Ben Kaiser holds his ground.
It’s a sweltering summer morning outside the new Radiator Building in North Portland, with temperatures headed into the triple digits. But its developer and architect, Ben Kaiser, isn’t sweating. Thanks to the Radiator’s sustainable design and construction, including automated exterior sunshades and robust insulation, the 36,000-square-foot building stays warm in winter and, like today, cool even when the mercury soars.
A wiry, marathon-running 49-year-old in business casual with the confident, upbeat demeanor of a tech-company CEO, Kaiser also doesn’t seem to sweat the hot topic of the day: warnings that a massive, subduction-zone earthquake could devastate the Pacific Northwest.
The $7.9 million Radiator is Portland’s first commercial building equipped with an earthquake early warning system, a technology that is prevalent in Japan — a national system there stops trains, lowers elevators to the ground and notifies hospitals in the seconds before the ground shakes — but new to the United States. If the system works as intended, occupants in Kaiser’s building will be among the first in Portland to learn the Really Big One is on the way.
The Radiator is one of Kaiser’s many ventures and exemplifies his innovative and, at times, controversial approach to urban development. He belongs to a generation of local developers who have made Portland a coveted metropolitan destination.
Yet his work, principally in established neighborhoods rather than former industrial land like the Pearl District or South Waterfront, has made him a lightning rod for debates about gentrification, building heights and affordability. A 2013 Oregonian article even referred to him as a “demon of density.”
Criticism has also dogged his out-of-the- box earthquake risk-mitigation proposals, including a push to seismically protect small corridors of public schools rather than upgrade entire buildings.
But Kaiser — who, for nearly a decade has served as a volunteer member of the city of Portland’s powerful Design Commission, which regulates how multimillion-dollar central city buildings are configured — shrugs off the naysayers.
“Portland is a trendsetter, but we’re losing ground,” he says. His goal is to advance innovation. “Yes, I need to make money to support my family and my employees,” Kaiser says. “But the driver is to move the needle about what it means to live in Portland. I can offer a lot.”
The son of social workers, Kaiser grew up amid the blight of 1970s Cleveland. After studying architecture at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, he came to Portland in the late ’90s for its outdoor offerings and progressive culture. He soon developed an equal passion for building. He fixed up and sold old houses, and while working for local developer Port West Properties, he helped convert some of the Pearl District warehouses into condos and trendy restaurants.
As the real estate economy boomed in the 2000s, Kaiser, who lives in the Northeast Portland Sabin neighborhood with his wife and daughter, formed Kaiser Group Inc. and PATH Architecture (with former partner Corey Martin), bringing new condos and houses to North and Northeast Portland, as property values began to take off and restaurants and shops moved in.
The buildings earned praise in local design circles and sold quickly — but not without a price. Kaiser’s friendly but firm outreach to neighborhood groups was sometimes met with hostility and the suspicion that his charms were a bit too calculated.
Colleagues say otherwise. “[Ben has] been cast in the big, bad developer role with the neighborhood, but I don’t think that’s who he is,” says Gwen Millius, a fellow Design Commission member. “It’s not about throwing up a building and selling it at top dollar. He lives in that neighborhood and he cares.”
As with many architects and builders, the Great Recession changed Kaiser’s career. “No bank would give me 10 bucks,” he remembers. So Kaiser turned to client-driven work. One such job, helping the Cedarwood Waldorf School in Southwest Portland expand, led to an epiphany.
Cedarwood wanted to expand onto the site of its dilapidated pool house, assuming they’d need to demolish and build new. “We looked at various plans and possibilities, and we couldn’t afford any of them,” says Nigel Jaquiss, a Cedarwood Waldorf parent and Willamette Week reporter. “Nobody ever challenged the thought that the building was unusable. But Ben said, ‘The answer is right here.’ He developed a plan that fixed the building within our budget. It was transformational.”
Yet Kaiser himself was dismayed. “I saw how difficult it is for these small organizations to raise money, and how much goes into the seismic upgrade for the renovation: all this work that the kids and faculty would never benefit from unless there was an earthquake,” he says. “I kept thinking: There’s got to be a better way.”
So Kaiser got into the earthquake business. Early warning systems in commercial buildings like the Radiator, he believes, can form a private, market-driven network across the city without cost to taxpayers. He has become a distributor for ShakeAlarm, a Vancouver, British Columbia, early warning technology utilized in the Radiator.
“What’s inevitable in natural disasters is all the communication systems go down,” he explains. “Our idea is we can do more of these one-offs, and they can eventually communicate with each other as a regional system. It gets the word out before the system collapses, because the ground hasn’t moved.”
Will it work? It could, according to John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network at the University of Washington. Vidale’s team is at work on a regional early warning system, but he says it can work in tandem with, and be enhanced by, Kaiser’s hypothetical private-sector local network.
If an earthquake originates on the coast, PNSN sensors will track it first, but if it starts near Portland, Vidale says, Kaiser’s might be the first to pick it up. “We don’t have the manpower to go in everywhere people want,” Vidale adds. “But working together can give a big-picture sense of what’s happening.”
With partner Paul Conway, Kaiser has also formed the company CoreFirst to build modular steel-framed safe areas in schools, which kids would enter in the event of a quake warning. Policy makers and parent organizations advocate for more money and expensive, full-building retrofits, but Kaiser thinks it makes more sense to act pragmatically. “It’s 20% of the cost of a full upgrade,” he says of the CoreFirst method. “If we can make the seismic solution more affordable, it will happen more often.”
At Portland Public Schools’ request, he developed a detailed plan for Boise-Eliot School, located in a circa-1926 building state officials rated as 100% likely to be demolished in a big quake. But the district ultimately did not agree to the CoreFirst retrofit, in part because of opposition from government agencies and citizen organizations like Oregon Parents for Quake-Resistant Schools. “Ben is a very personable, very persuasive guy,” says Ted Wolf, one of the organization’s founders.
“But there’s a distinction between experimentation you might undertake in the private sector and what you do in public buildings and schools. There are different rules of the road.” Wolf also sees limits to an early warning system in schools. Getting hundreds of kids to evacuate to CoreFirst areas — instead of getting under their desks, as the Red Cross advises — in 60 or 90 seconds would be exceptionally challenging and perhaps unrealistic.
Today Kaiser is focused on the booming private sector again, not only the Radiator but also the $10.5 million Carbon12, an eight-story sustainable building to be constructed on Williams. The city council recently approved a rezoning, earning complaints from nearby neighbors whose single-family homes it would sit beside. Kaiser is unfazed.
“When challenging the standard approach, the more pushback that you receive indicates that you are getting closer to meaningful change,” he says. “If you don’t have a dog in the fight, you’re not going to care. If I’m getting heat, I can sense we’re closer to a resolution that’s positive.”
As Portland’s real estate economy booms, large projects such as Hassalo on Eighth and Oregon Square in the Lloyd District are being developed by out-of-town real estate investment trusts and building companies. Kaiser is not in direct competition with that scale of development; his projects usually have fewer than 20 tenants, while Oregon Square alone will have more than 1,000. But as a member of the Portland Design Commission, he sees a learning curve when it comes to local building culture.
“This is the first time national money has come to Portland,” Kaiser says. “Before, it was people and firms like Joe Weston, Gerding Edlen. Now this tidal wave of national money comes in over the top of everybody, building with all cash. Everything goes faster. You don’t have those usual constraints on speed.”
During Design Commission hearings, Kaiser says, “guys come in with Texas drawls, and they’re like, ‘Why are you asking us these questions? Why do you care what the façade looks like, or the parking arrangement?’ Many people devote so much time to making Portland a great city. This tidal wave of cash may be jeopardizing it.”