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UnSprawl Case Study: RiverPlace in Portland, Oregon

Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as PlacesAnnouncing Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places, by Simmons B. Buntin with Ken Pirie
Planetizen Press
The RiverPlace case study on this page is out of date. A completely revised case study is included in the new book, which is available in full-color print and electronic versions, with an introduction by Galina Tachieva, author of Spawl Repair Manual.
Learn more and order you copy!

By Simmons B. Buntin

Sustaining the City through Sustainable Development

Though Portland's sustainable city principles were not published until late 1994, they were already in place in spirit two decades before, when the idea of demolishing a freeway sandwiched between downtown Portland and the Willamette River first surfaced.  With the goal of promoting "a sustainable future that meet's today's needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs," the City of Portland has committed to:

  • Support a stable, diverse, and equitable economy.
  • Protect the quality of the air, water, land, and other natural resources.
  • Conserve native vegetation, fish, wildlife habitat, and other ecosystems.
  • Minimize human impacts on local and worldwide ecosystems.

RiverPlace site plan.
RiverPlace site plan, above.  Phase II site plan, below.
Graphics courtesy of World Idea Networks (top)
and Trammell Crow Residential (bottom).
RiverPlace site plan - Phase II.

RiverPlace, along with the surrounding 73-acre Waterfront Park, demonstrates these principles in their most urban, and urbane, form.  As the name suggests, RiverPlace begins, like all of central Portland, at the river.  Above all else, Portland's Central City Plan Fundamental Design Guidelines call for an integration with the Willamette River:  "The river is the Central City's most significant geographic feature and acts as the binding element," the Guidelines state.  "The river is also a center for activity; important to Portland's overall economic health and livability.  The river's importance is measured not just as a working river, but also in terms of its aesthetic, recreational, and tourism potential."

The specific river-oriented design guideline that helped RiverPlace's developers create its form states,  "Integrate the river as an important design consideration into the projects which are located along or near the edge of the Willamette River, through means such as the composition of architectural and landscape elements, location of windows, doors and attached outdoor areas, and offering accessways for the pedestrian to, along, and from the water's edge."

Waterfront before and after.
The Harbor Drive Freeway, left, was demolished in
1976 to make room for the Waterfront Park, right.

Photos courtesy of Portland Development Commission.

Additionally, Portland's 1988 Central City Plan set forth seven goals to ensure appropriate and accessible development along the Willamette:

  1. Recapture the east bank of the Willamette Riverfront between the Marquam and Steel Bridges by expanding and enhancing the space available for non-vehicular uses.
  2. Locate a wide range of affordable and attractive activities and attractors along the riverbank and create frequent pedestrian access to the water's edge.
  3. Encourage a mixture of land uses along the river, while protecting opportunities for water-dependent uses, especially north of the Broadway Bridge.
  4. Maintain and improve public views to and from the river.
  5. Improve the Central City's bridges for pedestrians and bicyclists and enhance the bridges' roles as connections between the two sides of the Willamette.
  6. Encourage development of facilities that provide access to and from the water's surface throughout the Central City.
  7. Foster opportunities for touching and entering the Willamette River.
Lush landscaping in a residential courtyard.
Lush landscaping and architect-ure respecting Portland's river heritage combine to form RiverPlace.
Photo by S. Buntin.

Portland Regains the River

In the mid-1850s, clipper ships made their way from the vast Columbia River north of Portland to the Willamette River, dropping off supplies for the burgeoning grain and lumber industries.  As trade expanded, docks, bars, and warehouses grew almost overnight from the river's banks.  Over the next hundred years, Portland became more urban, but downtown access to the Willamette was largely severed by industrial development and extensive roadways.

The Downtown Waterfront Urban Renewal Plan, which sought to strengthen the link between the waterfront and central city, was created in the early 1970s.  In 1975 the plan was amended, extending the urban development boundary south, to the area where RiverPlace is now located.  A year later, the landmark decision to demolish Harbor Drive, a four-lane expressway along the western bank of the Willamette, was made, and the South Waterfront Development Area was created.

The Portland Development Commission acquired 73 acres of undeveloped waterfront land between the Marquam and Hawthorne Bridges in 1979.  The site was both highly visible and also Portland's last centrally located "vacant" land of significant size.  Over the next five years, the Commission completed more than $6 million in infrastructure development and improvements, including public streets, riverfront and park expansion, marina basin dredging, and enhanced pedestrian access.  Pacific Power & Light shut down its on-site steam plant, agreeing to relocate its major substation to the southwest corner of the Development Area.  The Commission also constructed a marina basin enclosed by a floating breakwater and fishing pier, a five-acre terraced meadow, swimming beach, and a half-mile extension of the riverfront esplanade.  Financing for infrastructure improvements was secured through city-issued bonds, while the city had been assembling various parts of the site itself since 1975.

Portland's central city vision was the guiding force behind redevelopment:  "We envision the Central City as the region's economic center, and its transportation hub, with an exhilarating environment, that focuses on the Willamette River, a good place to live, a city that cares, where we work together.  Above all, we envision a livable city!"

Retail below and residential above.
Retail provides the base for residential on the second and higher floors. To the left, retail also lines residential units built in Phase IIB.
Photo by S. Buntin.

From Vision to Action

With the infrastructure and vision in place, Portland could begin searching for a developer.  In 1983, the Portland Development Commission sponsored a nationwide design competition for a ten-acre parcel of the South Waterfront Development Area, calling for a mix of residential and commercial retail uses.  Three firms were selected to compete for the Area's development, and Seattle's Cornerstone Development Company was ultimately selected.  Cornerstone's proposal met the Commission's basic requirements of 500 units of housing, two restaurants, and shops overlooking a privately operated marina.  The $85 million proposal, which was called RiverPlace, also added a luxury hotel, athletic facility, floating restaurant, boat sales, and crew facilities.

Phase I of RiverPlace was completed in 1985.  The city's share of Phase I funding was provided largely through tax-increment financing.  This phase included 158 condominium units, the 75-room RiverPlace Alexis Hotel, a public marina with 200 spaces for large sailboats and light watercraft, a floating restaurant, specialty shops along the esplanade, and an athletic facility sized to serve both RiverPlace and the surrounding community.  All docking spaces, retail shops, and restaurants were immediately leased.  The following year, a four-story, 40,000-square-foot office building was constructed, as were 32 condominium units and below-grade, hidden parking.

Linear park between downtown and RiverPlace.
A landscaped park provides green space between
downtown Portland, left, and RiverPlace proper, right.

Photo by S. Buntin.

RiverPlace's Phase II, which began in summer 1988, again enlisted Cornerstone.  Phase II included a 300-space public parking garage with six street-level retail spaces forming the base for 108 rental apartments of middle-income housing.  In 1990, when the garage opened, modifications were made to Harbor Drive to allow additional automobile access to RiverPlace and the public garage.

In 1994, the Commission received approval from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to market additional RiverPlace land to meet increasing housing demand.  The Commission approved Trammel Crow Residential's plan to develop 182 townhomes, which were completed and opened in 1995.  The townhomes-the first to be built in Portland's downtown core-were quickly leased. 

RiverPlace's marina
The RiverPlace marina, with RiverPlace
and downtown Portland behind.

Photo by S. Buntin.

Pacific Gas Transmission constructed its "green," eight-story headquarters in 1996 on the southern edge of RiverPlace, adjacent to the Marquam Bridge.  The building incorporates a super-efficient building envelope and heating and cooling system, on-site water and waste reduction, and low-toxicity building materials.

In total, the 10.5-acre project includes 480 condominium, townhome, and rental units at a density of 90 units per acre.  While not advertised, the Trammel Crow rental units completed in Phase IIB include a number of low-income units, as required by Portland's Downtown Development Plan.  RiverPlace also offers 26,000 square feet of retail-mostly non-chain shops and restaurants along the esplanade and tucked beneath housing-and nearly 42,000 square feet of office space (excluding the Pacific Gas Transmission building).  Almost 60 percent of the parking at RiverPlace is underground, and all residential parking is underground or otherwise hidden behind vine-covered facades or retail shops.  RiverPlace currently provides a bus stop, and a MAX light rail line is being considered that would include an onsite stop.

Pacific Gas Transmission's super-efficient office building.
Pacific Gas Transmission's super-efficient headquarters
is the newest addition to RiverPlace.

Photo by S. Buntin.

Before completion of Phase I, the 10.5-acre parcel that is now RiverPlace, plus another 5.1 acres set aside for future expansion, was valued at $8 million.  The commercial portion of Phase I-including hotel, office and retail space, athletic club, marina, and floating restaurant-totaled $33.8 million.  Residential construction through Phases I and IIA totaled $25.5 million, while the townhomes in IIB cost $17 million.

Success through Integration

RiverPlace's housing units, office space, and much of the retail have been very successful.  According to World Idea Networks, housing at RiverPlace has increased 150 percent faster than other Portland properties, paralleling the high volumes of business also experienced by the hotel, athletic club, and restaurants.  RiverPlace's biggest draw, however, may be the surrounding Waterfront Park and the river itself-which was envisioned by the Central City Plan.  The mile-long esplanade and terraced parkland to its north draw huge crowds for Portland festivals, including Jazz on the Water and the Portland Blues Festival.

Office buildings at RiverPlace.
Office buildings at RiverPlace.
Photo by S. Buntin.

Additionally, the esplanade and open space along the river's edge are a vital link in the city's riverfront greenway, which extends along the Willamette and interconnects with other trails and greenspaces throughout Portland.  Within the built structure of RiverPlace, the spaces between buildings are woven with pedestrian paths, lush landscaping, detailed architecture that hides items such as parking structures and trash receptacles, and attractive and functional street furniture.

RiverPlace mixed uses.
RiverPlace's mixed uses: residential, retail, and public spaces, just across from the river.
Photo by S. Buntin.

The river is accessible from many points along RiverPlace, whether in the more natural setting beyond both sides of the marina, the manicured swimming beach, or the formal structures of the pier, marina, and floating restaurant.  City planners envision a water taxi service along the river with a stop at RiverPlace, as well.

The final phases of RiverPlace's development will be implemented over the next decade.  The esplanade will extend south along the river to the project's boundaries at Marquam Bridge.  The scenic walkway will host more retail, extending the wide patio of shops, umbrella-hoisting tables, and benches along the entire riverfront.  Additional office space, which may include an office tower, is projected, while city officials are hoping that RiverPlace will also become home to a large public attraction, such as a maritime museum or aquarium.

RiverPlace represents a reintegration with Portland's urban and rivery fabric, a 25-year turnaround from four-lane freeway to thriving downtown neighborhood.  Developed around the strong guidelines and timeless vision of Portland's Central City Plan, a public-private partnership finding increased success with every phase, and access to the Willamette River, RiverPlace is a vital riverfront community and an integral part of a thriving city.

Trammell Crow's mixed-income housing.
Trammell Crow's Phase IIB includes both
market-based and lower income housing.

Photo by S. Buntin.

For more information, visit the Portland Development Commission's RiverPlace website at www.pdc.us/ura/riverplace/riverplace.asp.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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Just the Facts.

RiverPlace in Portland, Oregon

  • 10.5 acres
  • 480 multifamily housing units, market-based and low-income
  • 26,000 square feet retail
  • 42,000 square feet office
  • Integrated with 73-acre Waterfront Park
  • On site of former 4-lane freeway
  • River amenities include marina, fishing pier, swimming beach, and floating restaurant
  • Mile-long esplanade with retail and restaurants
  • Development team led by Portland Development Commission
  • Designed by The Bumgardner Architects and GGLO Architects
  • Developed by Cornerstone Columbia Development and Trammell Crow Residential


Buntin, Simmons B.  May 1997.  Community Redeveloped: Redeveloping Suburban Downtowns for a Sustainable Future.  College of Architecture and Planning, University of Colorado at Denver.

Bureau of Planning.  August 1988.  Central City Plan.  City of Portland.

Bureau of Planning.  August 1990.  Central City Plan Fundamental Design Guidelines.  City of Portland.

City of Portland.  November 1994.  Sustainable City Principles.  http://www.ci.portland.

Editors.  1995.  Model Projects: RiverPlace, Portland, OR - Redevelopment.  Center for Livable Communities, Local Government Commission, Sacramento.  (916) 448-1198.

Editors.  January-March 1988.  Project Reference File: RiverPlace, Portland, Oregon.  The Urban Land Institute.  Vol. 18, No. 3.

Personal conversation with Steve Sanders, Portland Development Commission.  March 4, 1997.

Portland Development Commission.  January 2000.  Major Development Projects: RiverPlace.  City of Portland.  http://www.portland

Portland Development Commission.  July 24, 1997.  RiverPlace Development Strategy.  City of Portland.

World Idea Networks.  Undated.  Case Study Library: RiverPlace.  (415) 957-1203.




Portland Development Commission's RiverPlace Website

RiverPlace Hotel

Portland Development Commission

City of Portland



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