Carole Zoom

East Side scramble: enter the N.E.W.

As a heated real estate market intensifies the hunt for performance spaces, an arts entrepreneur and a real estate investment firm take over the old Zoomtopia

Real-estate bingo and the scramble for performance and studio spaces continue to do an awkward dance on Portland’s inner East Side, sometimes executing a neat two-step, sometimes stomping on each other’s toes.

Latest entry in the dance: the former Zoomtopia space at Southeast Eighth and Belmont, where a real-estate investment company and an arts entrepreneur appear to be enjoying a mutually beneficial tango: WYSE Real Estate Advisors gets a new headquarters, and dance teacher and producer Subashini Ganesan gets 3,000 square feet of studio and gathering space that’ll also be used by several other arts groups. What’s more, both parties are happy with the arrangement.

PICA's TBA 2014 workshop by Meryem Jazouli (Casablanca, Morocco) in Zoomtopia's Studio 2. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

PICA’s TBA 2014 workshop by Meryem Jazouli (Casablanca, Morocco) in Zoomtopia’s Studio 2. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

The deal struck for Zoomtopia, though less than the outright purchase Ganesan had originally hoped for, seems like a solid win for both parties, and it’s not the first one. In spite of development pressure and the loss of spaces such as the old Theater! Theatre! building on upper Belmont, which rendered more than a dozen performance groups temporarily homeless, a few other winners have emerged in the East Side dance.

Northwest Dance Project, squeezed out of its spot on the Mississippi Corridor, landed a bigger, better home space in the shadow of the Franz Bakery plant, just north of Burnside. Miracle Theatre and the nearby Imago Theatre, where Third Rail Rep will also take up residence in the fall, have solidified their East Side beachholds, creating vibrant small centers for performance. The tiny Shoebox Theatre and the Backdoor Theatre, a little room behind a coffee shop on Southeast Hawthorne, have helped define an East Side theatrical style: bare-bones, rough-and-tumble, experimental in a variety of ways. Shaking the Tree has planted a new, bigger flag on the East Side, Triangle Productions has pioneered performance on Sandy Boulevard, The Headwaters has colonized the far north, and multiple-studio buildings for visual artists and other creative workers now dot the inner East Side: indeed, they’ve been so successful that rents have begun creeping up, and artists, inevitably, are starting to look farther east and south in search of cheaper work spaces.

s_313The Central Eastside Industrial Zone, in particular, is under pressure, and the squeeze there ripples out to nearby areas. Hard by the Willamette River and only a short bridge-hop away from downtown, it’s being eyed increasingly as a potential gold mine for apartment and condo development – especially since Portland has one of the tightest housing vacancy rates in the nation.

So far, zoning stipulations and opposition from the light-manufacturing and warehouse businesses that have made a thriving industrial home there have kept things relatively quiet. (Information on the city planning bureau’s draft plan for the Southeast Quadrant is here.) But with the Rose District and the Oregon Convention Center to the north and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and the Portland Opera headquarters to the south, the land between is becoming more and more coveted for its development potential.

Add the rapid development of the long-slumbering nearby Lloyd District, and the heat’s starting to rise. People in the arts and creative fields who’ve found comfortable and relatively inexpensive quarters on the inner East Side are beginning to look nervously over their shoulders, wary of spiraling costs that would push them out – ironically, the same sort of feelings that blue-collar workers and business owners in the industrial area are having. Some artists are advocating live/work rezoning, which would allow actual loft living as opposed to the faux-loft apartments and condos in the Pearl District – in effect, they argue, creating a symbiotic relationship with the industrial and warehouse interests to keep a flexible status quo in the area, with some added residential use.

Other artists are beginning to toss around the risible words “rent control,” a term that not so very long ago, when Portland was known as the low-rent district of West Coast cities, would have been dismissed as both alien and outlandish. Rent control likely would face opposition from both developers, as a loss of potential market-rate returns, and the city, as a tax-revenue drain. And to control rent, you need to have rentals in the first place. As Chad Rheingold, a shareholder and vice president of WYSE, says: “The city is pretty clear that they don’t want housing in the Central Eastside Industrial Zone,” unless it’s on major thoroughfares, where it can be clustered.


Amid this overheated atmosphere, an intriguing meeting of commercial and creative minds is taking place at the old Zoomtopia space, across the street from Grand Central Bowl and close to the studios that Oregon Ballet Theatre is abandoning to move to the West Side’s South Waterfront district. Zoomtopia, the lively arts incubator founded and developed in 2010 by Carole Zoom, has emerged from uncertainty to become a dual-purpose space.