A decade ago I wrote for Neighborhood Notes, a cool community-focused digital publication based in Portland. The now-defunct site went offline a couple of years ago but the editors have graciously let me repost a couple of the posts I wrote.
I’d thought I’d post this because a lot has changed in “Produce Row” and it’s interesting to see those changes since 2009. Strap in for a time travel visit to Central Eastside!
Snuggled west of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard., from the Burnside Bridge down to OMSI, is just one small snippet of the Central Eastside that’s starting to see renewed life after years of false starts, neglect and even annual flooding from the Willamette.
Though the Central Eastside officially encompasses a large swath of land, north to I-84, east to Southeast 12th, south to Southeast Brooklyn and butting up to the Willamette to the west, the waterfront area—known locally as Produce Row—has seen a rebirth of once-abandoned warehouses and crumbling brick structures transforming into a diversified handful of businesses, including coffee roasters, restaurants, breweries, delis and a mix of retailers.
Despite the many wholesalers and retailers that have been long established (Lippman’s Party Supply, Pratt and Larson Tile and Stone, and Mesher Supply Co. to name a few) the influx of dining and drinking spots is a renaissance that’s been long in the making.
A Spark in the 1980s
Randy Miller, director of Produce Row Management Co., a real estate company, and a member of the Central Eastside Industrial Council (CEIC) has seen many changes since buying property in the area in the early ’80s.
“Before I-5 was built in the ’60s this area flooded all the time and the water levels would rise and everyone would just ignore it,” says Miller. “But when the freeway was built, it blocked it [the flooding], so all of a sudden the area became more developable but still ignored based on demographics and economic circumstances.”
Around the time Miller set up his business, much of the area’s property was acquired by Portland Development Commission (PDC) to reestablish the area as a “produce center.” The area was planned to be a wholesale/retail project with a nod to the produce wholesale history of the area that was to include themed restaurants and a farmers market. It never happened. A developer was selected, the groundbreaking occurred, and then the developer promptly went broke on another project.
Miller meanwhile needed more room for his growing business so he acquired some of the property from PDC, built out the property in 1986, leased out space to tenants and is still operating the building at One Produce Row to this day, including tenant Tazo Tea company.
Still, he says, it’s been slow to redevelop the area due to zoning requirements that stipulate a development be industrial in the area west of MLK. But that’s about to change.
“As our older more industrial types have declined due to technology and innovation a lot of the buildings fell into disuse or there wasn’t that much demand for them. A few years ago we (CEIC) really pressed the city to change our zoning to permit more general employment so that we could legally expand the use. So now because of the general employment area, you’re finding more businesses here such as web designers, architects, and engineers.”
Condos and Lofts? Don’t Count On It
One thing that’s noticeable when strolling around the area? A legit urban feel but a distinct lack of housing—at least legal, approved housing. And there’s a reason for that.
The CEIC has worked for years to keep housing from being built west of MLK which they say would destroy the cool, gritty character of the neighborhood and could potentially interfere with any kind of development.
“People don’t like railroads. People don’t like trucks coming up and down the street at all hours. So rather than try to convert it to a Pearl District model were moving away from that because we really want to retain the employment base. We have a strategy that’s plausible and it’s working,” Miller says.
Part of that strategy is making the area friendlier to eateries and their customers, as evidenced by more established restaurants and pubs who have managed to endure and newer ones moving in. Though many produce wholesalers and purveyors have left the area, leaving only a few that still crank out trucks of produce in the early morning hours to local restaurants and stores, Portland’s food heritage lives on amongst an ever-growing, artisan restaurant scene.
One well-established restaurant, the Produce Row Café, took its name from the area. An early urban pioneer, it originally opened in 1974 and was recently renovated as a more modern space in tune with the newer feel of the neighborhood.
New owner Alan Davis embraced Produce Row’s industrial location and ambiance in the new space by using recently torn-up train tracks and ties from the area and incorporating them into design elements in the back patio. The patio’s exterior walls also feature cedar siding coupled with reclaimed 25-year-old siding from the old patio, while the interiors have been completely gutted and renovated.
“I was looking for an industrial neighborhood to establish a bar and looked around the north industrial area, working my way down. Aesthetically I liked it and it felt comfortable and started paying attention to what businesses were in the neighborhood and fell in love with the space of the Row and saw the potential—both on the property and the within the hood,” says Davis.
What also attracted Davis, like many before him, was the diversity of established companies—warehouses, produce companies and independent businesses as well as the history and heritage of produce companies. In a way, Davis has come full circle with the neighborhood. Unbeknownst to him, he learned while talking to family members that his grandfather used to bring his mother to Sheridan’s on Sundays to get produce. “I had no idea until I moved here.”
Keeping the Industrial Heritage Alive
Around the corner from Produce Row Café is the recently renovated Olympic Mills Commerce Center and its most popular tenant, Olympic Provisions. You can’t miss the decorative mustard-colored building which has become somewhat of an architectural compass in the area, acting as a landmark to those strolling through the neighborhood.
Once housing a cereal mill the building has seen changes throughout its life much like many other structures in the neighborhood. The building now houses some of Portland’s creative industries such as advertising agencies, architects, and graphic designers.
“The [Olympic Provisions] space itself is wonderful, like the high windows and a big bright open kitchen—it has the prime spot in the restaurant and gets the most light,” says Olympic Provisions’ Elizabeth Gaston. “You can still see the wood-slatted walls, concrete and old wood and it all adds up with the improvements we made to make a warm, modern-looking space,” she says.
“We’ve only been here nine months but I feel like we already have seen a big influx of business and interest in the neighborhood which is really heartening. It has a lot of potential to go in any direction—the area is a clean slate,” says Gaston.
About a half-dozen blocks south of Olympic Provisions is Water Avenue Coffee (1028 SE Water Avenue), a new coffee roasting company housed in the same building as American Coffee Barista School, which, not so coincidentally, have the same owners. The building itself utilizes the original old wood beams as well as reclaimed fir from the neighborhood.
“We moved into the area about five years ago and were inspired by the area when we first decided to relocate our business to Portland,” says co-owner Matt Milletto. “Even five years ago everyone down here was taking a bit of a leap of faith that it would really revitalize and I think we’re seeing that now.”
Established food-centric businesses such as the upgraded Produce Row Café and clarklewis have inspired businesses such as Milletto’s to join the burgeoning central eastside food scene. “Long-time residents like Montage and City Liquidators are all pretty special places that really fill out the neighborhood. We’ve really taken the neighborhood into consideration, with everything from menu to the layout of our space. Instead of trying to change the history of the area or try to do something different we evolved with the neighborhood,” says Milletto.
With newer businesses moving in, a strong sense of community among merchants, the addition of the Portland Streetcar, and after years of stops and starts, the area is definitely evolving and moving ahead full throttle but thankfully keeping its original, industrial history and soul intact.
All photos from various years from the Lost Oregon Instagram account.