After more than a decade’s worth of development and growth, with intermittent periods of inactivity and depression, South Portland is set to be Portland’s next important neighborhood, according to Portland Monthly. South Portland’s rise to prominence has been a long time coming: the Great Recession’s near-crippling of the area’s development is still a public relations hurdle to overcome. But with Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) set to become one of America’s leading medical research centers; with the immediately iconic Tilikum Crossing Bridge now open to non-auto traffic; and with construction back to booming with a vengeance, South Portland could soon be as distinct and easily recognized as Voodoo Doughnuts and Powell’s.

How will we achieve an autonomous identity? Arts & culture, architectural innovation, and international ambitions. Before and during the Great Recession, South Portland lacked cultural attractions. Pop-up attractions formed in the vacuum made by the Great Recession; in summer 2013, Zidell Yards turned to a venue, hosting concerts, a food festival, and a drive-in movie theatre. Though the venue space no longer exists, the idea of a distinct South Portland entertainment culture was born, with new events now announced regularly.

South Portland’s unique identity is married to its glistening architecture. The sleek glass-and-steel skyscrapers are found nowhere else in Portland; even downtown Portland’s memorable skyscrapers, like Big Pink and the Portlandia Building, lack the modern gravitas of the South Waterfront. Architectural inspiration for these multibillion dollar buildings come from some of the world’s foremost river-based cities, particularly Copenhagen. Surprisingly, even with all the pre-Recession money poured into the area, new architectural and engineering philosophies are shaping new post-Recession developments into a new image.

Companies want to be more democratic, less top-down, more flat, more connected, more open,” said Matt French, an heir and managing director of Zidell Marine and ZRZ Realty, on his decision to build horizontal campus-style building instead of traditional penthouse towers. But on its own, switching from vertical to horizontal complexes won’t erase from Portland’s memory the neighborhood’s reputation as a cloistered, near-shuttered haven for the rich. With affordable housing construction falling dramatically short of the city’s original 2003 goals for the area, more work may yet be needed to further diversify the notoriously secluded South Portland. 

Creating a polished, unique identity separate from Portland’s kitschy, quirky reputation may ultimately prove to be highly beneficial for the neighborhood. Creating an urbane, well-defined urban center around Portland’s central river with nods to international influence could attract some of the world’s top talents, or the country’s most lucrative companies, to the area, bringing revenue and prestige to a city currently most famous for doughnuts and that guy from The Simpsons. OHSU’s sky rail, for example, is the result of an international design contest.

One thing is for certain: construction and development are absolutely not slowing down. In the next decade or two, South Portland’s landscape could look like a sci-fi city flung through a space-time rift, bringing through that wormhole promising, lucrative developments. ” . . . Here’s our vision to extend that original, incredible, bold move by developers,” said Bob Haistings, TriMet architect, of his impression of French’s plans for the South Waterfront’s future, “But we’re going to do it from our generation’s perspective.” 

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