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The Chabad Jewish Center is a splendid space and one deserving of your attention. But the Portland Jewish community's support of great architecture goes back well before the current Temple Beth Israel. Its predecessor Temple Beth Israel, which stood at 12th and Madison streets was designed in 1888, by Warren Williams, one of Portland's leading architects -- about 1/3 of the downtown buildings standing by 1890 were his designs. His delightful but sadly threatened Morris Marks House No 1, still surviving on 12th, once looked across the street to the Synagog he designed. That building's Moorish/Byzantine architecture and towering 165' tall spires made it one of Portland's most notable 19th Century buildings until its destruction by an arson-caused fire in 1923, leading to the construction 5 years later of the current landmark edifice.
Fred, excellent post. While small, the Rayworth House is a great symbol of a time with working class home buyers expected fine craftsmanship in their otherwise modest cottages, and when Portland provided thousands of jobs paying enough to buy those homes. One addition, though. I'd like to mention the early hue and cry raised by former Portland architectural historian Roy Roos. Roy is best known for his two authoritative books on Portland neighborhoods, the first on Irvington, and the second on the neighborhoods making up the original town of Albina, including Boise, Elliott, and parts of Piedmont among others. Roy's Albina book highlighted the Rayworth House, including it as one of the gems of the area in a color photo on its cover. When friends of his in the neighborhood told him of the land subdivision application and inevitable demolition of the house, Roy swung into action, firing off dozens of emails to everyone he could think of and penning articles for neighborhood publications. His efforts helped fire up the neighborhood and the ultimately well publicized and successful effort to save the house. Currently Roy lives in New York State just outside of New York City, and is involved in architectural preservation and history in his East Coast home, but continues to stay tuned to historic preservation issues in Portland. While his Irvington book has long been out of print and is now a collectors' item, his Albina book is available at local bookstores.
Thanks, Dan, for reminding us about Huxtable's trenchant insights into Portland way back then. Indeed, as you point out much has changed, with the city now notionally committed to becoming more pedestrian friendly in nearly all new development. Yet much remains to be done. The observation that much of Portland appears to be "bombed out" is still true. Sadly property owners in Skidmore/Old Town appear to be waiting for that distant future when they will have overthrown the National Historic District restrictions and will be able to build 40 story buildings on the sites of their surface parking lots. Political cowardice and distracted leadership have left un-approved the terrific proposed standards for rehabilitation and infill in that area, which could do as much for the revitalization of Portland's inner core as the developments in the Pearl have done -- and more human-scaled and pedestrian-friendly to boot. And other proposals for "opportunity sites" which would further erode the historic, economic, and functional value of the Historic District continue to be pressed as a way, depending on one's point of view, either to "jump start" the development of the area or to begin the process of de-listing as a Historic District so as to permit buildings of virtually any size to be built there. Evidently the battle for a livable Portland, even 40 years after Ada Louise Hustable wrote, must continue.
Just for the record, here’s some background information on the Historic Design Review case described by Fred Leeson in his blog entry. As it happens, I’m on the Irvington Historic Preservation Committee and was involved in preparing the appeal to the Landmarks Commission in this case, so I’m quite familiar with the situation. First, let me say that the Commission sent the case back to BDS for alteration of the design to resolve some specific concerns of architectural compatibility. Those concerns, in additional to concerns about the scale and massing of the addition were the basis of the ICA’s appeal. The applicant has revised the proposed design, and I’m confident that when the Commission re-hears the case later in September, the new design will be approved. Relative to the larger questions raised by this appeal and Mr. Leeson’s blog entry, this case was the first out of 50 Historic Design Review cases on Irvington properties to be appealed by the ICA. Many cases have gone through either with no comment from the ICA or favorable comment. In a small number of cases, concerns have been raised by the ICA Land Use Committee and/or by BDS staff, and a process of amicable discussion and review has resulted in design changes that made the applications approvable. In some instances, the ICA Committees have lobbied the City on behalf of the property owners to help clear away bureaucratic obstacles thrown up by City staff. Across these 50 prior cases and the dozen or so currently in process, several million dollars in new construction and remodeling investment has been undertaken. New, infill developments as well as substantial single family house expansions have been involved. A couple dozen architects and building design professionals have been involved in these projects, a number of whom are on their second or third projects in the District since it was created. While the new rules may take some getting used to, the players (including the ICA committees, the architects/designers, and property owners) are adapting and dozens of successful projects have been undertaken and continue to be proposed on an almost daily basis. In this specific case, a detailed review of the case by the ICA Land Use Committee was triggered by issues raised by neighbors of the subject property. When neighbors raise concerns about a Historic Design Review application, this typically results in much more scrutiny of designs by the Committee – as in one instance where 12 neighbors objected to a proposed design (not this case). That resulted in objections raised by the ICA shortly before the BDS staff issued an approval of the design. While the timing was unfortunate, it was unavoidable, and matters were further exacerbated by a City ruling on the case that raised issues of City Code interpretation and application which went contrary to our understanding of both the proper reading of the statutes and recent Landmarks Commission decisions. This led to an appeal by the ICA of the City’s ruling. It is not the goal of the ICA Land Use or Historic Preservation Committees to make the Historic Design Review process more difficult. In fact the goal is and has been all along to provide property owners as much information and support as possible to help them through the process successfully. To that end, the ICA has participated in the Coalition of Historic Neighborhoods which lobbied successfully for a City review of the process, resulting in the joint BDS/BPS “Code Improvement Project” currently under way. The ICA is working with its coalition partners to press the City to clarify and simplify the process in that review as much as the State of Oregon enabling legislation (the so-called Certified Local Government statute) permits, consistent with providing reasonable protections for the District. In fact the ICA has funded and will soon publish a guide to weatherizing windows in historic districts, compiled by Portland’s Architectural Heritage Center, in support of greater clarity on what is and is not OK in historic districts throughout our metro area. Further the ICA and its Coalition partners will continue to press the City to lower Historic Design Review fees, which, despite a recent modest reduction, continue to be the highest in the country. It is hoped that the simplified process coming from the “Code Improvement Project” will enable the BDS leadership to lower the fees on the streamlined processes to reflect the lower labor content in handling them – considering that BDS fees are expected to cover all of the Bureau’s review costs.
Brian, you are right on to bring up this issue. The City seems to be favoring car-less development while failing to recognize that such development requires substantial improvements in bicycle routes (such that us older folks can feel comfortable using them) and in mass transit for those who prefer it. In the absence of tying these developments together, you wind up with the result on Division and similar ones where I live in Irvington. Here we find new apartment construction that has no parking, but an estimated 40% of the residents own cars. Those cars then invariably are parked on the street in the surrounding single-family areas. So far the new apartment construction has been sufficiently limited in our area that we've been able to absorb the parking, but the City's nearly complete N/NE Quadrant plan calls for dramatic increases in high density housing along the Broadway/Weidler corridor (likely without much or any parking) without any estimates of the required increase in transit frequency (and costs to Trimet) to support it.
Alex is right about the McKim, Mead, and White connection -- Villard (who had strong New York connections) did hire them to design the hotel. They sent one of their staffers, a recent MIT grad named William Whidden, to Portland (and to Tacoma where another hotel was under construction) to manage the construction... but Villard ran out of money and Whidden returned to the east. In 1888 when William S. Ladd and other Portland financiers took over the project, the New York firm withdrew, having other more pressing projects. By this time, Whidden had moved to Portland and done a few designs here. Soon after his arrival here, he asked his fellow MIT grad and friend Ion Lewis to come to Portland to help with his projects. In 1889, the newly formed firm of Whidden & Lewis was given the job of completing the hotel more-or-less to the McKim, Mead, and White plans. The extent to which they actually followed the plans is not known, and we have to assume that with the passing of time, changes to the original program had to be made prior to the actual construction. The managers of the hotel subsequently pursued expansion plans twice in its history. The first time was in 1910, when they hired Portland architect Emil Schacht, who had just finished a major remodeling of the venerable Perkins Hotel (now demolished), to prepare designs. The plans were advanced enough for the hotel to publish postcards showing the expanded hotel in several different views. That design adhered closely to the original architectural vocabulary, but for whatever reasons was never built. Some years later, as Fred mentions, the owners hired A. E. Doyle to try the expansion idea again, and he created a design with a strongly classical revival tower as the new center element -- at best a rather odd juxtaposition with the Queen Anne style wings on either side. In the end, that expansion was not built either. Had either of them been built, one might speculate that the revenue-generating capacity of the building might have been enough to save it in the 1950's in the face of pressure for more parking facilities which ultimately resulted in the demolition of the building. More details of the Whidden & Lewis firm and their first years in Portland are covered in Richard Ritz's privately published book Architects of Oregon, available for sale at the Architectural Heritage Center.
It's interesting that neither of the two signature tall buildings featured so far in this series was designed by a Portland architect. It's even odder that this fact was not remarked by Mr. Maule, even though there was a large, highly talented group of local firms from which the owners for these buildings could have chosen. We'll likely never know why a Portland-based firm wasn't chosen for either of these buildings -- perhaps the cachet of the out-of-town firm was important to the owners to establish their sophistication ... In any event, even though the 12-story Wells Fargo Building was the tallest steel framed building in Portland when it was completed, it was not the first steel frame tall building in Portland. That distinction appears to be held by the building next door to the Yeon Building, the 8-story Swetland Building, for which the steel frame was already rising when the first permits were issued for the Wells Fargo structure. The Swetland Building is striking for its dramatic horizontal banding and absence of ornament, marking it as strongly influenced by the then-new Prairie School and the modernists of the Midwest. If anything, it was a radical departure from the Classical Revival style buildings that surrounded it -- not the least of which was the Yeon Building, built 5 years later, with its bold colonnade in the Ionic Order along its upper stories. Ultimately, most of the taller downtown buildings erected in the period from 1905 to 1915 were designed by Portland architects, including Whidden and Lewis, Emil Schacht (who designed the Swetland Building), and, of course A. E. Doyle whose stylistic conservatism locked Portland into the Classical Revival style for a generation.
A fine post... For those who wonder how this early skyscraper has managed to survive in our downtown and not be replaced by something bigger, the answer is that this is one of the largest of Portland's historic buildings subject to a Preservation Easement. A Preservation Easement is a State of Oregon recognized legal status that prevents the building from being demolished or its historic elements altered -- forever. It is voluntarily placed on a property by its owners who, in doing so, give up any rights to replace or redevelop it in perpetuity. The Historic Preservation League of Oregon is the official administrator of the program and has the job of monitoring buildings covered by the program and, if necessary, bringing legal action against owners who violate the terms of the Easement. It may be an apocryphal story, but I have heard that about 10 years ago the then-owner of the Wells Fargo Building offered the HPLO $1 million in cash if they would agree to terminate the Preservation Easement so as to replace it with a larger structure. At the time the HPLO could certainly have used the money, but their Board of Directors, rightly in my opinion, refused, and the Wells Fargo Building still proudly stands as our 104-year old first true skyscraper -- and will do so for many years into the future.
Relative to the comment that the current streetcar is a pedestrian enhancement to "get around the core two or three times as fast as walking"... Alas, with the relative low frequencies of the current streetcar operations, my Pearl-dwelling friends report that for trips into downtown or even to PSU, it is faster to walk unless there is a streetcar within sight of the stop. Every-5-minute frequencies may not be economically feasible today, but that kind of scheduling was what made the electric streetcar an essential part of early 20th Century urban transportation in the central core even in the early days of the automobile. The every-15-minute scheduling used today was used in historic times too, but only for streetcar transport from what were then outlying suburban areas like Mt. Tabor.
The original electric streetcars which helped shape the Portland metro area actually served until a more recent date than you suggest in your post. The first Portland electric lines opened in 1889, just a year after the very first U.S. electric trolleys went into service in Richmond, Virginia (Although the first successful European systems had started a few years earlier). When Portland began switching from horse, steam, and cable power in its public transport, there was already a fairly extensive system -- which was quickly replaced by the much more cost effective and practical electric cars. Portland's network of streetcars and electric interurban services became one of the most extensive in the nation by the 1920s. The last electric streetcars in that old system were discontinued in 1950: the last lines were the Willamette Heights, Council Crest, and 23rd Avenue cars. Contrary to popular assumptions that the riding public preferred modern buses, there was actually a strong protest movement attempting to force the transit company, to retain the electric cars. Then, as now, people preferred the more comfortable ride and predictable routing of the electric cars. In the end, the daunting costs of replacing 60-year old electric distribution infrastructure, plus the economic incentives offered by the bus-building division of General Motors, induced the transit operators to switch to diesel buses -- and thereby accelerate the decline in ridership resulting from increasing automobile use. As with the streetcars, the longer haul interurban electric cars suffered from government neglect, declining ridership, and aging equipment, and they stopped operating in 1958. So the preference of the riding public for electric streetcars versus buses is nothing new. Also not new is the greater flexibility of the diesel bus in the face of traffic congestion and street disruptions, in comparison with the rigid routing of the electric cars. It is true that electric streetcars were promoted heavily by real estate developers in the last years of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, suggesting a parallel with today's development driven streetcar construction in Portland. Still, 2011 is not 1911, and it is not at all clear that the tremendous construction along the current streetcar route would not have happened at all in the absence of the streetcar line. We will soon see the effect of modern streetcar development on a neighborhood more distant from downtown and hardly on the cusp of a major building boom as the MLK/Grand Avenue line goes into service next year. As one who generally favors more light rail and trolley transit where it makes economic sense, I find it hard to swallow the decision to press south to Lake Oswego with streetcar service. For all the reasons cited by the previous commenter, this route is highly problematic both in terms of distance, right of way, and projected operating speed. If a light-rail route could be constructed to Lake O., with its much higher operating speeds, the needs of commuters might be much better served -- but likely at a cost the community would never be willing to fund. Much more practical would be streetcar routes extending into Northeast and Southeast Portland along routes already supporting heavy bus traffic, which have long established "streetcar suburb" layouts resulting from those streetcar routes of 50 years ago.
High urban density is certainly a reasonable goal for much of Portland's downtown area, but there is no reason why the Central City has to be turned into monolithic blocks of 300 foot tall buildings. Indeed, the city's own Buildable Lands Inventory demonstrates vividly that all the growth in downtown office and residential capacity projected for many decades into the future can easily be handled by areas outside of the Historic Districts. And the example of New York illustrates that there is merit in having a variety of building heights across the central core. While New York may be a paragon of low intensity energy use, it is not exclusively because of its clusters of very tall skyscrapers. The average building height across the 5 boroughs is only 2-1/2 stories, and even Manhattan is comprised of large expanses of 4-5 story 19th and early 20th Century structures. The truth of the matter is that New York has a vast, almost fully electrified, system of subways and commuter rail routes that, depending on the metrics, is from 3 to 5 times larger and more heavily used than in any other U.S. city. While the density of office space in Mid-town Manhattan and Lower Manhattan contribute to the continued viability of New York's transit network, that network also provides vital transport across all 5 boroughs where density is much lower. If there is a lesson for Portland in this, it's that we need to press on with our light-rail and streetcar expansions while introducing electrified heavy rail commuter service along the I-5 corridor where the facilities permit and traffic justifies it. It is certainly true that lack of economic activity, especially in Skidmore/Old Town and China Town, is what makes those areas dull, but the culprit is obvious to anyone walking around those areas... vast surface parking lots do not a vibrant neighborhood make. What is needed is a combination of sensible infill that respects the many surviving historic buildings accompanied by sensitive rehabilitation (and seismic retrofits) of those not already rehabbed. Those actions are what are being impeded by a combination of inflexible seismic regulations and the perverse effects of high-rise zoning in Historic Districts. One doesn't need a whole lot of "evidence" to understand the economic effects of high-rise zoning in a Historic District where the design guidelines would otherwise restrict building height to 45 or 65 feet. The arithmetic is simple. You have bought property on the cheap 40 years go. It is used for a surface parking lot that earns a very handsome return on that long-ago investment. If you build to the 65' height limit now, you make $X when the building is sold to investors -- once the building is built, the costs of tearing it down to replace it with a true high-rise will be prohibitive for many years. If you hold out for some future time after the city has caved in and you can build a 300' tall building, you will have made dramatically more from the deal. From my comparisons of current land values inside the Historic District with those where high rises have been OK'd, I've estimated that the increment in market value of the land from "breaking" the Historic District guidelines for Skidmore/Old Town/China Town would total around $150 million to the small group of property owners involved. That is plenty of incentive to wait out the City, especially given the ongoing revenue stream from the surface parking lots. Remember, that the owners in question are not like most of us worrying about how to afford their next mortgage or rent payment. They have a decades-long view of their investments, and can easily imagine a future time when political sentiment or de-designation resulting from demolition by neglect make possible covering Skidmore/Old Town with 300' tall buildings.
The Jeld-Wen to 33rd Avenue route on Burnside would be a no-brainer if the transit planners could figure out how to maintain reasonable streetcar speeds on what is typically a heavily congested vehicular route during rush periods. The current approach to streetcar operations is to force it to battle with traffic and take its stop lights without any special priority -- unlike the light rail system. This is part of why streetcar route construction is considerably less costly than light rail. With that performance "hit" suffered by the streetcar, compounded by a fixed "guideway", i.e. the track, that limits its ability to maneuver around traffic problems and that added to its frequent stops, the modern streetcar is prone to the very problems that caused the extinction of the "trolley car" back in the 1950's: speeds that are too slow to be competitive with other modes. My friends who live in the Pearl and work in the PSU area tell me that they will take the streetcar to work if they see one coming when they get to the stop. Otherwise it is faster to walk to work! I'm not sure what the solution is. Would a two track bi-directional streetcar route on Couch with only local auto traffic permitted, plus coordinated traffic lights help? Very probably. Would that solve the congestion and livability problems on Burnside... probably not. p.s. Many east-siders have their own pet idea of what would be an east-west streetcar route no-brainer. My vote (selfishly) would be from the Broadway bridge along NE Broadway to the Hollywood Theater. Others would argue for Hawthorne, or Belmont/Morrison.
Brian, you make a lot of great points with this post and rightly address an issue that is both a matter for traffic engineers, but also for planners and advocates for livable city-scapes. One huge challenge here is the completely unique character of Burnside as it cuts across the central city. Only the Burnside Bridge provides a through arterial route from far out in the East Side straight across the River and then continuously over the West Hills. All the other bridges serve routes that die out in a tangle of streets or I-405 barriers (especially so now that the Broadway bridge extension onto Lovejoy has been strangled westbound by the street changes to accommodate the new streetcar.) As much as I'd like to see Burnside become the Portland equivalent of the Champs Elysee in Paris or the Unter Den Linden in Berlin, the fact is that it will never be wide enough to become that sort of grand boulevard and setting our sights on simple pleasures like a reasonable walking experience, and functional left turns seems much more practical. Eliminating parking on lower Burnside to enable turn lanes and more comfortable sidewalk widths could be a game changer for the street without delaying traffic flows or seriously impairing the customer access to Burnside businesses. West of the Park Blocks is more problematic as the narrower street already has been shorn of parking and the sidewalks are often scary with their narrow width and whizzing traffic. If anything, the couplet concept might be valuable in that stretch, but the awkward sideways lurch at the start and end of the couplet may not be worth it -- as the truck-obstructing and traffic tangling westbound couplet on East Burnside/Couch demonstrates daily. Ultimately, the city will have to address east/west flows not only of cars but also streetcar/light rail transit. The vision of the east/west streetcar on Burnside/Couch fills the bill in theory for the rail side, but offers little appeal when its 10mph traffic-clogged pace is considered despite the expenditure of nearly $100 million of our hard-earned money.
Mudd raises an interesting question relative to just what would it take to make use of the historic 9th Avenue docks, where the predecessor department stores received their merchandise deliveries for decades. The PBOT folks appear to have argued that getting trucks to turn into 9th from Alder would be too difficult. Certainly that would be true of the standard 53' van trailers that typically make chain store deliveries. But a 27' or 28' (both are standards) van could do it easily. The problem would be getting such a van around a turn on 9th Avenue into an inside dock. That was never done in historic times and actually needn't be done now. The solution would be a small fleet of 28' van units with side doors and a small modification of the existing 9th Avenue docks and the associated sidewalk to allow the vans to pull up alongside the building and unload from the side. While this type of equipment is not extremely common, it is offered by most of the major truck and van suppliers as an optional design for exactly this type of delivery. The fact is that the cost of two or three such special units would be a fraction of the total cost of the remodel required by Target, and the end result would be preservation of valuable window display space facing Alder. It would also free up interior space otherwise required for the interior unloading bays. Since deliveries to big box stores typically are done by closed systems from central distribution centers using contract or dedicated fleet carriers, the scheduling and dispatch of the equipment is completely in Target's control, and could likely be handled by their existing systems. If Target intends to be a player in central city urban retail, it will need to figure out how to operate in areas with narrow streets and awkward access by 53' van trailers. Inner city Philadelphia, Boston, Manhattan, and others come to mind. Portland is absolutely not unique in this regard.
Whatever the merits of the World Trade Center buildings (I, for one saw them as overbearing, inhumanly scaled, and utterly out of context in lower Manhattan), I must disagree with Brian's comment that Portland's building height limits are "provincial". Nothing could be farther from the truth. Cities and their body politic have a right to define the aesthetic that shapes what they will become. Building height conveys a message as well as serving the needs of structural economics. Indeed, many of the world's tallest buildings were driving to their heights by ego, not the accountant's pencil. Thus it shouldn't be a surprise that a great many cities have taken control of building height to preserve the sense of scale and proportion that their citizens regard as their essence. Most notable of those that comes to mind is Washington, DC, which established height limits in the late 19th Century after an apartment tower was constructed taller than the Capitol Building. The visual metaphor was not lost on Congress, and mammon was held in check symbolically, if not in practice, in the District of Columbia. European cities, of course, are not ashamed to sequester tall buildings where they can do little harm to their historic cores... Paris and Naples both come to mind in this regard. Portland has no need of becoming a Los Angeles, Houston, or Manhattan, for that matter, dominated by immense buildings which glorify their corporate creators and symbolize the conformity and commoditization of the thousands of subservient minions housed within. Let's be proud of our community's stand for a more human scaled and visually unified central urban core -- no apologies for "provincialism" need be forthcoming.
Brian, you're comments are right on. Indeed it isn't just a small band of design fanatics who oppose the bridge as currently conceived. Add in a substantial business contingent, the Northeast Coalition of Neighbors, representing the tens of thousands of residents along Portland's I-5 corridor affected by the project, and some of the region's smartest politicians. One has to wonder under what rock the Portland Business Journal has been hiding. There are so many things wrong with this CRC project it's hard to know where to start. But one thing is clear... the proponents of the bridge are attacking the advocates of a more attractive structure as a smoke-screen for the real issues. They can claim that the cable-stay proponents are frittering away money to make a $340 million bridge more expensive. By making that argument they isolate that one part of the CRC project to make it sound like a relatively modest amount of money, NOT the $3-5 BILLION that the entire project will actually cost (in the lowest of the estimates currently floating around). In the context of the larger project, the bridge itself represents about 10% or less of the total cost and the incremental cost of making it a grand design statement is around 1% or less of the total project! ("One percent for Art" anybody?) There are certainly many infrastructure issues along the I-5 corridor in the Portland metro area: The lack of a light rail crossing over the Columbia The age and limited capacity of the rail bridge between Vancouver, WA, and Portland Poor freight access to I-5 from the NW Industrial District Lloyd District traffic congestion Absence of a non-freeway route across the river for local traffic And many more Ask yourself just how many of these issues are addressed by the current plan, and you get a good sense how the current design is a triumph for the highway builders and contractors, and a disaster for the region.
The demolition of the "contributing" property in the Historic District to build the new Blanchet House is a stark example of the irrationality and city government indifference that seems to cripple the planning and development of this historic but fragile part of central Portland. Here we have the "white hats" squaring off over the expansion of the Blanchet House by tearing down a contributing structure while the other half of that block is completely empty save for some surface parking, and is owned by... the City of Portland itself! What is wrong with this picture? Yes, that other half block is leased to the NW Natural Gas Company (which the last time I looked was a public utility). But why didn't the City Council press the various agencies involved to sort this out, preserve the contributing structure and exploit the empty part of the block for Blanchet House needs? My only conclusion is that the Council members don't understand the importance of the District, don't give a fig for historic preservation, and are in thrall to the powerful developers who ultimately want to see the Historic District eliminated. More power to the Landmarks Commission and its Chair Art DeMuro for demanding at least some recognition by the architects of the siting of the new building in the Historic District. Still it's sad that the City Council didn't see fit to back its Landmarks Commission and force a solution that could have been a win-win for the City, and both sets of "white hats".
The frustrations with the Ankeny/Burnside plan are really a piece of the larger issue of how to promote appropriate development within all of the Skidmore/Oldtown and Chinatown Historic Districts. The "prescriptive" approach Mr. Kunowski refers to is the set of design guidelines which establish height and massing limits consistent with the existing buildings and which further encourage architecturally compatible designs alongside the existing structures. There is a perfectly good set of design guidelines paid for by City money and reviewed favorably by the City Landmarks Commission that is crystal clear on what is and is not allowed in the District. The preservation community had been told prior to that point that it was a lack of clarity and ambiguity in the old design guidelines which prevented development in the area. OK, so that got fixed. But rather than adopting the guidelines, the City proposed the idea of "opportunity sites" for the District. Simply put, the opportunity sites were to be major chunks of the Historic District where the rules would be suspended and the owners would be allowed to put up pretty much anything they wanted -- certainly much taller structures than what would otherwise be allowed. These "sites" Mr. Kunowski makes reference to in his post. The preservation community fought the concept of these "sites" and the city -- with its Mayor under an ethical cloud at the time -- pulled back and did nothing. Behind all the semantic fog -- "performance based" vs "prescriptive approach" -- is the simple fact that land owners in the District have been waging a quiet war for years to increase the value of their properties by forcing the city to back away from the accepted standards for new development in the Historic District. The key here is that it's property value not "multi-faceted visioning" that's at the core of the problem. One imagines that a "performance based" approach is just another way of saying that we need to break the District design guidelines to allow taller buildings. Back in 2010, I did a back of the envelope calculation comparing property values from Portland in these two Historic Districts with that just outside and came to the conclusion that the property owners in the District would enjoy roughly a $150 million increase in property values if they were allowed to build to the full height allowed in the "modern city" to the south. This financial incentive explains why they have been willing for something like 20 years to accept the returns from surface parking business rather than attempting to move forward with development under the current height and design rules. As the potential for profit from breaking the District rules gets greater with each passing year, there is never any incentive for immediate development under the current rules. Of course, if the owners at some point were to come to the simple conclusion that they will never be allowed to build a 150 or 250 foot tall building in the District, and they may as well maximize the value under the current guidelines, you'd see bulldozers ripping out the old parking lots the next day. Now, taking as a given (which I realize many readers of this blog will not) that Skidmore/Old Town is worth preserving, not just as a bunch of old buildings but as an urban ecosystem that thrives and encourages investment to fill in the many blank spaces, it can be argued that the very scale, size and massing of those old buildings must be an essential ingredient of that emerging ecosystem. In that context, the "opportunity sites" which would allow "transition" (read much bigger) buildings to be built in the District are the last thing we need. While the project that Mr. Kunowski describes appears to have many admirable elements, it would have been nice to hear a focus on working within the existing and well defined guidelines for new construction in the district rather than giving further encouragement to those who would eliminate or dramatically weaken them. It would have been even nicer to hear some reference to the possible re-use of the very large collection of cast iron building components salvaged during the great demolitions of the 1950's and 1960's. There is a tremendous opportunity to recreate some of the fabulous buildings so unwisely demolished using the actual, original materials from which they were constructed! The Architectural Heritage Center prepared a much-too-unheralded plan for reusing the salvaged cast iron during the summer of 2010. You can see details at While it may be too late for the U of O students to take it into consideration (if they even knew about it), I'd hope that the AHC's proposals will reach a wider audience as development in the District continues.
Brian, thanks for bringing to light the odd juxtaposition of massive government hand wringing over the I-5 Columbia River crossing compared to the virtual silence on the issue of rail freight and passenger service and its role in the transport of the region. Much has been made of the age of the I-5 bridge, the oldest parts of which date to 1917, and its vulnerability to earthquakes and age related deterioration. Nothing at all has been mentioned about the parallel railroad bridge used by BNSF and UP trains as well as Amtrak -- it was built in 1908! As the I-5 bridge project progresses, further stress will be placed on the capacity of the I-5 segments in central Portland, creating a need for freeway lane expansion and the resulting huge disruption to the surroundings in the much abused Rose Quarter district. Also impacted will be the current rail routes through that area, which likely will be called upon in the near future to handle more and faster passenger train service. Indeed, the long range ODOT plan has been for Portland's high-speed rail terminal to be built on the east side of the Willamette, avoiding the tortuous S-curve across the Steel Bridge and slow running through the industrial NW. That new terminal would necessarily occupy land near the Rose Quarter Transit Center. None of the potential impact of these developments on rail service has reached the public consciousness. (Although I understand that the NE Quadrant Study that is part of the Central City planning effort, currently under way, seems to be oriented to finding ways to expand I-5 capacity through the area. The study group advisory council does have a UP Railroad representative. I feel much better knowing that.) As to some of the previous comments on your post: - The 3-1/2 hours you spend on the Amtrak Cascades riding to Seattle will not drain your laptop battery... Every seat is equipped with an electrical outlet. Perhaps that's one reason why more than 3/4 million riders found a "justification" for riding them in the last 12 months. - Yes, the Economist did carry an article nonsensically lamenting the impending destruction of the US rail freight network by higher speed rail. Note it was higher speed, not real HSR that they claimed was the problem. Real HSR runs on dedicated tracks and will not affect the rail freight network. The article in question actually was an error-filled regurgitation of press releases and background material from the Association of American Railroads that was, at the time, waging political war against the Federal Railroad Administration, which had promulgated truly awful proposed regulations for the operation of "higher speed" rail passenger service on freight railroad tracks. Those proposed regs have since been rescinded. Still the key point of the article, that passenger train operations up to 110 mph on freight tracks would cripple the US rail freight system, was laughable. US railroads operated passenger trains at speeds over 100 mph routinely until government regulations limited most tracks to 79 mph in the 1950s. Some of the highest freight volume routes in the country also carried 20 to 30 very fast passenger trains as well. In the current era when rail capacity planning has been elevated to a high art using advanced computer tools, there is no reason that our rail passenger service can't be upgraded massively while at the same time enabling dramatic improvements to our rail freight system as well with properly targeted infrastructure investments.
It's exciting to see cutting edge architecture make some inroads into the world of mass production housing development. Today's housing tracts tend to embody the worst of faux traditional styling with the worst of mass produced materials and cookie-cutter, AutoCad-induced monotony of design. Still, as you point out, it wasn't always such. But while you point to the ranch style era as the 20th Century's most notable period when vernacular housing adopted elements of cutting edge design, the key breakthroughs represented by the Ranch Style home actually arrived in the architecturally exciting era of the Craftsman Style 30 years previously. In the first 15 years of the 20th Century, middle class Americans were searching for a new residential architecture that accommodated the enormous technology-driven lifestyle changes that were sweeping the country. The automobile, telephone, electric streetcar, electric appliances, and a host of other devices were transforming the way the middle class lived and worked... and the Victorian style houses of a previous generation were hopeless inadequate for the new age. The pages of the "shelter" magazines of the day like The Craftsman and Ladies Home Journal were filled with articles by leading architects advocating for one or another concept of modern design. From this era sprang the elimination of the formal entry hall, the introduction of the "open plan" of interiors where living room, dining room, and sometimes kitchens flowed from one to the other with minimal barriers, and an emphasis on merging indoor and outdoor spaces. These concepts were embraced eagerly by buyers who snapped up "ultra-modern" bungalows by the thousands all across Portland's east side as developers quickly embraced this "modern architecture" and adapted it for cost-conscious buyers. Today, as we are surrounded by tens of thousands of Craftsman Style bungalows in Portland, their shear ubiquity blinds us to how revolutionary the embrace of modern architecture in that era really was. Some writers of the day railed against the vulgarity and cheapness of these new home styles and their rejection of "proper" Victorian and Colonial residential designs. More traditionally minded architects lamented the public's distraction by contemporary styles. Regardless of these critics, Portland's new home builders went from constructing 80% of their homes in Colonial and late Victorian Styles in 1904 to nearly 80% in Craftsman Styles and other versions of "Progressive Architecture" by 1910... a phenomenally rapid shift in adoption of a brand new architectural idiom. Would that such an adventurous embrace of modern design might appear among modern home buyers. Perhaps it will if our society can somehow recapture that boundless faith in "progress" and "the modern" that encouraged those thousands of early 20th Century Portland home buyers to overthrow the dead hand of "traditional architecture".
Hawken makes a great point that to really achieve progress in energy conservation we have to concentrate on improving the existing building stock. But while he's right in pointing out "we don't really need that many new buildings" to convert entirely to low-consumption technologies, he fails to note that destroying existing buildings to replace them with new, wastes an enormous amount of embodied energy and consumes still more in the production of materials to build anew -- often with the result that the energy savings payback is negligible. The "greenest" building is one that doesn't need to be torn down and replaced. I must disagree with an important point buried in the interview, however. That is his assumption that windows must be replaced in order to achieve greater energy efficiency. In some instances that may be true. 1970's aluminum windows with single pane glass tend to be very energy inefficient because of the heat loss through the aluminum and the rarity of any kind of "storm window" accessories. On the other hand, traditional wood windows typically found in buildings built prior to 1950, can be made to be highly energy efficient when properly maintained and rehabilitated -- without the great energy waste of replacement with new materials. Unfortunately many home owners are unaware of this, and waste both money and energy in replacing perfectly good wood windows -- and at the same time losing a lot of the historic and aesthetic character of their homes. Portland has, at conservative estimate, over 60,000 homes built prior to World War II -- a great many of which are in need of window rehabilitation -- not replacement. This is a big deal in this city. Recent programs by the Architectural Heritage Center and others have focused on the many, currently available technologies and approaches to achieve energy efficient rehabilitation of wood windows. It would be great if in some future post you might cover this important contribution to a Greener Portland.
Jim Heuer is now following The Typepad Team
Oct 16, 2010