An apartment complex made of shipping containers proposed for Uniontown has passed historic and design review but still faces hurdles on parking and environmental cleanup.
Developer Chester Trabucco has partnered with the owners of several dilapidated lots to advance Portway Station, a complex of nearly 70 two-bedroom apartments made from stacked shipping containers. Each unit, formed by two side-by-side containers, is about 640 square feet and would rent for around $1,000 a month.
“Our intent was to embrace the industrial elements of a cargo container, the much-needed requirement for housing and the opportunity to make a very positive impact on a very dilapidated area in the Uniontown area,” Trabucco recently told the city’s Design Review Commission.
The first and most visible of the six buildings in the complex, planned for the corner of Marine Drive and Portway Street, required approval from the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission and Design Review Commission.
The governing bodies approved the initial building, lowering it from three stories to two to better fit the scale of surrounding historic buildings, such as the Portway Tavern. The ground floor of the building on Marine Drive will include two retail spaces Trabucco envisions as offices for the apartments, a coffee shop or a restaurant.
The project also overcame a prohibition in city code against metal siding on buildings in Uniontown.
“There was discussion at the time the Uniontown overlay was being done of people worldwide starting to use cargo units as housing and for different things,” Rosemary Johnson, a planning consultant for the city, told the Design Review Commission. “And the committee felt at that time that that was not appropriate for the west Marine Drive streetscape in a National Register (of Historic Places) district and the look of the overlay district that they wanted.”
But the Design Review Commission determined that rather than siding, the corrugated metal on shipping containers was part of the structure and fit the industrial aesthetic of the area, including the Port of Astoria and a Quonset hut next door belonging to the Astoria Railroad Preservation Association.
“There’s a lot of ways to experience this area, and not just by driving,” Commissioner Nichelle Seely said. “You might be walking. And in that case, you can see the Quonset hut. You can see the metal buildings down by the Port.”
Cleanup, parking plans
The city approvals give Portway Station two years to make substantial construction progress. But the properties are part of a state cleanup of former bulk fuel and automotive operations spanning the Port’s central waterfront. The housing project needs a cleanup plan signed off by the state Department of Environmental Quality before construction of the buildings can begin.
Trabucco said the plan is to use vapor extraction to take out volatile compounds from the ground, similar to a system used at a nearby complex of warehouses. Anna Coates, a project manager for the Department of Environmental Quality, said there is general agreement on the approach, and that Portway Station can prepare the site for construction before getting a final signoff.
In the next several months, Coates said, staff will release a report on the cleanup plan for public comment. If the plan stands up to public scrutiny, the development can get a designation of no further action needed from the state agency.
Five of the six buildings in Portway Station are along Industry Street and allowed outright, sparing the project from needing signoff by city commissions. But Trabucco must find 1.5 spots of parking for each two-bedroom unit, or prove to the city why the apartments don’t need as much parking.
Trabucco said Portway Station plans for about one parking spot per apartment. The project could save on parking requirements because of its proximity to bus stops, and because some of the intended residents would be workers at nearby seafood processors.
“We fully expect that a number of the tenants will be workers that are working in the immediate area, some of (whom) may not have cars,” he said. “And we also expect there to be students that will also carpool.”
If the project obtains all of the approvals, the rate of construction will depend in part on the availability of the 140 or so containers Trabucco said Portway Station would require. Containers have become a hot commodity amid increased demand for consumer products from Asia during the coronavirus pandemic.
The developer has consulted with Relevant Buildings, an Oregon City company specializing in custom shipping container homes. Carl Coffman, the owner of the company, said the hope is that by the time Portway Station is ready to start construction, the demand and price for containers will come down.
The containers for Portway Station would be shipped to Astoria and placed on a foundation as frames, with the windows and doors cut but not built out. Windows, doors, decks and utilities would then be added.
Relevant Buildings is preparing for construction on an eight-unit containerized apartment complex in St. Helens that will be the first of its kind in the region. Coffman sees such upcycling of used shipping containers as a way to both address climate change through adaptive reuse and provide affordable housing.
“You can find all kinds of one-off container projects built, but they’re all very expensive, and the common man can’t get in them,” he said.
Trabucco said he plans to approach the city about using urban renewal money to help defray the heady costs of tearing down several existing buildings, cleaning up historical contamination and developing so many apartments in a tight footprint while keeping rents at around $1,000 a month. The Astor West Urban Renewal District’s fund contains around $5.3 million.
“It’s a perfect application, in my view, for urban renewal funds,” Trabucco said. “It certainly represents a 180. The concept of coming into Astoria and having to be somewhat of a gateway site both leaving Astoria and coming into Astoria, based on its proximity to Marine Drive, I think is palpable.”