Signs of change: Portland tech startups stake their claim to downtown's skyline – OregonLive.com
By Mike Rogoway & Elliot Njus | The Oregonian/OregonLive
Lean back and look up next time you stroll through downtown Portland. Newcomers are putting their mark on the city’s high rises.
The logo of digital-archiving company Smarsh peeks out from between two buildings overlooking Pioneer Courthouse Square. Video-encoding specialist Elemental Technologies’ name beams over Broadway. App maker Panic has a multicolored sign along West Burnside.
Soon, Puppet Labs’ name will glow prominently along the Willamette River and eBay’s colorful lettering will light up a building near Portland State University.
The branding of downtown accompanies a shift in Oregon’s tech economy from suburban office parks to Portland’s core. Software companies — unlike the law firms, accountants and other professional services that eat up the lion’s share of downtown office space — are anxious to get their name out among would-be employees and are puffing up to look good for prospective clients.
In the process, they’re subtly changing the look of the city.
Brian Libby, who edits the Portland Architecture blog, used to worry about too many signs and lights cluttering downtown. He testified at one point against former city Commissioner Randy Leonard’s plan to put a neon flower atop the waterfront Rose Building.
“In retrospect, I kind of feel I was wrong about that,” Libby said.
The neon rose turned out to be relatively modest, he said, and adds to downtown’s ambiance rather than detracts from it. Libby said he feels the same way about the proliferation of signs on downtown office towers.
“Sometimes when a city has a few more lights it can be a good thing and add to the energy and feel at night walking around,” he said. “Maybe the signs are in some way helpful in spreading the word of the transformation of the downtown core.”
Portland’s tech companies rarely compete head-to-head for customers. They occupy narrow niches, from social networking tools to data center management.
There is fierce competition, though, for tech-savvy employees. And companies want to get their names out any way they can.
San Francisco-based New Relic, which has its engineering office in downtown Portland, put a billboard up last year at the west end of the Morrison Bridge. The sign advertised New Relic’s website-monitoring service, but New Relic is a global company with few clients in Oregon. Its real target was prospective employees.
With the same target in mind, eBay said last fall it wanted a sign on its building at the south end of downtown to help raise awareness of its Portland outpost, which is focused on mobile development. Successful recruitment, the company’s local managers say, is key to convincing executives in California to authorize further expansion in Oregon.
For landlords, signage rights aren’t major moneymaker in Portland, but they can be one more way to lure a prospective tenant.
“When tenants get to a certain size, it just makes sense to include it when you’re negotiating a lease agreement,” said Scott Andrews, president of the real estate firm Melvin Mark. “It basically costs them nothing.”
Melvin Mark owns the Fifth Avenue Building, where eBay is hanging its sign. It also owns Crown Plaza, where The Oregonian/OregonLive relocated (and put up its logo) last year.
A sign was part of the deal when Smarsh moved into three floors of a building on Southwest Sixth Avenue last fall.
“It definitely helps with the company’s image, probably more with clients coming into town,” said Smarsh chief executive Stephen Marsh, noting his company’s new sign is visible from The Nines hotel across Pioneer Courthouse Square from the new office.
In another era, fast-growing tech companies tended to set up shop in Portland’s suburbs.
Drivers headed through Wilsonville saw InFocus’ name along Interstate 5, and those coming into Portland from the coast passed by buildings with the names Credence, Sage Software and ESI.
As Portland’s tech economy has shifted from hardware to software, though, companies haven’t needed big campuses to manufacture products. A desk and a laptop is all it takes.
So tech has migrated downtown toward mass transit, food carts and other urban amenities. Zapproved, one of the few prominent Oregon startups outside Portland, announced this winter that it will move downtown to aid recruiting as it works to add 50 new employees.
Having a downtown location helps attract skilled workers, Marsh said, and having a sign helps a company get its name out.
“One of the things we routinely heard from our employees — and even our prospective employees — was they liked the downtown location,” Marsh said. “It is a competitive market, and being downtown helps.”
Portland’s central city has long had its share of eye-catching signs like the “Portland, Oregon” sign (formerly “Made in Oregon”) in Old Town.
But when it comes to new signs, the city strictly polices size and brightness. Any sign larger than 32 square feet goes through a subjective design-review process, and signs larger than 75 square feet are rarely approved.
“A city full of ‘Montgomery Park’ signs or a city full of ‘Portland, Oregon’ signs might change the entity of Portland a little bit,” said Tim Heron, a planner with the city’s development bureau. “We really want our skyline to be defined by good architecture.”
Update: The headline on the story has been changed to reflect that established companies such as eBay, in addition to startups, are putting up signs.
— Mike Rogoway and Elliot Njus