Policy Brief: The Business Case for Believing in Portland

Courtesy of Joe Rinzone
The Galleria building in downtown Portland

Joe Pinzone, managing principal at SERA Architects, writes about why the firm is bullish on Portland 

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The post-pandemic statistics for downtown Portland are pretty bleak.

• The number of downtown visitors is down by 40%, compared to pre-pandemic times.

• The number of people working downtown is two-thirds lower than before the pandemic.

• Downtown vacancy rates were 26% in the second quarter of 2022, up from 13% for the same period in 2019.

Though those statistics are improving every year, and 2023 is likely to continue the improving trend, our fair city has been hit hard in recent years, and according to some, Portland’s road to recovery is likely to be long and arduous.

So why are some companies, like SERA Architects, doubling down on their investment in downtown Portland at a time when office-space rental rates in the suburbs are considerably lower ($25/square foot in the suburbs vs. $29/square foot downtown)?

Sentimentalists will say that, though it may struggle, there are countless reasons to believe in Portland’s downtown business district. We at SERA count ourselves among those who are inspired by the people, history and environmental, equitable values that Portland represents.

But sentimentality aside, there are smart business reasons for investing in downtown Portland right now, and many organizations are realizing it. Between the Ritz-Carlton Tower currently under construction on Southwest Washington, Melvin Mark’s purchase of the Alderway Building at Southwest Alder and Broadway, Unico’s $20 million renovation of the Galleria building, and the 25-story Eleven West building — which is part of a $325 million opportunity zone fund project — nearly $1 billion is being poured into the downtown core. Smart businesses are realizing that downtown Portland is worth the investment.

Before signing the largest lease agreement in the downtown core since the beginning of the pandemic, SERA considered several locations in various parts of the city, including both new construction and existing buildings, before settling on our new headquarters in the Galleria building, right in the heart of downtown Portland.

Ultimately, we found that the decision to locate downtown aligns with our company’s urbanist values; the Galleria building renovation resonates with our sustainability ethos; and the downtown Portland location provides unique opportunities for creating a quality work environment that draws employees back to the office, recruits a more diverse workforce for the future, and contributes to the vibrancy of downtown.

Getting Employees – New and Returning – Back to the Office

We know that hybrid work is here to stay. Employees have proven that they can be productive, collaborative and efficient doing some kinds of work from home. But employers know that there are benefits to having employees in the office. It’s hard to create workplace culture on Zoom calls, and as efficient as our collaboration tools are, there’s no replacing the knowledge that is exchanged when employees sit side by side. But how do employers get people in the building and retain an increasingly valuable workforce? It comes down to knowing what they want and giving it to them.

As the working environment has changed, so have employees’ values. According to real estate company CBRE, emerging millennial and Gen-Z professionals seek workplaces that feature opportunities for learning and career development as well as access to amenities. They also have little tolerance for commuting and are more likely to choose to live in centralized areas — all factors that make the central business district once again the most ideal office location.

All of these factors played a part in SERA’s location decision. We knew that employees would be more likely to come to the office if their commute was short. Our central location and plentiful public-transit options mean that most employees can arrive at work in less than 30 minutes, either by bike or via a single transit line.

With more people coming into the office, both experienced professionals and new recruits, we can provide opportunities for learning and growth. Lunch-and-learn and intern training programs appeal to young employees, and the open-office concept brings emerging professionals shoulder-to-shoulder with seasoned professionals who provide feedback, coaching and mentorship.

All of this work is supported by a quality work environment, designed by workplace experts who recognized early on that a hybrid work environment means the modern workplace should be “half the space but twice as good.”

On-site amenities like state-of-the-art conference rooms and premium espresso machines are complemented by the features of our downtown neighborhood. Restaurants, retail and community resources like the library are within walking distance. The office has become a central hub for employees, who balance their working lives by caring for their personal lives in the surrounding community. The result is an urban core that is vibrant, lively and populated by thriving small businesses.

A Community of Organizations That Contribute to the City

SERA is not the only company contributing to the revival of downtown Portland. Companies like Allbirds, Street Roots and the digital agency Thesis are among the companies that are committed to their Portland locations. Thesis founder and chairman Ryan Buchanan articulates his organization’s perspective: “We believe in Portland. We also have a younger employee base that wants to be where the action is and doesn’t necessarily want to go to the suburbs.”

SERA shares this point of view, and we believe that investing in Portland is a smart business decision as the workforce changes and competition for labor increases. Organizations that want to attract the workforce of the future need to be where young professionals can learn, grow and provide for their multifaceted lives. Downtown Portland is where it’s happening.

It may be sentimental, but we believe in Portland, and we think you should too.

Joe Pinzone is the managing principal at SERA Architects.