Zidell Yards Looks to the Future


One of Portland's Most Ambitious
Inner-City Reimaginings

The surprise news last September that Zidell Marine Corporation would be swiftly retiring its longtime barge-building operations along Portland’s South Waterfront marks the latest acceleration of that district’s high-profile makeover.
All renderings courtesy of  Zidell Yards

All renderings courtesy of Zidell Yards


Auspicious Territory

The Zidell family has made clear for some time its intention to ultimately transform its 33-acre riverside property, demarked by Tilikum Crossing to the north, the South Waterfront Central District to the south, and Moody Avenue to the west. The decision to phase out, after some 55 years, its boatmaking activities—which had been expected to continue even in the face of redevelopment—has been followed by a more detailed picture of how that property, now called the Zidell Yards, may look in the coming decades.

Zidell Yards is at the nexus of one of Portland’s brightest-glowing geographies: not just the South Waterfront itself, but also the fast-changing Central Eastside across the river. To the immediate north of the Zidell Yards lies the Oregon Health & Science University’s Schnitzer Campus, crowned by the Collaborative Life Sciences Building and Skourtes Tower that opened in 2014. The Schnitzer Campus—which marks part of the western anchor of the trans-Willamette Portland Innovation Quadrant—will, by 2018, gain the $160-million Knight Cancer Research Building. In 2015, Tilikum Crossing opened as a cutting-edge light-rail span also accommodating TriMet, pedestrians, and cyclists but closed to cars—the only such bridge in the U.S.

The Zidell Yards' southern boundary, meanwhile, lies in the shadow of the Central District high-rises that arose in the mid-2000s, including a nest of apartment towers and OHSU’s Center for Health and Healing at the base of the Portland Aerial Tram (celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2017).

In short, the Zidell Yards lie squarely in the heart of one of Portland’s—and the country’s—most ambitious inner-city reimaginings, easily on par with the Northwest Industrial Triangle's morph into the Pearl District. In a comprehensive 2015 piece on the South Waterfront for Portland Monthly, Nancy Rommelmann labeled the Zidell land “central Portland’s last great tabula rasa for urban placemaking.”

Tilikum Crossing

The Zidell Piece in the South Waterfront Puzzle

The vision for the Zidell Yards—as many as 20 new buildings, including residential, office, and retail square footage as well as potentially a hotel and grocery store, plus extensive greenspace—is one its developers expect to realize in multiple phases over the coming decades. As the company’s website states: “The Zidell family has deep roots in this land, and they see the Yards as an opportunity to create something distinct, bold, and of lasting value for the City of Portland.”

The Zidell family has been a part of the conversation about the transformation of the South Waterfront—part of the North Macadam Urban Renewal Area —for years. In 2012, it initiated a cleanup (valued at a cool $20 million) of its property’s brownfield. A year later, the company opened the Emery—named after Emery Zidell, father of Zidell Marine’s current president, Jay Zidell—to house apartments (“Your tram-side, rail-side, OHSU-side, hillside, riverside, pub-side, everything-side home”) as well as local businesses. Those include, as of now, Cha!Cha!Cha! Taqueria, Lovejoy Bakers, Greenleaf Juicing, Modern Stationer, and South Paw Pet Shop.

The Zidell family has deep roots in this land, and they see the Yards as an opportunity to create something distinct, bold, and of lasting value for the City of Portland
— The Zidell Family

In 2015, meanwhile, the Portland City Council pledged close to $24 million for the redevelopment of the Zidell Yards: the city’s “most sweeping development deal with the private sector in more than a decade,” the Oregonian observed. As recently as that decision, Zidell Marine stated its intention to continue its barge-cobbling endeavors for another 10 years at least: maintaining a venerable hardscrabble presence along an increasingly glitzy and glossy riverway.

The recent pace adopted by the South Waterfront metamorphosis—spurred by the construction of the Tilikum Crossing bridge as well as the ongoing development of the OHSU Schnitzer Campus—convinced the Zidells to rethink that timetable. Notably, the slackening of the barge business also had an influence. With its very last barge scheduled to slip into the Willamette by June 2017, the company is giving the South Waterfront real-estate transformation a wide-open embrace.

“Few people across the country get an opportunity to build a whole neighborhood, from scratch, alongside a nice clean river and a vibrant downtown core,” Jay Zidell told the Portland Business Journal last October. He said the company was excited to take such an active role in the area’s redevelopment, even as he acknowledged the very real weight of closing down better than a half-century of barge-making.


The Vision

Zidell industries have been a fixture along this reach of the South Waterfront since the early 20th century. In 1912, Yeschie Zajdell, later Sam Zidell, came to Oregon from Smidyn, Russia and established Zidell Machinery and Supply—initially in Roseburg, but he soon moved operations to Portland’s riverfront. His son, Emery, ushered the business into the dismantling of ships for steel in the years following World War II, and, before long, Zidell Marine ranked as the biggest shipbreaking outfit in the U.S.

Ultimately, Zidell Marine focused on barge design and building; another branch of the corporation, established in the mid-1950s, manufactured fittings as Tube Forgings of America, Inc. More than 300 barges came to life in the Zidell Yards and took their first steps in hardworking careers on these Willamette waters.

With the final barge finished by late spring, the company may break ground on new Zidell Yards infrastructure before the year is out, according to the Portland Business Journal.

As of now, the monumental barge-building facility—nicknamed “The Barn”—will remain on site. Earlier this year, Thomas Henneberry, CEO of the Zidell’s real estate arm ZRZ Realty Co., told Brian Libby for Portland Architecture that the company hoped to repurpose the terminal for office, retail, and/or some other new kind of space. “The important part is just to save that building and reuse it,” he said. “What got us to focus the vision was the adaptive reuse. The barge business going away helped us to coalesce and understand all the opportunities.”

Libby had written several years earlier (when Zidell Marine’s barge construction was still expected to continue for some years forward) about the significant architectural and symbolic role a preserved barge-building facility would play in a spruced-up South Waterfront. “The best cities and urban spaces reveal a mix of different types of activity on the land,” he wrote. “To have the rusty patina of the Zidell barge building facility set against the glassy new architecture here is to see a century’s narrative playing out.”

A valid point, given Portland claims a gritty and greasy history of logging, shipbuilding, warehousing, and other blue-collar activity, and the downtown riverscape has long been primarily a clamorous industrial one. As the city continues its remarkable 21st-century metamorphosis, relics of the past century’s character can serve as meaningful touchstones—and if they can be given new leases of life as active components of the evolved cityscape, all the better. 

In that spirit, too, ZRZ Realty hopes to turn the old barge slipway into a public access point for the river, complete with a dock and perhaps an enclosed swimming pool in the spirit of the Copenhagen Harbour Baths. (Copenhagen is one of several “coldwater” cities around the world the firm has sought inspiration from for its Zidell Yards placemaking; Chicago, Oslo, and Vancouver, B.C. are others.

According to Libby, the Zidell Marine gantry crane will, under this plan, be another piece of industrial infrastructure incorporated into the new layout of the Zidell Yards: Developers aim to position it parallel to the slipway, “a kind of gateway to the river,” Libby writes, “recalling the long architectural tradition of triumphal arches.”

By Dunstanf (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Dunstanf (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


The image of kayakers shoving off from a former barge launch and of swimmers and sunbathers thronging its dock encapsulates one of the prime goals ZRZ Realty has for the Zidell Yards: making the Willamette itself directly accessible, not merely a piece of fluid scenery to admire from an adjacent greenway (as in Tom McCall Waterfront Park to the north). In Henneberry’s developer-speak, it’s about “activating” the riverfront.

Besides the slipway access, that will mean riverfront restaurants and cafes, a pedestrian-friendly retail hub along Bond Avenue, and a Zidell Yards leg of the South Waterfront Greenway—a ribbon park connecting the Marquam Bridge in the north with the River Forum Building in the south.

The Central District of the South Waterfront Greenway opened in May 2015, reshaping the riverbanks between Gibbs and Lane streets with multiuse trails, overlooks, and lawns. Now the city’s set to tackle the North Reach of the Greenway, which will traverse the Zidell Yards and OHSU’s Schnitzer Campus to reach South Waterfront Park. The end result will be one long and publicly accessible emerald shoulder along the west riverway between Tom McCall Waterfront Park and Willamette Park.

As part of the North Reach of the South Waterfront Greenway, ZRZ Realty aims to install a pocket park beneath the Ross Island Bridge. As Brian Libby has noted, such a park would give Portlanders a bottom-up opportunity for getting to know that 1926-built cantilever truss landmark—one of the busiest bridges in the city but on the under-appreciated side—on more intimate and aesthetic terms than the jammed rush-hour commute offers. In a metropolis fondly called Bridgetown, with river spans of such distinct character and history from one another, any opportunity to safely get up close and personal with one of them is something to cultivate.

The lengthening of the greenway parallels, quite literally, a significant upgrade of the Central City grid long in the making: the extension of SW Bond Avenue, the northern terminus of which is currently the OHSU Center for Health & Healing. North-south thoroughfares through that South Waterfront stretch between the Marquam Bridge and the Central District are currently lacking. The idea is to make Bond a one-way northbound funnel for neighborhood vehicle and bike traffic, linking up with SW Moody Avenue as its southbound counterpart. The timetable of the SW Bond Avenue Extension has always depended on the tempo and nature of the Zidell property’s evolution: another reason the quicker-than-expected wind-down of barge building casts such a significant reverberation in the South Waterfront framework.


Central City Stirrings

The latest plans out of the Zidell Yards have synchronized with some major news elsewhere along Portland’s leading edge of urban progress: the decision last summer by the under-development James Beard Public Market (which we recently spotlighted) to pull out of the Morrison Bridgehead project and seek an alternate location. The market—which aims to provide a daily, year-round permanent space for food vendors—actually considered the Zidell Yards for its new home, but ultimately chose the other side of the Innovation Quadrant, to become part of OMSI’s 17-acre campus on the east end of Tilikum Crossing.

Even if they’re not destined to overlap, the Zidell Yards and the James Beard Public Market complement one another across the steady roll of the Willamette as two of the most exciting fronts in the transformation of Central City’s south—the white-hot core of inner Portland.