The Human Factor


Matt French opens up South Waterfront.

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Matt French opens up South Waterfront.

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It’s a December day at Zidell Yards, Portland’s largest undeveloped central-city land parcel, and an event called Waterfront Winterland has drawn families posing for photos with Santa amid Christmas tree sales and tutorials in wreath and Yule-log making. This isn’t the first time these vacant 33 acres along the Willamette have hosted a public event; the site also accommodated the Feast Portland food festival and the Northwest Film Center screening of classic movies under the stars.

It will take a decade or more to build out this former scrap yard owned by the Zidell Marine Corporation, which still sends hulking vessels into the Willamette and out to sea from its facility at the edge of the Ross Island Bridge. But in the meantime, Matt French, the Zidell Yards’ 31-year-old managing director and great-grandson of Zidell’s founder, wants to reintroduce Portlanders to this riverside land — and get them talking about its future.

“My family has always held on to the idea that this could be something really special for the city,” he says. French believes the time may be right for a new approach in South Waterfront: one that’s vibrant, human scaled and rooted in creative place making.

With its forest of high rises, the district was a poster child for the 2000s’ real-estate boom, swelling with thousands of residents seeking walkable, mass transit-oriented urban living. Taking inspiration from Vancouver, B.C., local developers built tall, skinny high rises, reaching as high as 31 stories in the case of the John Ross condominiums. Oregon Health & Science University was also expanding here (the Portland Aerial Tram connected to its Marquam Hill campus), providing a built-in market for residential units and for local retailers. But after initially setting sales records, numerous South Waterfront towers wound up in foreclosure during the recession. Besides feeling sterile, it also seemed half empty.

After sitting out the past decade’s roller coaster, Zidell decided a few years ago the time was right to act. South Waterfront began to recover in recent years and, perhaps more importantly, the Tilikum Crossing bridge at the northern edge of the Zidells’ property took shape; it promised better connections for this strip of real estate wedged between I-5 and the river. Instead of selling the land, in 2010 Zidell formed its new ZRZ Realty wing and turned to French to oversee the property’s multiyear development.

“It’s the roots of our tree,” explains company president Jay Zidell about the property. “We want to see that it’s developed in a way we can take pride in. It’s about legacy. And Matt gets it. He has gotten it from the beginning.”

With a laid-back demeanor, the bearded French is more comfortable in Gore-Tex than a suit, happy to spend leisure time paddleboarding, hiking and fixing up his family’s Mount Hood cabin. Social and amiable, French is nevertheless a private person and often seems reluctant to talk about himself. 

He’s also a lover of high-density urban space, influenced by urban-design pioneer Jane Jacobs’ notions of measuring neighborhoods by their social capital and human scale. He believes Zidell Yards can become a more active, magnetic place than what has been built in South Waterfront so far — and thus attractive to employers as well as residents. 

“Real estate is no longer just in the real-estate category,” French says. “It’s in the recruitment category, the marketing category, the corporate identity category. People want to be in a district where they can truly live and work.”

{pullquote}“Real estate is no longer just in the real-estate category.”{/pullquote}

French spent most of the past decade in Los Angeles working in boutique hotel and resort development, mostly for the Kor Group, including the Viceroy Zihuatanejo and the Viceroy Riviera Maya resorts, both in Mexico.

 “It’s the most creative type of real estate,” he says. “You can do it in interesting locations and really push the boundaries. It’s the ultimate place making.”

Long before designing Zidell Yards, French and his ZRZ colleagues toured cities around the world like Copenhagen, New York and Berlin for ideas about how to build not just collections of buildings but great urban spaces that attract people. “Because we’re a barge-building company, and historically we’re involved in industrial businesses, forming a new real-estate company has allowed us to sort of think like a startup,” he explains. “It gives you permission to explore different things.”  

They came to see the Willamette as a key asset, envisioning waterside attractions like beaches and docks that would allow people to get up close to the water unlike anywhere else in the city. With the help of ZGF Architects, they devised a series of curving, bioswale-lined green streets, departing from Portland’s traditional grid. And they imagined a true 50/50 mix of residential, office and retail development, also a first here. But given how fenced off industrial land usually is, French also felt the need to reintroduce the property, reaching out to the arts and food communities for ideas.

“Matt sees the opportunity there,” says Mike Thelin, Feast Portland’s founder, of last summer’s night market at Zidell Yards. “There are no venues in Portland that allow direct river access like this. It was stunning.”

In 2013 Zidell completed its first project, the $20 million Emery apartments, co-developed with Project PDX. Located across Moody Avenue from the tram and OHSU’s Center for Health & Healing, its ground-floor retail is thriving, with a front plaza acting as a gathering spot. At seven stories, the Emery is noticeably smaller than South Waterfront’s tall towers, a more human scale French says embodies the place making that the Zidells want to foster. “When you go to big cities, in general it’s not the big buildings that are interesting,” he says, “so you have to find those small spaces that draw people in, where they feel comfortable.”

However, ZRZ Realty’s development agreement with the city, a draft of which was completed in December, envisions some larger-scale architecture here, including a second Emery apartment and two office buildings, one or more of which are set to break ground in 2015. Some of the buildings will sit adjacent to the Tilikum Crossing, near where OHSU recently completed its Collaborative Life Sciences Building, on the other side of the bridge, and is planning two more. 

French’s challenge is to retain that sense of place as the scale ramps up. Another question is whether ZRZ will develop affordable housing, which is notably lacking in the neighborhood. Yet by seeing his family’s land not just as a question of return on investment but also as an opportunity to attract people with public place making, he’s already begun to change what it feels like to be in South Waterfront — a place less sterile and more alive, more youthful and hip.

“I think the buildings will be awesome. But it’s really about containers for what happens inside and out,” he says. “Just being in a hub of people who have really big dreams gets you thinking. It turns you on a little bit.”

South Waterfront timeline:

June 1999

Portland Development Commission creates North Macadam Urban Renewal Area

April 2006

Opening of Meriwether Condos, first residential project

October 2006

Opening of Center for Health & Healing, OHSU’s first South Waterfront building

October 2006

Opening of Portland Streetcar line 

December 2006

Opening of Portland Aerial Tram

August 2009

Lenders take control of the John Ross and Atwater Place condominiums

June 2012

Gibbs Street pedestrian bridge opens

October 2013

Opening of the Emery apartments, first Zidell Yards building

Spring 2015

Opening scheduled for South Waterfront Greenway, first approved by City Council in 2004

September 2015

Tilikum Crossing bridge (including a new MAX line) scheduled to open