At bSIDE6, projection of the “city rooms” over the sidewalk was possible because of the presence of neighboring historic, arcaded buildings that have their roots in the taking by the city of building width to widen the street in the 1920s. Credit: Stephen A. Miller

Building small but tall office buildings on very small sites is a challenge. Developing with no anchor tenants or parking exacerbates the difficulty exponentially. But the bSIDE6 building on a downtown fringe site in Portland, Oregon, demonstrates how dramatic architecture, coupled with dogged persistence, can persuade lenders, the city, and the market to overcome these challenges.

In 2006, the principals of bSIDE6 LLC found a small vacant site—only 38 by 100 feet (12 by 30 m)—at the corner of East Burnside Avenue and Southeast Sixth Street in a deteriorating section of the inner east side of Portland. Neighboring buildings on Burnside, the busy street that divides Portland between north and south, were permitted to build arcaded buildings over the sidewalks when their properties were narrowed in the 1920s to widen the street. The developers sought to follow this old design technique to meet present-day leasing needs by projecting upper volumes above the sidewalk.

Lance Marrs, a real estate broker who is also a developer, his business partner Brian Faherty, developer and owner of Schoolhouse Electric & Supply Co., and Paul Caruana, a general contractor/developer, had rehabilitated several historic structures and were attracted to the historic character of inner East Burnside and its arcaded buildings. Portland’s older streetcar-lined streets had been experiencing a significant renaissance. Though somewhat dilapidated, this section of Burnside had a character unlike the others. It also was less than three-quarters of a mile (1.2 km) from the heart of downtown, across the river, and only blocks from the 172,000-square-foot (16,000 sq m) Olympic Mills Commerce Center, the 80,000-square-foot (7,400 sq m) Eastbank Commerce Center, and the 60,000-square-foot (5,600 sq m) Water Avenue Commerce Center—three historic warehouse buildings that had been converted to provide creative office space in the heart of the Central Eastside Industrial Sanctuary. In addition, the site is only one block from the new Eastside Streetcar Loop at East Burnside and Grand Avenue. The three partners bought the small property for $250,000.


The heart of the solution to complications presented by the site was a post-tensioned concrete structure forming not only the floors, but also portions of the walls that would provide shear strength and dramatic visual variation. Credit: Works Partnership

Works Partnership was the young architecture firm that had designed the adaptive use of those creative-space buildings that had attracted many young, growing, and startup companies. The character of the arcaded streets, with the buildings projecting over the sidewalks, was particularly appealing to Carrie Strickland and William Neburka, principals of Works Partnership, but they and the developers knew that to attract the creative firms they needed to fill the new building, the building would need to be different from the warehouse conversions. The tiny size of the site on a busy arterial street and limited access meant that no off-street parking could be included in the project.

Marrs and Faherty reasoned that space that extended over the sidewalk could dramatically project the building’s presence and visibility as well as increase the rentable area. The building would need to fill its entire allowable building envelope and maximize its height.

As is often the case, the constraints of a project can constitute the seeds of their solution. The 38-foot (11.6 m) width of the building, coupled with the inability to expose its long south facade because of party wall limitations, meant that its northern facade along the busy Burnside front had to bring light deep into the narrow floor plate. The fact that these floor plates might only average 3,800 square feet (350 sq m) meant that entire floors could be leased to single tenants, minimizing common areas. Staircases, restrooms, and the elevator could be clustered in the southwest corner, which had the party walls and no street exposure.


The fact that the floor plates might only average 3,800 square feet (350 sq m) meant that entire floors could be leased to single tenants, minimizing common areas. Credit: Works Partnership

The most visible solution to the complications of the site is its fully exposed structure. In order to be 90 feet tall (27.4 m), it would need to be steel or concrete, not a four- or five-story wood-framed structure, common in the Pearl District.

 The heart of the solution was to design a post-tensioned concrete structure forming not only the floors, which could then project over the street, but also the portions of the walls that would provide shear strength and dramatic visual variation. Moreover, the narrow width of the building, coupled with its folded-plate structure, meant that the interior could be entirely column free, maximizing tenant flexibility—a substantial leasing advantage for open-plan offices. Only one north–south partial shear wall separates the interiors. The result is a 27,500-square-foot (2,560 sq m) building that gets full coverage of its 3,800-square-foot (350 sq m) site—a floor/area ratio that exceeds 7.2. The floors can be divided in a plethora of ways for multitenant occupancy, from less than 700 square feet (65 sq m) per tenant to full-floor tenancy.


The narrow width of the building– only 38 feet (11.6 m)–coupled with its folded-plate structure, meant that it could be built entirely column free inside, thereby maximizing tenant flexibility, a substantial leasing advantage for open-plan offices. Credit: Stephen A. Miller

Cutting away chunks of the concrete walls offers striking views into and out of the projecting spaces above the sidewalk, giving the building a street presence available nowhere else in the city, another leasing advantage. The architects call these projecting spaces “city rooms” for the way they interact with pedestrian and vehicular activities below. Some are used for projecting electronic art in the evening. The exposed concrete skin stretches along with its frame, resulting is interstitial spaces that create a progressive arcade providing pedestrian protection below while creating city views and admitting light into the inhabited spaces above.

Another advantage of the post-tensioned folded-plate structure is that it allows most of the northern and eastern walls to be floor-to-ceiling glass, an amenity not available for creative office space in Portland’s converted warehouses. The north-facing glass walls work particularly well for the new offices of the Works Partnership architecture firm itself, which has helped attract other creative services firms to bSIDE6. Though bSIDE6 is radically modern, unlike the neighboring arcaded buildings, it shares the same language of form and therefore respects and enhances the district.

The combination of its architecture, density, and lack of parking helped the project secure a $250,000 transit-oriented development (TOD) grant from Metro, Portland’s elected regional government. Metro’s TOD program provides financial incentives and uses public/private partnerships to enhance the economic feasibility of higher-density mixed-use projects served by transit. Although originally developed to obtain control of sites adjacent to public transit that could be used to seed TOD projects, the program also builds capacity in the private sector to develop projects that meet Metro’s regional planning objectives. Without any parking on its tiny site, bSIDE6 has the highest floor/area ratio of any TOD-funded project to date. With its focus on urban livability, the building is located on four frequent-service bus lines, is a short walk from light rail, is a block from the proposed Eastside Streetcar Loop, and has accommodations for bicycles in the lobby; tenants also can have a bike rack installed in their units at developer expense.


Cutting away chunks of the concrete walls offers striking views into and out of the projecting spaces above the sidewalk. Credit: Stephen A. Miller

Despite its striking design, its economic density, and the public role in funding, the project encountered daunting hurdles in development. The developers had launched bSIDE6 in 2006 with no anchor tenants when the economy was booming and with financing from a bank it had worked with previously. Metro’s grant and stamp of approval had helped the partners obtain the construction loan. But after the real estate bubble burst, the project’s general contractor, Gray Purcell Inc., faltered and was fired by the developers in 2008 shortly before it filed to liquidate under Chapter 7 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Gray Purcell’s collapse left many unfinished buildings scattered throughout Portland, of which bSIDE6 was a prominent example.

 Instead of abandoning the project or getting delayed in court, the developers dug deeper into their own resources. They examined more than 45 subcontracts and decided which to keep, cancel, or renegotiate. The partners pooled $750,000 more of their own equity to keep the project in construction and reconfigured and extended the construction loan, which likely would not have been feasible without their existing banking relationship. Caruana, the general contractor/developer partner, took over construction. Although the partners had mostly done historic rehabilitation projects before, they had built a new bank building in northeast Portland. They learned development practices quickly and hired former project managers from the defunct Gray Purcell to help ensure a smooth transition from the old contractor to the new ones during construction.

 macht_6_200 An advantage of the post-tensioned, folded-plated structure is that most of the northern and eastern wall could be floor-to-ceiling glass. Credit: Stephen A. Miller

 The calculated risks the partners assumed gave them the flexibility to complete the unusual building and slowly lease the project despite the impediments of the recession. The striking architecture and the column-free, cantilevered, glass-walled space helped fill the building to 95 percent occupancy at market rents comparable to, or higher than, the more than 350,000 square feet (33,000 sq m) of creative space in the converted warehouses nearby. As of this year, two-thirds of the ground-floor retail units were occupied, and 16 of the 17 workspace units were leased. Tenants, which skew to the urban creative office and retail niches, include Machus, an urban chic clothing store; Mirakutei, a sushi bar; A to Z Media, a bespoke CD/DVD/vinyl manufacturing firm; and Emma, an e-mail marketing service for the tech community. Their agglomeration seems to have been the seed for regeneration of the historic arcaded district, which urban observers expect will thrive with the scheduled completion of the Eastside Streetcar Loop in September.