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Business Tribune: Pioneer Courthouse Square's facelift going smoothly
February 28, 2017
by: Joseph Gallivan
Remodel firms minimizing mess and assuring local businesses they can stay open.
As construction jobs go, this is not a big engineering feat, with towering steel and the movement of great amounts of dirt. Rather, it's a sensitive mission, a facelift for Portland's most populous square. If that's not pressure enough on the contractor, Howard S. Wright, there's the issue of working around businesses attached to the square that have been promised they can stay open.
Portland Parks & Recreation has partially closed "Portland's Living Room," as Pioneer Courthouse Square is known, to replace the famous red bricks (74,000 of them paid for and named), fix peeling columns and work on the underground structure.
The $10 million project is expected to take until July to complete. On a recent Wednesday, subcontractors from Faison Construction were hard at it with jackhammers and mini back hoes, shattering the brick facing off the famous curved stairs. The heavy machines smashed up the flat surfaces while other workers chiseled away at the flat bricks on the risers of the stairs. They will be replaced by a new, identical set.
Thirty years ago when the square was built, a waterproof membrane with a 20-year life was installed. Not the most farsighted decision for an open air square in a city with an annual average rainfall of 39 inches. Businesses, such as the Visitor Center, have been suffering from leaks for several years.
Workers have lately been removing the terra cotta and mortar from the Square's stoa columns, which have been badly chopped and peeling.
Aaron Braun is a Senior Project Manager at Howard S. Wright. He says the job is not a structural upgrade – aside from bit of reinforcement under the turnout on the Broadway side where trucks arrive.
"The majority of the work you see is waterproofing, over the conditioned space," he says, referring to the area under the brick steps where the offices are. Pioneer Courthouse Square is basically an underground office building on the west side and a bricks-on-dirt plaza on the east.
Braun says it's hard to tell where the membrane failed, since a water travels before it shows itself, but the replacement is overdue. The new membrane will be a 215 millimeter American Hydrotech Monolithic Membrane, thicker and more long lasting.
The condensed work schedule is probably the big challenge. "We have to install it between the holiday season and the summer tourist season. The waterproofing has to be installed on a dry surface, but this is the wettest time of the year."
The project only affects about a third of the square. The current fences will move north to the Starbucks at some point but the coffee shop will remain open.
The work includes a full electrical and mechanical upgrade, which amongst other things, will mean better power service for event: no more snaking extension cables across the bricks. (But you still won't be able to charge your phone.)
Faison Construction will do the work on the parks bureau's largest undertaking funded by the bond.
Shiels Obletz Johnsen of Lake Oswego is the project manager. The company's hits include the Mercy Corps building by the Burnside Bridge, Seattle's King Street railroad station remodel and the Portland Streetcar.
SRG Partnership is the architect on the project.
Business at Portland's living room
Pioneer Courthouse Square Inc., manages the square for Portland Parks and Recreation. It keeps a tight control over the few businesses allowed anywhere near the property, which for thousands of people is their first impression of Portland as they step off a bus or the MAX train.
All businesses located within the square will be open during construction. They are: Big Red Arrow, Portland Walking Tours, Honkin' Huge Burritos, Philly's on the Phly, Spellbound Flowers, Starbucks, Travel Portland and TriMet.
The TriMet ticket center and the Portland Oregon Visitors Center are also still open, although the heavily trafficked bathrooms (which saw 301,000 visitors last year) are closed, awaiting an upgrade.
David Schargel is owner of Portland Walking Tours which serves 60,000 customers a year. The company has an office Old Town Chinatown, but its main rendezvous and booking center/gift shop is in a small, windowless office in the curving corridor under Pioneer Courthouse Square, which runs from the Visitor Center to the KGW TV studio.
"We haven't seen any downside yet," Schargel told the Business Tribune about the construction work, despite the fact that sometimes the jackhammers are so loud they interrupt conversations in his office. The vast majority of Portland Walking Tours are booked online nowadays. The company has 53 employees, most of whom are tour guides. Shargel has a corporate business too. High profile delegations are usually sent to him by Travel Portland when they want their guests entertained. Travel Portland recently contracted Black Diamond of London to promote Portland when Delta begins its direct flights to Heathrow this May. Schargel was tasked with showing them the (historic side of the) town.
"I took them to a bakery and a chocolate shop. They're intrigued by the whole maker space and hacker space thing Portland has going on."
He notes that Pioneer Courthouse Square Inc., has not yet finished its wayfinding (signs), but won't start worrying about construction affecting his business until the tourist season ramps up in summer.
"Construction is always dusty and noisy but I think the vast majority of the work will be wrapped up in May or June before the big tourist season."
And even if construction somehow limited his customers, he is expecting a boom soon. "With 15 hotels being built in Portland things are looking good for tourism."
Lisa Frisch is Downtown Retail Program director for the Portland Business Alliance, which keeps a cloese eye on anything that may disrupt shopping and business in downtown Portland. "Overall, we believe this short-term renovation project will have minimal impact to retailers in the downtown core," she says. "This is a project that is needed and in the end, Portland will get a 'living room' with beautiful updates that will last decades."
Another business that is taking the remodel in its stride is the flower cart at the northwest corner outside Starbucks. A flower cart has been there since 1984, but the current owner, Nico Bella, 41, has been running Spellbound Flowers there for the last four years.
It's more than just a flower stand selling single stems: Bella has a full florist operation, with a cooler under the square, and is able to deal with weddings and corporate customers as well as the romantic about to hop on a MAX train.
"With the sidewalk shut down (partially, on the west side, across the street form Nordstrom) our foot traffic has been a bit off. But what's been wonderful is how the people who run the square have been 100 percent helpful in making sure we're being taken care of. They're really making sure people know we're open."
Bella was impressed that vinyl signs went up quickly, showing the names, logos and opening hours of each business that could be affected.
So while she will have to move for a few months down to the tent now housing the relocated Honking Huge Burritos, she is taking it in stride.
Spellbound's big days are Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, when Bella will add another wrapping table and four instead of three staff will work the blooms and buckets. "It's always scary to change — people do not use their eyeballs!"
Bella likes Spellbound's spot, and management knows it. "They want to make sure I am happy. I had the chance of a brick and mortar store but I didn't like it. Ten million people pass though here every years. I like my spot selling roses in the rose capital of the world."
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