written by Justin Fields
Reshaping Portland’s Pearl District
When Tiffany Sweitzer first started as a project associate for Hoyt Street Properties in 1994, she had no intention of eventually leading one of the largest urban development projects in the country. Twenty years, 13 buildings and 34 acres later, Sweitzer has become one of the most influential developers in the history of Portland, if not the country.
After becoming president of Hoyt in 2000, Sweitzer went on to oversee the complete transformation of the inner Northwest and Waterfront areas. The industrial rail yards and dilapidated warehouses soon gave way to a unique and varied neighborhood with an emphasis on mixed use and progressive transportation strategies, known today as the Pearl District.
Under Sweitzer’s direction, Hoyt has received awards from the American Institute of Architecture, and garnered attention from national media outlets such as The New York Times. And while the rapid growth of the area has not been without its share of challenges, it’s impossible to deny the positive economic effect of converting a forlorn rail yard into the vibrant urban development it is today.
How did you come to oversee the development of the Pearl District as of Hoyt Street Properties?
My stepfather is a developer and he was one of the initial investors in the property.
He showed me the project he was working on and asked me what I thought, and I was immediately interested. I had no development experience, but I could see that this could be a significant area of our city. It was in close proximity to the Willamette River, but was also within walking distance of downtown. At the time, the Brewery Blocks hadn’t even been started and there were very few condo projects in the city. So I jumped on board doing whatever needed to be done. A significant part of my life has been spent here, and along the way I’ve continued to learn from my mistakes and become wiser. I’ve learned to overcome challenges.
What challenges have you faced over the past 20 years with Hoyt Street Properties and how did you overcome those challenges?
To take a contaminated rail yard used by Burlington Northern for the last 100 years and transform it into a significant development and a successful neighborhood has been a big challenge, and it continues to be every day. Everything from negotiating with the city regarding what we wanted to build versus what the city was willing to invest in, to cleaning up a rail yard and convincing people around us that we could make it a viable residential area. We had to build trust that we could accomplish what we said we were going to do. We had to build trust that there would be parks someday, streetcars and beautiful buildings. That in itself was a big challenge and continues to be challenging today.
How has the Pearl District evolved over that time? Can you describe some of the most formative projects that you’ve been involved in?
It has changed significantly and it’s funny because anybody reading about this development might think the Pearl is done and it’s a completed success story. But when we started, it truly it was an active rail yard. The property needed a lot of cleanup, and there were old rail buildings that needed to be torn down.
We leased part of the land to the railroad and we started building on one side of it.
There was an elevated ramp which used to cut our property in half so the trains could go underneath. We cleaned the area up, demolished the Lovejoy Ramp, started with one building, and eventually transformed a 34-acre area into what it is today.
Height restrictions were probably my biggest challenge to start. I was restricted by 75 feet. When we first started our projects Riverstone, Tanner Place and Johnson Townhomes, they were all very low buildings. At the time, we were hugely criticized for those five or six-story buildings. People asked, how could you build that mass here?
But as we started to build more, and we thought about the ground level spaces and how all of those things could come together successfully, people became less and less afraid of height. So what I worked with the city to do was done in baby steps. We started with six-story buildings and as people became more comfortable with what we were doing, we eventually built as high as 100 feet. And then North of Lovejoy, we built a little bit higher because we felt that it’s more appropriate in this area. Our newest building, The Cosmopolitan, is a thin tower, so it still allows views and light and air but less mass on an overall block. But it took years to build that trust.
Has one of the goals all along been to create a diverse mix of housing? Luxury condos, smaller rentals, etc.?
Another important component in negotiating our agreement with the city of Portland was the mix of housing. The city understood that in order to really create a neighborhood you can’t just have high-end units, all condominiums. Unfortunately the Pearl still gets labeled for having that. But we are required to build a mix of for sale, for rent, and affordable housing. Our affordable requirements were 30 percent of everything we built. We also have a requirement of size, with so many units that must be under 700 square feet. Today you can walk around this neighborhood and it’s not easy to tell what is an affordable project and what’s a for-sale project or a market rate rental. And to make a neighborhood work you need all that diversity.
Tell me more how the Portland Streetcar fits into the River District Urban Renewal Area and the Pearl District as a whole.
Of all our negotiations made with the city that has been one of the most significant pieces. We knew that transportation was so important to getting people through our property and to other parts of the city. I call the streetcar a horizontal connector because one can use the streetcar to take you to the next mode of transportation. The streetcar gets you downtown, to MAX, and MAX gets you to other parts of the city and the suburbs. For example, we have people living in our buildings that work at Intel, and they can still live in the central city because they have that connection. So it’s probably been the biggest piece of infrastructure and the most important component for this entire development.
What does the phrase New Urbanism mean to you and how does it fit into what Hoyt is doing in the Pearl District?
New Urbanism to me is made of many pieces. I mentioned the streetcar being the most significant piece and I believe that. But you also have to have friendly space at the ground level. There must be points of interest, whether it be parks, great pieces of art to walk by or having the buildings open up so you can walk between them. All of those things have to work together to make what I think true New Urbanism is. In the end you’re not buying into a place because that building is beautiful. You’re buying in an urban area that you can feel connected to.
It might sound hokey for me to say this, but the biggest thing for me is to see the same person every morning enjoying the area. They go get their coffee and the person serving the coffee already knows what they want. They’re neighbors. They’re a part of this neighborhood’s fabric. Every afternoon, I see four Italian guys move their table right by the park and they sit out and smoke cigars. Every day, rain or shine, they’re out there. That’s part of the fabric of the neighborhood when you walk down the street and that’s what we’re striving for.
What would you say to someone who was kind of at the edge of deciding whether or not to move to the Pearl?
I say just come into the neighborhood and look around first. Whether you want to live in the Brewery Blocks, the West End or the Pearl, come experience it. Have a cup of coffee, go to one of the stores, do your shopping, walk in the parks. Imagine living in that environment. Feel the place first, then you can start narrowing your options. Then I would say take a closer look, because each building also has its own community that becomes a part of the bigger place.
Who are some of the other key people that make Hoyt what it is today?
Probably the most significant person who gets very little attention is Joe Weston.
Other people are known as “fathers of the Pearl” but this truly would not have happened had it not been for him. He invested significant dollars, stood behind what he said he was going to do, and didn’t bail out or sell out. Another partner on this project is Clay Fowler. He’s done a lot of urban development in Connecticut. He’s the person I go to when I’m at my wit’s end or need help. And then there’s Keith Vernon, a financier who’s always stuck by me and had faith in what I’ve been doing. The four of us are the weirdest group you could put together.
We didn’t set out to be partners, but it just ended up that way over the years as people got bought out. And I’m truly grateful for all the other people that work for me and with me. There are people who have been here from day one and they get it, they work hard, and they have the same emotional investment that I do. So the team I’ve gathered is a huge part of this whole development.
What’s on the horizon for you and Hoyt Street Properties?
We are now developing what will probably be the biggest project in our entire history. The Cosmopolitan is a very high-end 150 unit project that we will complete in 2016. I’m also working on an apartment project with another partner just kitty corner from The Cosmo, that’s about 280 units. Hoyt still has a few more blocks to develop. There’s a great block that we still have sitting near The Fields Park that I would like to see become a mix of office and residential because I think we need more office space in the Pearl. I’d love to see more senior housing here as well. Seniors have really embraced urban living, and they love having everything close by. Those are my hopes for the future provided the market continues to stay strong or get stronger. I think as we go further North people kind of thought we’re done, but there is still a lot more to accomplish.