Plot Twists

The surprising story behind the Pearl District’s metamorphosis into Portland’s hottest neighborhood

Longtime real estate developer Al Solheim is often referred to as the “father of the Pearl District.” But when he first considered investing in the area in the 1980s, he didn’t envision today’s hub of fine art galleries, trendy loft apartments, scene-y restaurants, and high-end retail. Instead, he thought of it as an ideal place to stash old exercise bikes, dusty leg warmers, and obsolete Atari cartridges.

In other words, he thought the neighborhood was just perfect for self-storage.

“It’s hard to imagine now, but it’s true,” says Solheim, of AWS Real Estate. At the time, the area was characterized by warehouses and declining industry. “Unless you had a reason to be here, you just didn’t come down,” he remembers. “That’s not because it was dangerous; it’s just because nothing was happening.”

Still, Solheim sensed opportunity. He’d already developed suburban self-storage units, which typically require a couple of acres of land. On a suggestion from a real estate broker, “I looked at a big four-story building at 14th and Johnson and thought, that’s 2½ acres of building on a half block of land—why not put in an elevator and do self-storage here?” Along with his partners John Gray and Roger Paul, Solheim believed the urban location between downtown and Northwest Portland would appeal.

“Art is about creativity, and my way of displaying my creativity is with buildings and locations.”

The hunch paid off. The self-storage business was indeed a hit, and Solheim took a closer look around at the scene of this early success.

What he saw: “Really wonderful historic buildings that were way underutilized, architecturally intact, and cheap,” he said. These characteristics have often served as artist-bait in other cities, and indeed, there were a few creative spirits who’d already set up shop in the Pearl. “I started hanging out with the artists in the area, getting to know them, and I developed a passion for what they were doing,” Solheim recalls.

And perhaps he noted a similarity between the artists’ vocation and his own. “Art is about creativity, and my way of displaying my creativity is with buildings and locations,” he says. “I see a building that I like in a neighborhood, and I figure out what to do with it.” Within a few years, he had developed Irving Street Lofts. Numerous other projects in the neighborhood followed. This era also marked the start of Solheim’s own art collection, which he began with the acquisition of an abstract painting by a tenant, Scott Sonniksen.

11th-Lovejoy-1999-Looking-North

Nearly 30 years later, Solheim’s involvement in the arts has become more official. A founding member of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), he’s now chairman of the board of the Pacific Northwest College of Art, where a new library will bear his name. And, of course, the neighborhood has transformed into the Pearl as we all know it today, with thousands of people working, living, and shopping among its more than 100 city blocks. Solheim is quick to point out, however, that he’s not the only “father” of the neighborhood: “The Pearl District evolved over a lot of time—I’ve only been one player,” he says. He points to key projects undertaken by others, including the redevelopment of the Hoyt Street rail yards and the launch of the streetcar system, as pivotal to the area.

He’s pleased with the way the district has evolved. “I like that people can develop relationships with their neighbors and merchants,” he says. “I personally live and work here, and I know many of the people I pass walking down the street.” Solheim adds that he’s looking forward to seeing the neighborhood evolve: “It’s been especially exciting over the past 20 years, and it’s going to continue. And that’s because the people who have been involved in developing it are local, and they understand what can and should be done—they care about what they’re doing.” —Alison Stein

Photos courtesy of Visual History of the Pearl

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