The Apple Store That Wasn't

So, Apple wanted to build this Apple Store here in Portland, Oregon. And not just any old Apple Store — this was to be a built-from-scratch, non-mall, original-design Apple Store, one of the few in the world. It was to be something fairly special.

That was four years ago.

Now, the news has officially hit the web: the project is, it seems, dead. Apple has walked away.

(Portland Architecture has more, as does ifoAppleStore ).

So, what happened?

First, in the interests of disclosure: I'm a Portland native, born and raised. I remember when the Blazers were awesome, I pronounce "milk" funny ("melk"), and I was once a serious contender in Ramblin' Rod's "Smile Contest". I also just so happen to live on NW 21st Avenue, exactly two blocks from the proposed site of this ill-fated store. I also co-founded an independent Macintosh software company, such is my love for the Apple platform. That said, I'm not an architect, just a dude, but clearly this is a project I've followed closely.

In A Nutshell

NW 23st Avenue in Portland is the kind-of organic shopping street that simply doesn't exist in the suburbs. What was once, long ago, classic houses and small stores, is now classic houses, small stores, and national chains next to small stores. It all, pretty much, works. With two exceptions: parking is a nightmare, and new development is eternally contentious.

When Apple presented their first planned design for the site, the local Landmarks Commission didn't like it . I'm guessing it was a very standard Apple Metal Box™. And I think it's fair to expect the best from Apple for this project.

So the developers, in partnership with Apple, smartly hired Holst Architecture , local architecture superstars. Holst began putting together neighborhood-friendly and Apple-approved changes, specifically addressing the concerns. These weren't minor changes, either:
  • They removed a north-facing backlit Apple signs
  • They added an impressive, open-glass second level, to be used for staff offices (or future tenants)
  • They — well, Jobs — personally approved the switch from the traditional stainless steel to Italian stone, which would've made this store one of three in the world with such an upgrade
These new plans were then presented at a second hearing which, unfortunately, took place while I was in Japan. And the feedback?

Amazingly, still not good enough . So Apple gave up.

More Than Meets The Eye

I want to make one thing painfully clear: the building that Apple wanted to demolish and completely replace has been a terrible eyesore for my entire life. I'm not exaggerating. Second only to the Plaid Pantry across the street, this building, last used as a bridal shop, has honestly no redeeming value — the landmarks commission has said as much — see it for yourself.

So what was Apple going to transform the building into? A little something like this, revealed for the first time:

The Argument

In addition to the last-minute suggestion that Apple consider "adding some awnings" to the store (I'm serious), the Landmarks Commission's greatest concern seemed to be "franchise architecture". In other words, is the building designed as an Apple Store, or is it a building that just happens to be an Apple Store, but could really be anything? The former, to many, is bad.

I understand the concern. But, here, it seems the Landmarks Commission is, at best, inconsistent.

Months ago, construction finished on a presumably-approved new Williams Sonoma Home Store one block away from the Apple site. It looks nice. But what does a Williams Sonoma Home Store look like in, say, Indiana? You got it: the exact same design. (Our store is the one on the left.)

Clearly, franchise architecture is not the deal-breaker for the commission. So what's really going on?

I'm not sure. Part of me thinks that, because the Apple Store is modern, it doesn't fit into their old-timey, victorian vision of the neighborhood. But that's funny: a street that tries very hard to not be a mall — but really is basically a mall — has become a kind of reverse-mall, where everything still looks the same, but in a different way. You follow me? It's almost, ironically, a kind of reality distortion field: "if these buildings look like old houses, we can pretend these national chains aren't here!"

Nobody, really, wants a mall. And there's no question that the building looks different. But while I'm no architician, I have to wonder:

Isn't different and modern, if done well, sometimes good?

Has a Pulse?

There are rumors swirling around that the project might not be completely dead. That Apple might take one last look at it. This is unconfirmed, of course, and probably extremely unlikely.

Just in case there's light at the end of the tunnel, I'd like to impart some messages to the parties involved:

Apple! Don't give up on Portland. And don't give up on this store just yet. The site is, honestly, perfect. The changes you and Holst have made so far have all been for the better, I think, and I think you can now make this happen. At the same time, if you keep getting cold-stone-creameried after making so many of their requested changes, sod it — find another site. There are a ton of other neighborhoods around here that would love to have you. And while none of them are two blocks from my apartment, I can bike.

Landmarks Commission! I'm proud to have been born in a city where building design is considered, crafted, and debated. But you know what? Here in Northwest Portland, things are a little homogeneous, in many ways. Even our buildings — and the stores within them — aren't very diverse: we don't have a single computer store in this neighborhood, and we don't have a lot of "modern". We'll be finally replacing a really dumpy building with a really nice one. OK, so it's a little different — hooray for that! Eclectic is good.

Site Developers! Even though it would be fully and absolutely in your right to throw in the towel, leave your current terrible building standing for all eternity, and welcome the most inappropriate long-term tenant possible (I vote for Wendys!), and while I'm sure that would feel secretly great, please don't — keep working on Apple! I think they'll come around. If not, tarn sarnit, I guess you can return to Plan B .

There. Sorted! Next stop: world peace. Good thing that all the parties involved undoubtedly read my stupid blog, right?


When I was standing on the corner taking pictures of the current building, a couple of kids, who were walking up and down the street selling candy for their youth group and who presumably didn't live in the neighborhood, came up to ask me what I was doing.

I gave them the story as quickly as possible, and they studied the rendering. The smaller kid, maybe nine years old, noticed the extinct bridal shop sign and awesomely declared, "That thing is just a fancy dress shop? There's already two fancy dress shops down the street!" Oh, so painfully true, my little man.

The girl, maybe 13 years old, gave it a surprising amount of thought, and delivered her conclusion:

"Some people just can't stand it when things change," she sighed. "Especially around here."


Oh shit, I was on Ramblin' Rod too!
Blogger Lucas Newman 7/11/2006 10:30 PM  
the portland architecture blog has another post about it.
Anonymous jason 7/11/2006 11:28 PM  
so it needs to have awnings to shield pedestrians from rain, and more windows on the glisan side. hmm... kind of like the building its replacing, that has no awnings, and most of the windows on the glisan side are 1 story up.

someone at the landmarks commission is making excuses. maybe they're mac haters. whatta what da dilly0??
Anonymous nivenh 7/12/2006 1:28 AM  
This is like French and there bs iTunes law. When the business is not worth the headache of dealig with imbeciles; the best option is always to drop the project. The loser is not Apple; believe me.
Anonymous Anonymous 7/12/2006 2:37 AM  
"Some people just can't stand it when things change", she sighed. "Especially around here."

Out of the mouth of babes......
Anonymous viperteq 7/12/2006 4:43 AM  
This is higly reminiscent of a battle in Charlottesville, VA in the mid 90s. A developer who had already built an indoor skating rink on the downtown mall (a bricked over street shopping area, not like a mall) wanted to convert an old building into a movie theater. The architectural review board flipped out. One of the complaints was that they wanted stucco decorations on the building's facade, which they said didn't match the area, despite the fact that the building directly across the street has a stucco facade. I understand the idea -- that if they ever renovated that other building they'd forbid stucco there, too, and then eventually they'd have an area that matches their historic standards, but still, it was a mess for years.
Blogger David Ely 7/12/2006 6:37 AM  
I wonder if the Mayor got involved whether he could revive the project?
Blogger catalyst 7/12/2006 7:00 AM  
You were on Ramblin' Rod?!? Shit, that brings back memories... hahahaha. Wow.. I haven't thought of that show since I was 12.

The Apple store in Portland would have been a nice gig, I was really disappointed when I read the news as well.
Anonymous Joshua 7/12/2006 7:13 AM  
All you need to satify the look of the Portland Store is a couple of passed-out Winos on the sidewalk. Now, THAT's a Portland Look!
Anonymous Anonymous 7/12/2006 8:13 AM  
As an architect and a Mac user since '88 I can see why there's a conflict here. The "Victorian" ambience involves the more human scale of a large number of elements. Modern in Apple's image is minimalist and largely divorced from human scale. I like both in their place. Portland's downtown image tends towards N.Y. brownstone IMHO. Apple's image can only "fit" as a complimenting exception.
Anonymous Anonymous 7/12/2006 8:37 AM  
> "adding some awnings" to the store (I'm serious)

The Apple store closest to me has awnings. You can see them in this photo:

Anonymous Anonymous 7/12/2006 8:59 AM  
While the front of the proposed store looks modern and open and such, in my opinion the side looks cold and faceless. The existing (terrible) building at least looks somewhat open on that side. Much more interesting than a stone wall. The awnings bit is pretty hilarious, however.
Anonymous Adam Preble 7/12/2006 9:00 AM  
I disagree that the Apple store isn't human-scale. Compare the two: The Apple store is right up on the sidewalk with big windows at eye level. The starkness of the upper stories are fine, as they're only seen when further away. The existing place is a jumble of entrances, none of which are inviting, as they all require climbing or descending stairs.

I live in Boston, and Apple is undergoing a similar problem for their South End store here. I hope it doesn't have a similar outcome.
Blogger Jammer 7/12/2006 10:32 AM  
My closest Apple Store has really cool class and metal rod awnings, but since it's indoors they don;t have to be functional. The weird thing is that almost no other stores in the mall have awnings and the previous tenant (Eddie Bauer) didn't have them.
Blogger vortech 7/12/2006 11:15 AM  
Has anyone seen pictures of the apple store in South Beach, Florida? It's totally art deco and very different from the usual modern look.
Anonymous Josué 7/12/2006 11:17 AM  
Yet another clusterfudge due to Portland's overpaid and multitudinous Landscape Commission, City Planning asswipes in the People's Republic of Multnomah County.

Thanks, Portland. Enjoy your long unemployment waiting lines, and pissed off business owners paying tax upon tax, upon Tri-met taxes amongst the scraggly arrogant directionless-because-of-no-education "hipster" youth.

Way to go, POPO. Retarded city. I know, because I live here.
Anonymous Anonymous 7/12/2006 11:27 AM  
First, I was on Ramblin Rod (thanks for the awesome flashback!). Second, I live on NW 23rd, on Hoyt.

Everyone keeps calling that Bridal building historic. What? The building is butt ugly, and who thought steep, vertical freaking stairs makes for a grand entrance into a "grand" historic building. So, as of right now homeless folk use the stairs as a gathering place - fun! How historic! On a side note, my car was stolen earlier this year on NW 24th and Hoyt, what an awesomely safe, historic neighborhood the commission has provided us!

NW 23rd lost it's flavor a long time ago. There's no unified design vision for NW 23rd, because that "plan" has been violated so many times in the past. I think it's pretty amazing that Apple chose a spot directly ACROSS from a historic and architecturally inspired...Plaid Pantry! Ah yes, that 24 hour mecca of old Victorian food stuff.

I don't buy the "we don't need more chain stores" opinion carried by those who see it was a good thing to deny Apple. Ok then, please tell me how some "inspired" Portland local is going to be able to afford the freaking rent/lease on NW 23rd? How's an organic dirt farm going to survive? Or a hip, urban, hemp, local clothing store? Obviously these are businesses that are opposite a "chain store", but please come with me as we count the numerous "chain stores" already on NW 23rd; pack a lunch, it might take a while.

Oh well, the Pearl will probably be the recipient of NW 23rd's stubborn "purity". I just can't wait for the day the Commission decides to dig up NW 23rd and replace it with a well beaten dirt path so I can ride my historically accurate pony to work!
Blogger Tim Germer 7/12/2006 11:41 AM  
Did Apple's plans include removal of the traffic light or what?
Anonymous benny 7/12/2006 11:41 AM  
Ramblin' Rod - haven't thought about him in years! Nice throwback.

The commission's refusal is the kind of thing I hate about Portland. It's reflexive anti-corporatism and NIMBYism at their worst. People like that, and decisions like that, are why Portland has steadily lost the majority of its large businesses to the suburbs. Disgraceful.
Blogger imjustbigboneddammit 7/12/2006 11:43 AM  
I'd like to point out that there is an Apple store in Pioneer Square within walking distance to this location; Portland doesn't need 2 apple stores in the downtown area, thats ridiculous.

Additionally, the downtown area (Pioneer Square, for example) is in a much greater need for an influx of cool places like this, not 23rd. It looks to me like good 'ol apple-loving hysteria got in the way of a little common sense here people.

I'm all for Portland being friendlier towards businesses, but lets be logical; do we really need ANOTHER franchise, no matter what it is, in that area? I'm GLAD there's three, privately owned designer dress shops, all competing within their own micro-economy, nestled amongst chinese restaurants and indie record stores. Don't let your Apple loyalty get in the way of straightforward thinking.

Anonymous Anonymous 7/12/2006 12:43 PM  
CP: Good points. But for those of us who love Apple Stores, the idea of having a world-class, custom built, roomier building (with more options — theatre? creative bar?) would significantly trump the Pioneer Place store. Although, I do agree, downtown needs more cool stuff desperately, in speaking with the employees at the Pioneer Place store, they were really looking forward to the 23rd store opening up. One employee told me the Pioneer Place store is a "C-Level store doing A-Level service and traffic" — in other words, they're too small, and totally overtaxed. Which is good and bad. From what I've heard, the answer is clear — yes, this additional store is absolutely needed. Believe it or not.

As for if we need another franchise in general on 23rd -- it seems way too late to be asking that question, and I'm not even sure it's a fair question. The indie record stores and chinese restaurants are also "nestled" next to The Gap, Williams Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Illuminations, Starbucks, Noah's Bagels, Lucky Brand Jeans, etc. etc. Once you're at this point, selectively picking and choosing who is worthy enough to open a business seems like, well, dangeorus business. I can say with moderate seriousness that if Wendys were to design an amazing, beautiful, elegant and subtle building, and move in on 23rd, I wouldn't complain — as long as someone smaller and fiester still has the opportunity to move in next door and kick their ass. Hooray, America.

But this debate has nothing to do with with what's inside the building — just the outside.
Blogger Cabel 7/12/2006 1:22 PM  
One thing I did not see mentioned by anyone is that the Apple Store is ADA friendly. The existing building is a nightmare for anyone who has problems climbing stairs!
Anonymous Anonymous 7/12/2006 1:51 PM  
While I'm no fan of the faux-brutalist design of the existing building, and I'm certainly a fan of seeing an Apple store just about anywhere, there is a certain valid point here. I spent most of the past few years of my life in Savannah, GA, a town that really knows about historic preservation and creative reuse. Kress became the Gap. A Five-and-dime became Banana Republic. In these cases the character of the original (chain) store's building still shows through with its modern (chain) tenant. Perhaps I just lack the vision, but it's hard to imagine an Apple store being anything but an Apple store. I don't think anyone's going to want to sell fancy dresses from a stainless steel box if (gasp!) Apple isn't around a hundred years for now.
Anonymous MT 7/12/2006 1:51 PM  
It's kind of odd for Portland to talk so about wanting to enlist a 'creative class' then A) not support it with the kind of businesses that community needs, and B) work against creativity itself with heavy-handed rulings (seriously, it wasn't enough to for Apple to hire a great local architect and the change their exterior sheathing - now they need awnings, and, and, and...)

Guess I'll just keep going to Washington Square.
Anonymous kd 7/12/2006 3:00 PM  
"Chain store" is a euphemism for "successful company." And Portland don't want none of that sh*t.

Un-be-freakin'-leivable. Don't give 'em a second chance, Apple. We'll be happy to have another store in the Seattle area.

Anonymous Anonymous 7/12/2006 5:19 PM  
cp has a great point. Two stores this close together, uneeded.

Why don't you call Apple and tell them this, obviously they overlooked it. Surely you have a much better grasp of Apple's marketing studies than Apple does.

What would be even better would be if you could figure out exacrly what IS needed there and order someone to open it.
Blogger Lettuce 7/12/2006 7:48 PM  

...hard to imagine an Apple store being anything but an Apple store.

Apple Store SOHO
Blogger Lettuce 7/12/2006 7:52 PM  
Why don't you call Apple and tell them this...

Ouch. That's gonna leave a mark, Lettuce.

Anonymous Anonymous 7/12/2006 10:07 PM  
your really good at blogging
Anonymous Anonymous 7/12/2006 10:48 PM  
I must admit, the proposed store really doesn't look that great....

Take a cinderblock, slap some glass in it and add a logo - walla: We have an apple store!

I love the design on London's apple store though... obviously they can't recreate a victorian building in portland, but at least the glass arches are a nice touch:

Anonymous aptmunich 7/13/2006 1:19 AM  
If you cannot beat City Hall ...
Stop playing
Blogger knightcruiser 7/13/2006 2:01 AM  
This post has been removed by a blog administrator.
Blogger knightcruiser 7/13/2006 2:02 AM  
We pronounce "milk" funny?
Anonymous lucie 7/13/2006 4:47 AM  
lucie, YIAH, you do! :)
Anonymous Anonymous 7/13/2006 7:19 AM  
Maybe an "Apple Shoppe" with totem poles, cigar indians and stuffed grizzly bears would appease the Landmark's Commission.
Blogger cjwl 7/13/2006 9:02 AM  
That store would have been COOL. NW 23rd is hardly a period piece, it has all sorts of uninspired architecture.
Blogger Larry Forney 7/13/2006 9:05 AM  
Dear Apple,

It seems like just yesterday I was bemoaning the non-existence of Apple retail stores in Oregon. Now we have three exciting locations!

I was dismayed to hear that your plans for the NW Portland store were scuttled. However, on behalf of all residents of SE Portland, I would like to extend a heartfelt invitation!

Here on the east side of the sparkling Willamette River, we don't give a rip about architecture! Historical buildings? We're only keeping them around because they're all we can afford, unlike those hoity-toity, condo-owning, awning industry lackeys in the Pearl.

Why not stop by and check out the neighborhood? Perhaps near the proud Lloyd Center, or the upcoming Irvington district! Or at the new development near the airport where IKEA is going in? Big retail chain stores? Here on the east side, WE LOVE 'EM! Can't get enough, in fact! Come on over!

Your pal,

Anonymous stevenf 7/13/2006 10:58 PM  
Dude, I grew up here too and I pronounce "milk" milk, not melk. Come to think of it, I can't recall ever hearing anybody say melk...though I don't drink the stuff (despite the marketing hype, it's only natural if you're a calf) and don't engage in a lot of conversations about it. I've lived in multiple other areas of the country, and I've never been called on pronouncing it improperly. Unlike those other areas that can't pronounce other simple words. HINTS: There's no T at the end of ACROSS, there's no R at the end of AMERICA, there *IS* an R at the end of CAR...oh, never mind.

As to the commission's decision on the Apple store...welcome to NW Trendy-Third. The city obsesses about that area while not giving a damn about most other areas of the city. Mayor Katz' influential friends made untold millions off of the city's investment in that area, while some other areas of Portland have unpaved streets and no sewer service. And you're whining because you can't have an Apple store a mile from the other Apple store? Cry me a freakin' river.
Anonymous Anonymous 7/15/2006 2:45 AM  
When Portland adds a new streetcar to the line down 23rd the new car will have to be built within the new Landmark Commission rules, and riders will have to disembark the modern streetcars and enter the commission's district appropriate cars before entering the National Historic District that is now 23rd.

Ladies wearing tiered dresses and carrying umbrellas and gentalmen in tophats, optional.
Anonymous kd 7/15/2006 1:12 PM  
You know what? All this time, thinking Apple is an awesome company (and they are), but I finally realized something. They've brainwashed us in their commercials, and now that those commercials have weared off, I'm gonna say FUCK apple. So what? They deserve that- I bought a $300 ipod Video from them, and it's so scratched up it's not even worth carrying around anymore. Honestly! So what? They have a glossy laptop. So what? They have cool, futuristic looking stores. SO WHAT?
Blogger Aerodyna 7/18/2006 8:56 AM  
I live at NW22nd and Everett and I was really looking forward to seeing this store built. After being suspicious of Apple for many years and not believing you could do anything serious on a Mac, I bought a G4 laptop & an iPod last year. I now have two (and soon to be three) Macs and the Windows machines live in the gutter on Everett St along with the rest of the winos.

The Portland LDC has been contradictory from the start on this. They seem to like the Dosha building which is extremely modern (and quite cool) and also allow chain stores to proliferate. Why do we need a Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma Home, Pottery Barn Bed & Bath (coming soon!), Kitchen Kaboodle and Rejuvenation Hardware all within a stone's throw of one another????

Perhaps it was the awnings- these can be incorporated at little aesthetic expense. But could it be that an Apple Store doesn't attract the coveted 18-24 female (paired with the 38-50 female mom) demographic? I enjoy the scenery in this regard, but I have seen plenty of this demographic in an Apple Store as well. I would love to know the "rest of the story" as Paul Harvey used to put it.
Blogger CapnEd 7/25/2006 6:13 PM  
Is that your car parked in front of the "future store" rendering? I thought you were going to walk?
Anonymous Anonymous 7/27/2006 2:37 PM  
Apple should build their new store at Cascade Station. The architecture fits more into their style and the eastside needs a store.
Anonymous Anonymous 11/27/2007 8:50 AM  
"...and now it's time for -- ANOTHER CARTOOOOON!"

Ramblin' Rod, whoa.

Were you a Smile Winner?
Blogger Curtis 8/06/2008 6:52 PM  

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Name:Cabel Maxfield Sasser
Job:Co-Founder, Panic Inc.
Location:Portland, OR