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Portland’s Central Eastside: A Regional Employment Center

The Central Eastside (CES) is home to more than 1,100 businesses and 17,000 jobs — more than any other district in the Central City outside of the downtown core. Industrial uses and creative businesses sit side-by-side, as the area becomes an emerging location for cross-industry exchange, from film and digital enterprises to food, creative services and craft industries.

While employment in other Central City areas decreased during the recent economic downturn, jobs increased in this district — in part because of a growing presence of traded sector industries. As it has evolved, the CES has become more attractive to a variety of businesses, outperforming its fellow employment districts thanks to a unique collection of historic industrial buildings, space affordability and centralized location near Portland’s business core.

To support continued economic development in the area, the City of Portland has made substantial public investments in multi-modal transportation infrastructure, such as light rail, streetcar, and bike and pedestrian facilities. The Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail (PMLR) line, opening in 2015, includes two stations within the district next to several larger redevelopment opportunity sites, which could accommodate growth of existing businesses or attract new industries and employment to the district.

Employment Sectors

The 1,000+ businesses in the district fall into several key employment sectors. Some of these, such as warehousing and distribution, reflect the earliest industrial users of the district. Other businesses represent the changing and evolving face of industry, such as film production, software development and web-based industries.

While different, these various sectors and businesses are all attracted to the Central Eastside, whether for its central location, building stock or proximity to nearby industrial businesses in the area. The Central Eastside provides an ideal location for this unique mix to establish and grow.

Warehousing and distribution businesses first made this district, once known as Produce Row, Portland’s center for industrial activity. Over time some businesses have “outgrown” the district; the small block or grid pattern that characterizes most of the district, as well as transportation constraints associated with the city center, can make large scale production and freight mobility challenging.

Yet there are many businesses that depend on a centralized location for their customer base and reliable access to the regional transportation system — but can operate in smaller locations. For these enterprises, the CES is an attractive location.

Manufacturing has long been a major industrial sector within the Central Eastside. Wood and metal fabricators, as well as tool and equipment manufacturers, have populated the district since its inception, and many still exist today.

However, a manufacturing revolution is currently underway in the district, characterized by small businesses making specialty goods in modest spaces with advanced technologies. The manufacturing sector also includes businesses that specialize in food preparation, brewing, distilling, and bicycle manufacturing and repair. For instance, a building that may once have been used by a single metal fabrication company now contains several enterprises specializing in industrial design. They manufacture their concepts onsite, using traditional techniques as well as advanced manufacturing tools, such as 3D printing.

Although the scale and types of businesses are rapidly evolving, the Central Eastside remains an important center for Portland’s manufacturing sectors.

Industrial service businesses generally serve other industrial and business sectors within the district, as well as the Central City. Examples include companies that supply parts, provide specialized services for manufacturing processes or do equipment maintenance.

Industrial service providers have a large customer base within the district that depends on easy access to their services. For instance, a number of construction companies within the Central Eastside have easy access to multiple businesses that supply building materials and construction equipment. This allows contractors to quickly get to the supplies and equipment they depend on, saving them time and money.

Knowledge-based and design businesses, including film, advertising, software development, architecture, engineering and industrial design firms, are increasingly calling the Central Eastside home. They are attracted to the open flexible workspaces that support collaboration between employees and can easily be tailored to their needs.

Some choose the district for the old warehouses, which offer space for sound stages required for filming. Architects, engineers and other designers want to be close to their client base within the district, and the area offers spaces where they can both design and manufacture prototypes. Others find that the buildings provide a level of flexibility that accommodates their specific requirements. And some are simply attracted to the gritty urban character inherent to the district.

Whatever their reason for choosing the Central Eastside, design and knowledge-based businesses are becoming a major presence in the district. There is growing interest in attracting more of these types of businesses to the district as a way of increasing employment opportunities. The key, however, will be to provide for this rapidly evolving sector in ways that are compatible with long-standing and more traditional industrial users of the district.

This is the third installment of a blog series aimed at exploring the past, present, and future of the Central Eastside. To learn more about the opportunities that exist in the Central Eastside and the planning efforts for the district, read the Central Eastside Reader and visit the SE Quadrant Plan calendar to learn about future events.