Neighborhood shopping in Portland OR

 Last week I spent four days in Portland OR to do fund raising training for the Portland Main Street program and the Citywide Community Economic Development network.  I was delighted that Claudia Plaza who runs that program reached out to the Oregon Main Street program and Sheri Stuart who runs that program to invite the Oregon Main Street managers along to the training. We had a good turn out and it made me want to visit some of the commercial districts around the city.

Portland is extremely easy to navigate as a pedestrian or on public transit.  Despite the fact that my hotel, while really nice, was not in downtown, I could get anywhere I wanted to go without a car, on the tram, streetcar or bus. The downtown visitor center in Pioneer Square had all the maps one could want as well as directories for most of the commercial districts that wanted tourists to visit.

 I think that one day I took every mode of transit available when I set out to see the Alberta district in the Northeast section of town, across the Willamette River from downtown. The Alberta commercial district is a long street in the midst of a neighborhood of frame buildings,  mostly Craftsman style or bungalows. The commercial district revitalization organization Alberta Main Street ( has promoted the area for a number of years as an arts district.

 There is a theater, plenty of nice cafes, restaurants of a wide variety of ethnicities (Thai, Japanese, Mexican, French… you get it) and several watering holes and upscale bars.  There is hardly a chain store along the strip (don’t think I saw any).

 Many of the cute shops are in homes that have been converted into retail. Several old garages were turned into restaurants.  And there is plenty of new infill construction with retail below and condos or apartments above. There clearly must be a strong sign ordinance in the city, because they were many beautiful signs mounted perpendicular to the building face.

 There were a plethora of A frame signs--portable signs along the sidewalk—but these seemed to be regulated with some kind of sticker noting dates when a permit expires.  I was there on a beautiful Saturday afternoon and the sidewalks were crowded with families of all stripes.  Most of the bars, cafes and restaurants had outdoor seating of some kind, and while these were not crowded, these outdoor areas give additional life to the street.

 The Alberta Main Street program had a handy map/directory/guide that was available in many of the stores I visited.  There is plenty of on street parking, but some blocks were completely full by 2PM. Being a pedestrian, I only noticed that there were several bus lines along the route.

 As for art, there were notable metal sculptures in the form of banners hanging from light poles. Each was different, some had movable parts that would spin in the wind.  No murals I could see.  I poked into several women’s clothing stores, craft shops, furniture/gift shops, jewelry stores, yarn and fabric stores (dropped a bundle at Bolt).  Loved the artists supply shop that has an adjacent studio where they offered classes on a really wide range of techniques and skill levels.  It took at least an hour to mosey from one end of the district to the other and I enjoyed every minute.

 This street is precious because their new construction, modern as it is, fits in to the scale, massing, street wall, color and rhythm of the rest of the district.  This district is popular but not highly polished yet.   I am sure will become even more so over the years.  Hanging on to the independent shops will be harder as rents rise and the remaining vacant lots and underutilized parcels are more intensively developed.  National retailers will want to be in the mix here if they have not already made inquiries.

 National retailers have already stormed the beaches along NW 23 Avenue in Portland.  Located in Nob Hill, a lovely neighborhood north of Old City/Chinatown, this commercial district, also about a mile long, has seen a wide variety of national retailers locate here.  This district has a business association ( ) and is also wildly successful, with not a vacancy to be found.  Williams Sonoma was opening a store the next day along the south end of that commercial strip while I was there. Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn are already located in new buildings across the street, and near Burnside Avenue.  This end of the district reminds me of parts of Manyunk in Philadelphia.  North 23 Avenue is not a Main Street district, and probably does not need to be.  The smaller scale stores are in traditional retail buildings with apartments above or small officers.  Many of the houses along the street have been converted into small shops and offer a wide assortment of goods.

 There was a great hat store, swell restaurants, interior design shops, gifts, big independent kitchen store, and children’s clothing.  Paper Source, the national retailer, has a big corner store in the middle of the small scale shops on the north end of the district. This district took almost the same amount of time to walk through but offered a different vibe. I could not leave Portland without going to Powell’s Bookstore. The main store is in the Pearl District (on the National Register) just north of Old Town/Chinatown.  I did all I could to pass up their  offer to collectors to ship 10 books or more home for a low flat rate, but it was not for lack of trying.

 The Pearl district is primarily a brick warehouse district that has been completely transformed in the past 20 years as virtually every older building has been rehabilitated.  Plenty of new modern residential buildings with retail at the base are sprinkled throughout the district .  While there are still a great number of independent restaurants, there are chains of all sorts, spread out across the neighborhood.

 Closer to Burnside Avenue there is more new residential new construction, while rehabilitated brick warehouses abound further east. This district was also hopping on a late Saturday afternoon.  Outdoor dining is less  likely to be on the sidewalk, and more often in an  interior courtyard or newly created space. Whole Foods had an enormous store with a fancy modern addition on top of an historic garage building. There were plenty of art galleries here. All of these districts were great urban places but with different agendas.  Loved them all.  Wish I had more time to shop other districts. Perhaps next time.