OMSI District: Plans call for 3 million square feet of buildings in Portland east of the Willamette (Slideshow)

OMSI District

By Jonathan Bach

Portland Business Journal

Publication date: December 8, 2021

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, better known as OMSI, has put out renderings of the new district slated for the east side of the Willamette.

The OMSI District is expected to cover 10 blocks, with as much as 3 million square feet of mixed-used buildings. It is billed as “a hub for innovation, arts, culture, science learning and climate action.”

Plans call for as many as 1,200 new units of housing and a “waterfront education park created in collaboration with tribal governments and Indigenous communities,” OMSI said.

“We have been working side by side with our partners, including the City of Portland, elected officials, Indigenous communities and many others, to create this vision,” Erin Graham, OMSI’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “The OMSI District is for everyone. For those seeking to play, to learn, to live and to be inspired. We look forward to working with our partners to create this inclusive neighborhood.”

Last year Metro, the regional government, awarded OMSI $750,000 to go toward the project, and this year state officials pledged $5 million toward constructing a new Water Avenue, which OMSI said was “a critical infrastructure investment.” Infrastructure construction could start in the next couple years if the plan is OK’d, according to a spokesperson, and the district is expected to be done in 2035.

The Business Journal recently asked a few questions of Preston Greene, who started a new job as OMSI’s new vice president of real estate in November and will be critical to pulling off the development of the district. Greene has worked at real estate firm CBRE, as a cannabis company co-founder and more.

“I am looking forward to working closely with him to bring the OMSI District vision to life,” Graham said.

The following exchange between Greene and the Business Journal was conducted by email.

Thanks so much for taking time to answer a few questions. You have a long history in Oregon business, both from your CBRE days to your co-founding of Yerba Buena. It seems like taking the lead on the OMSI District development is a culmination of all that experience. What attracted you to the role?

The OMSI District vision has the opportunity to be transformational for OMSI, the Central Eastside, Portland and Oregon. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The ability to create a mixed-use district focused on sustainability, education, equity and accessibility in a centrally planned district is something that OMSI and our partners have envisioned for years, and the ability to join the team and see the project enter its next phase is really exciting for me.

How do you see building equity into the development and construction process for such a massive project? Prosper Portland, for instance, has tested out a “community benefits agreement” to underpin racial and gender equity efforts, though that agreement is in limbo at the moment. What is the OMSI strategy?

From the inception of the OMSI District, we have engaged community partners and stakeholders in Portland Metro and across Oregon to envision ways we and our partners can create new opportunities to benefit all Oregonians. We partner with culturally specific communities to co-develop programming, and our relationships with these communities underpin our approach to district development that creates positive community outcomes. For example, through community listening with Indigenous groups related to OMSI’s strategic plan, OMSI learned more about the desire and opportunity to restore the Indigenous community’s presence on the Willamette River, and the alignment of our educational goals for future generations. We are now working on plans to achieve our mutual goals through a new waterfront education park in the district. OMSI is collaborating with communities, partners and our development partner Edlen & Co. to define ways the district development itself will be equitable and expand prosperity. Minority-owned, woman-owned and emerging small business (MWESB) participation in the project is a baseline, and Edlen & Co. has a strong track record of projects where they’ve met or exceeded MWESB goals.

Doing such a large development offers a chance to be futuristic with the design. What are some of the sustainability or modernization features that you’re excited about?

One of the key goals for the OMSI District is to showcase and advance climate solutions through transportation, next-generation urban systems and technology. Thanks to some early funding, we have been able to do advance planning for integrated green district utility systems that will serve to meet the demanding technical requirements of day-to-day operations of an 18-acre center city campus. This is exciting for OMSI because it gives us a truly unique opportunity to partner with developers and investors to create a real-world learning laboratory to address sustainability, climate change and climate action. For example, our current planning is exploring the potential for a digitally integrated package of on-site solar generation, long-term energy storage, district wastewater treatment, last-mile electric mobility services, and district heating, cooling and thermal storage. Ongoing educational opportunities will help all generations understand and appreciate the science, engineering, and advocacy needed to meet the global challenge of climate change.

Plans call for as many as 1,200 units of housing, with at least 20% of them being affordable, presumably under the city’s inclusionary zoning rules. That’s up from 1,000 units earlier. What challenges do you see in getting developers to build that much housing? What’s the timeline for completion for the housing component specifically?

The most challenging aspect of housing development is the timeline for horizontal infrastructure development (streets, parks, utilities, parking, etc.) to support vertical housing development. We are currently focused on developing the horizontal infrastructure needed to support development, which will lay the groundwork for a safe and walkable community. Once complete, the development will be a market-driven approach to building housing. We all know there is a need, but costs of the development have to be in line with market rents, and with current safety and security challenges in Portland’s core, the Covid crisis and market uncertainty, speculative development to add housing stock is difficult and timing is uncertain. That said, Edlen & Co. has significant experience successfully developing housing, so we are confident with them leading the way as the OMSI District develops over the next 10 to 20 years.

Similar to an earlier question, how do you see this massive development helping shape the Portland of tomorrow? What about it makes you most excited?

The science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) learning ecosystem we create can attract tenants and partners that elevate Oregon as a place for innovation, science and technology, and education. We are exploring a variety of opportunities with partners, including public science and arts festivals; climate action and sustainability demonstration projects; job training opportunities; science research; digital learning experiences; accessible maker spaces, innovation hubs, and internships in collaboration with industry and higher education.

Anything else you want readers to know?

For the business community and for the economic development in our region, I think this is a great opportunity to lift Portland and the state as a great place for science, technology and engineering-based industries. The district brings together key economic drivers in this space: OHSU and PSU across the river, Autodesk and Viewpoint up the street and hundreds of small to medium tech companies and makers across the Central Eastside Industrial District. We want this district to be part of a bigger story of economic development and of Portland’s identity as a hub for technology, innovation, small business and creativity. Our business community is also hungry to see projects that can inspire and provide pathways for people to pursue careers in the STEM fields. OMSI has obviously done so for decades, but this could really scale that effort and create those crucial connections between early childhood education, K-12, higher education and the business community.