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A study by the American Institute of Architects, completed in 1983, recommended preservation and adaptive reuse of the district’s warehouses; these alternative uses included loft conversions. In 1984 Victoria Frey and Sheryl Snow, proprietors respectively of the galleries Quartersaw and BlackFish, moved to the area and opened studios there. In 1985 the city officially recognized the changes occurring and changed the zoning from strictly industrial (M2) to mixed use (MX).

In 1986 developers John Gray, Al Solheim, and Roger Paul began buying buildings in the district and converting them into offices and lofts. The first, the four-story brick Oregon Wool Grower’s Building at NW 13th and Johnson, became Downtown Self-Storage. The area was at first marketed as an “artist’s area,” but because rents started at 20 cents per square foot, double what similar spaces rented for elsewhere in the city, the tenants were more likely to be commercial artists, designers, and architects.

In 1987 about a dozen property owners banded together to form the Thirteenth Street Historic District, the first historic district created in Portland in a decade. The district was formed around the many early 20th century brick and concrete warehouses, and storage and manufacturing buildings on NW 13th Avenue. This National Register District designation provided low property taxes, an added incentive for home buyers, and perhaps influenced the city to pave some streets at this time. The loading docks, a distinguishing feature of the street, are retained and used as sidewalks.

The year 1987 also saw the first gallery walk which was organized by Victoria Frey and Sheryl Snow in co-operation with a sponsor, the Portland Brewing Company located on NW Flanders Street. On a September Saturday afternoon 70 artists opened their private studios to the public; music and food were provided as 5,000 people visited the area enjoying the novelty of locally produced art works. In the late 1980s as many as 150 artists lived and worked in the Pearl District.

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