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MILU Portland Working Party
May 9-12 2004
The Portland (Oregon) meeting of the IFHP’s MILU (Multifunctional and Intensive Land Use) working party held May 9-12, 2004 was the fifth and final meeting in a series of gatherings held at the invitation of a host city.
Portland’s Bureau of Planning hosted this meeting with additional sponsorship and support from Shiels, Obletz and Johnsen, SERA Architects and The Pochter Group.
The purpose of such MILU working party meetings is to investigate, as a group, both new and persistent urban problems as they relate to Multifunctional and Intensive Land Use, hence MILU. It is the working party’s intent that each meeting leave both participants and hosts with new insights as well as shared and learned experiences. It is highly desirable that each meeting provide the host city useful and practical suggestions on dealing with the problem cases discussed.
In order to facilitate these goals, the host city Portland identified two urban problem sites and assembled detailed information on them for the attendees to deliberate over.
To help the participants better understand the setting, the city’s planners and officials made relevant presentations about Portland and the problem cases.
DOWNLOAD THE FINAL REPORT:
PROJECT 1: Post office & Union station area
The Central Post Office/Union Station area blocks occupy 25 acres (8.4 Hectares) in an area that functions as a northward extension of Portland’s Downtown.
The area’s functions have been associated with transportation and distribution since the transcontinental railroad arrived in the late 1800’s.
Large institutional uses, low rents, a concentration of social services, limited street connections, as well as several under utilized parcels characterize the area.
The existing street pattern and current parcel sizes tend to isolate the area from its surroundings.
The Broadway Bridge and its two viaducts (Broadway and Lovejoy) are raised transportation corridors that help define this area. Only a single connection links the study area beneath these corridors to the outside.
Glisan Street, at the southern edge, is another primary vehicle corridor that provides access to the neighborhood from the eastern side of the river. An overhead pedestrian-only bridge immediately south of Union Station crosses the railway tracks, which form part of the study area’s eastern edge.
The Portland Transit Mall (a surface transit corridor serving the downtown) stretches 1.5 miles (2.4 Km) on Fifth and Sixth Avenues terminating at Union Station.
The presently bus dominated transit mall is due to see a new regional light rail (MAX - Metropolitan Area Express) transit line introduced on it. This addition is expected to become operational in 2009.
Group members began their observations by focusing on the five MILU areas of concern.
The common feeling is that the project site offers tremendous potential but lacks any significant positive identity.
The predominance of parking and vacant lots south of Union Station and the presence of the massive Post Office facility constrain the area’s current civic quality. Assisted by the moderators (Graham Clark and Phil Goff), the sub-group made several broad observations about the site:
- This area of downtown Portland lacks a center or sense of articulated place. Further, the NW Broadway movement corridor gives undue priority to auto movements. In its currently configured form, this movement pattern does not fully exploit the advantages of the multi-modal transportation links and potential around Union Station.
- Union Station and its clock tower are the area’s dominant landmarks suggesting new development should complement not diminish them.
- The area’s lack of housing and its role as a gateway for transportation contribute to its transient or transitional feeling. New multifunctional development will help diminish the current intermittent and episodic nature of street activity. Typically the area becomes alive only around the arrival or departure of a train. More consistent activity generated from appropriate uses would greatly help.
- Because the site is the gateway into downtown from the northeast, a dramatic gesture (architecture and/or urban form and use) would greatly enhance the civic quality of this area.
- Though the site lies between two areas of significant activity and expanding gentrification, its dominant identity (as serving transportation needs and as a primary postal facility) results in a feeling of isolation for anyone moving through the area.
- Because of nearby edges and barriers, links to the pedestrian system that connect to other parts of the city are unclear. There is great potential to improve these connections, especially to the Pearl District and the riverfront, both of which are closer than they feel when in the area.
- The identity of the area would be greatly enhanced if transportation facilities were better connected and related to public spaces around them.
- The area suffers from a lack of human scale due to empty lots within it, the lack of street-level retail, the absence of clear edges that define “outdoor rooms,” and very large building footprints.
- The single ownership of the US Post Office site and the Portland Development Commission controlled blocks (Y, U & R) to the east of Union Station are significant development opportunities.
Final Group Findings
Following the above effort and in keeping with the format typical for these meetings, the organizers then exchanged teams between the two study sites. The moderators for each project summarized the first group’s findings and asked each member of the second group to suggest additional recommendations and offer practical solutions.
While the second group affirmed the assessment of opportunities and constraints of the first group, they made some alternative suggestions for a desirable development strategy for the area.
Acknowledging that specifying replacement land uses for the Post Office was premature, along with the great opportunity to create a gateway into and out of the downtown core, the group proceeded to define a different approach:
- Enhance the area’s identity by improving access and connections to the Willamette River rather than through dominant architecture on the Post Office site. Such a connection could be physical and/or visual, such as an observation tower.
- If any work of prominent civic architecture is to be expressed at the end of the North Park Blocks axis, then a cultural center or opera house should be seriously considered. (Note: Neither group expressed any interest in the major league baseball stadium that is currently being studied for the site by the city and private baseball supporters.)
- Consider an additional pedestrian/bike connection either across or over the RR tracks where NW Hoyt Street terminates near the north end of 3rd Avenue.
- Consider relocating the Inter-city Greyhound Bus Station off the prominent block south of Union Station. Moving the bus storage and staging area to the land adjacent to, and underneath, the Lovejoy and Broadway Viaducts was recommended. Concurrent with that relocation, consolidating ticketing and waiting for both trains and inter-city buses within Union Station was encouraged.
- Screen out the visual effect of the Broadway viaduct by developing buildings adjacent to it with street-level active uses.
- Develop NW Johnson and Kearney streets, rather than Irving Street, as the prime pedestrian (and transit) connection from the Pearl District to Union Station.
- Make the historic structure of Union Station a more significant attraction by combining the train-bus consolidation with additional retail and cultural facilities (Union Station in Washington DC was considered a good example). Additional area could be added by extending the building out over the tracks. This could in turn also provide connections to the residential area to the northeast.
PROJECT 2: South auditorium district
The South Auditorium District is located at the southern end of downtown Portland within a larger area known as the Central City Plan District. Originally an urban renewal area totaling approximately 109 acres (44.1 hectares), the area is now regulated as a smaller Special District of approximately 79 acres (32 Hectares).
When initially developed the South Auditorium District was designed to prefer pedestrian, rather than vehicular circulation. Throughout the heart of the district a series of ‘pedestrian streets’ or malls connect, and are aligned with adjacent vehicular streets. There was also a general attempt to acknowledge the Portland’s 200’ by 200’ (61 by 61 meter) block size and pattern found throughout Central City.
Only three major streets bisect the district. One of these will include a new extension of the Portland Streetcar network now under construction. This streetcar line will link the district with Portland State University (PSU) towards the west and to the southeast with the emerging South Waterfront District, a new high-density, mixed-use district located along the Willamette River.
Considering the five key areas of concern, the group noted that despite the problem statement, the area’s open space framework remained strong and unique.
On the surface, the area did not appear to be suffering as much as was perceived by the city or property owners.
Assisted by the moderators (Troy Doss and Mark Raggett), several broad observations about the site were made:
- The South Auditorium District continues to have an excellent open-space network consisting of parks, plazas, pedestrian malls, and bikeways. The area is also unique as a well-established urban forest that maintains human scale among the tall towers located throughout the district.
- The district’s open-space elements and tree canopy need enhancements. Site furnishings and associated vegetation have not been well maintained.
- Some of the park elements are underused. Dated design and deteriorating quality suggest the need for an update.
- The district’s abundant housing and room for additional growth remain an advantage, especially due to its proximity to PSU and the Central City. However, poor connections and lack of amenities such as ground floor retail and play areas remain problems.
Final Group Findings
In keeping with the working party format, the first groups for each study area exchanged project sites. The moderators for each site summarized their first group findings and asked the second group to comment on work produced as well as suggest additional recommendations. These were intended to take the form of practical solutions that focused primarily on possible phasing of the improvements or redevelopment strategies.
Overwhelmingly, the second group emphasized that a Phase I project should focus on improvements, enhancements, and/or embellishments to the existing path and open-space framework. Additionally, it was recommended that Phase I include a Business Improvement District (BID), a funding plan, and/or an open-space management plan to augment public-sector dollars spent on improving the open spaces.
A parallel Phase I, or possible quick Phase II project was identified as a “Ground Floor Use Conversion Plan”, necessary to help transition existing parking uses at the ground level of many of the buildings to more active retail, office, or institutional uses. The second group also suggested that the “seeds” for the first group’s proposed Kindergarten – 8th Grade school (located within the district) be “sown” by at least Phase II, to provide the School Board with enough time to consider a potential Phase III implementation.
The second group recommended that the “big move” platform and/or buildings along the district’s eastern edge proposed by the first group be considered no earlier than Phase III. While there was skepticism expressed about the platform’s scale and feasibility, it was noted that the streetcar improvements should not preclude its future implementation. Regarding possible uses for the “big move,” it was decided that its functions should not be predetermined – there could be many possible functions of such a prominent development.
Given that this meeting was the last in its series, it is worth reiterating the recurring premise of all MILU working party study meetings (Oslo, Vienna, Gdynia and Portland) held since the group’s founding in Amsterdam (June 2000).
There are both inherent problems and advantages to examining development issues on short notice and within limited time. The problems, to name just a few, are the fear of missing important context, not understanding all the hidden agendas and marginalizing carefully managed planning processes.
The best response to these concerns is to remain clear on the reasons for pursuing outside analysis and critique. The advantages in doing so more than compensate the shortcomings. The ability to step back and look at projects from “outside the box” permits freedom from the collective weight of small details, prevailing bureaucracies, and the inevitable limitations of the local planning process. Often, such an approach also stimulates reinterpretation of the prevailing paradigm, resulting in renewed energy and excitement towards the development effort.
MILU working party meetings have all been held with this intent and spirit. The format of these group sessions is a deliberate attempt to stir up often stagnating efforts to generate new perspectives, confirm lingering doubts and suggest creative strategies to tackle tough issues. The deliberations in Portland reflected the shared extent of our common concerns. The large diversity of experience, culture and background of its participants only contributed to the maturity of perspective and quality of final recommendations.
Looking back, the five organizing issues that helped provide structure to the meeting deliberations served their purpose well.
Across different scales of development and context, each issue provides the basis for some very broad, but common approaches for both the Union Station/Post Office and South Auditorium project sites.
- IDENTITY – In the case of the Union Station/Post Office area, the primary focus should be to enhance the site’s existing identity by reconnecting it to its surrounding urban fabric to better reflect its visual, functional and historical relationships with the city. The persistent question should be what are the highest and best uses for sites in the area and how should these uses compliment the historic value and current opportunities. The South Auditorium District’s identity is best redefined through seeking higher and better uses of the areas developed resources and uses. These include an orientation that is residential, family oriented and one that uses the proximity to Portland State University to become a valuable and unique city enclave with an appropriate and unique physical character.
- CRITICAL MASS – Both sites need development programs that support better compatibility and capitalization of desired activity.
- CONNECTIONS – The Union Station/Post Office site should make a concerted effort to reconnect with the surrounding city grid and fabric but be strategic about how it does so (i.e. not all blocks need to follow the traditional city grid). The South Auditorium District needs to better reveal its existing interior spaces through better links. These links must filter access so as to retain the protected nature of the open spaces within. Both sites need to rationalize and improve internal and external circulation and links (vertical and horizontal).
- HUMAN SCALE – Provide a diversity of social and physical human scale relationships in both projects.
- PROMOTION & MARKETING – Promote the use and creation of functions and spaces that support desired identity and intensity of use.
To effectively implement these ideas and the more detailed suggestions in this report, it is important not to forget the larger framework within which planning occurs. A reassuring outcome of such meetings is how our personal experiences transcend culture and environment.
As with previous meetings, the re-occurring imperatives and cautions that emerged from the panel participants during the deliberations seemed to reinforce their significance:
- Be clear on your goals
- Be deliberate (focus on the long-term)
- Consider the spaces between uses
- Look for the good in the middle of the bad
- Planning before design development
- Don’t ignore or forget the context
- Be patient
The Portland MILU working party meetings were a valuable exercise for Portland.
Each participant was generous in his/her time, energy and willingness to share their considerable experience and knowledge.
It remains the city’s hope that these findings will spark further planning and development interest in, and focus on, these prominent sections of downtown Portland.