast 82nd Avenue. Its 54 condos and 127 studio apartments are affordable housing. Everyone’s accommodated, whether or not they’re selling much art. Beam saved money by designing communal kitchen and bathroom areas on each floor. The Milepost gallery, Denizen, its coffeehouse, community garden and the old chapel used for meetings and performances provided additional draws. It’s not fancy, but the idea was to create a community where artists wouldn’t have to sweat the rent so much and find a measure of economic stability.
“We had to modify many of our lofty goals,” Malsin said. “But overall we provided affordable housing, mainly for artists. I think it really serves a niche in the city and maybe an example of what can be done.”
For all the aspiration, it took Malsin’s company the better part of 10 years to get Milepost 5 to break even, and even people who stayed for years there have binary stories to tell: the fruitful time they spent working and making supportive friendships, in contrast to the social friction and disappointment with the fiscal model.
Jared Souza and James Halvorson are longtime friends and the hosts of a weekly figure drawing series that’s one of the longest-running and best-loved regular events in the building. When asked about their experiences, Halvorson laughs, “I have many comments, but I’ll keep them constructive!”
They say finding community amid a building full of artists has not been as easy as they hoped. “The most important thing James and I really share,” Souza said, “is we actually have discipline and ambition.”
Halvorson notes the problem of finding tenants with the commitment to volunteer to help out: “I would say first of all, look at those organized, type-A creatives who are able to cooperate. Those are people who are going to help something jell.”
Some artists thought Beam wasn’t doing enough to keep order and maintain the common spaces. Resentment burbled about Beam’s efforts to get the buildings into the black. Hopes for big opening nights in their underserved east side neighborhood didn’t always materialize. Others wanted to know why restaurants and stores never took root on the street side of the building.
“At the time, I was trying to think about it architecturally: Is the issue simply that the building is set back from the sidewalk?” Will Elder said. “We tried doing a sort of First Thursday thing once a month and open studios. We got some people out, but it was pretty obvious from the get-go that we were out of reach, away from the center.”
And what about the interplay between freewheeling artists and a for-profit developer? If it were a Facebook relationship, we’d say, “It’s complicated.” Condos went on sale just as the recession hit.
Tenants just got the news last week that Beam is selling Milepost 5 to Community Development Partners, a California company that specializes in affordable housing. It has Oregon offices and several projects in Portland, Corvallis and Albany.
While he didn’t seek out the deal, Malsin said it’s time.
“I felt like my tenure was done with it,” Malsin said. “This Newport Beach group came to us. It wasn’t for sale, they came to us, said they loved the property, they were going to make a round of investment, keep a level of affordability.”
To head up the Milepost 5 project, CDP tapped a longtime hand in Portland affordable housing circles, Dan Steffey.
“There are some very, very cool things going on at that property,” Steffey said. “We’re hoping we can build on the foundation and take it to the next level.”
CDP wants to leverage federal tax credits to make upgrades, and he affirmed the company intends to keep lease rates right where they are.
If all goes as planned, the sale will become final next month.
There’s some nervousness inside Milepost 5 — and out. The artists living there have few options in Portland’s real estate market.
But many said they feel hopeful about Milepost 5’s future. The waiting list to move into Milepost 5 is still quite long, according to property manager Julie Thompson. The days, she said, “are entertaining and rewarding. It’s not that much different from running another residential community, except for the delicate social ecosystem.”
Elder said for all the wildness of the early years, he had freedom to try things.
“There’s something about putting your work up in the space downtown,” Elder said, “that kind of builds an expectation of, ‘OK, I really got to be on it.’ But here there was a sort of a release: There’s only us, so why not?”
He recalled a couple of performance pieces he organized.
“They are totally silly for me to think about now is part of my practice,” he said. “But in some ways, kind of useful. Like pointing out how can you re-configure a laundry room into something else? That sort of playful subversion found its way into my work later.”
Jared Souza recalls people shirking from coming to events at the gallery in years past. But he and James Halvorson agree attitudes are changing.
“I’ve definitely seen it,” Halvorson said. “People staying over for the weekend in an Airbnb were wandering through the neighborhood and said, ‘Oh, this looks like a thing I should check!’”
And there’s no lack of external interest in using the public spaces. Portland Zine Symposium held a fundraiser there just this week.
Carlee Smith is a co-founder of the One Flaming Arrow indigenous art festival and the former co-owner of the celebrated body-positive downtown boutique Fat Fancy. She’s been living at Milepost 5 for about two years and chairs the nonprofit in charge of Milepost 5’s community and performance spaces.
“We’ve gotten a lot of interest, especially in the past few months,” Smith said.
Smith and her board are overwhelmed with day jobs, art-making and trying to run two venues. But when asked about the future, she sounds cautiously optimistic Milepost 5 can ramp up, with more help.
“The more we can get other people in the community to get engaged and get it involved,” Smith said, “the more we can keep it open for the community and residents to use in a freeform way.”
Smith is keenly aware of the need for affordable housing. Even Milepost 5’s cut-rate leases are a struggle for some artists. But she says she’s a believer in slow starts and strong foundations.
Editor’s Note: This story originally misidentified the location of Milepost 5. It is on Northeast 82nd Avenue.