A rendering of Snøhetta's concept for a large-scale public market at the west end of the Morrison bridge. Image courtesy the James Beard Public Market

Where some people see a series of parking lots and bridge ramps stretching the length of more than two football fields, Craig Dykers of the Oslo-based architecture firm Snohetta sees the “potential of beautiful shapes.” Unveiling the first concept sketches for the James Beard Public Market on Wednesday, Dykers conceded the proposed site beneath the Morrison Bridge was “counterintuitive.” But he offered up a vision of a food paradise of “medieval streets” lined with small eateries and food stalls beneath 30-foot-high spaces vaulted by steel trusses echoing the bridge’s structure. A “wing-like” roof would rise at each end while swooping beneath the bridge.

Oh, and atop the market, two towers, 20 stories high, rising “like sails” on each side of the bridge.

A rendering of the market's interior. Image courtesy James Beard Public Market

The images Snohetta produced are breathtaking. The basic scheme, which would front SW Naito Parkway with 650 feet of continuous storefronts featuring fresh food, would be transformative to the loneliest stretch of Waterfront Park.

Of the more than five proposals floated for the market over the last decade, Snohetta’s is the most ambitious yet. Atop the market, Snohetta has conceptualized two housing towers rising more than 20 floors. Thus, if the entire market scheme were to be realized, it would stand among such large urban redevelopments as the Brewery Blocks of the early 2000s and the Lloyd District’s Hassalo on Eighth currently underway.

Now the question is: can it be realized?

The market’s latest proposed location is part of a larger land deal. Melvin Mark Development Company is in the process of buying the 3.25-acres site for $10.4 million from Multnomah County (closing date December, 2015). Their proposal: a 17-story office tower between SW Morrison, Washington, First and Second with the market stretching beneath and between the western ramps of the Morrison Bridge. But since the initial agreement with the county was forged in 2012, the city has raised the office tower site’s height limit to 350 and the market blocks’ to 250 feet, and Mayor Charlie Hales is leading a charge to redo two of the bridge’s ramps to make the site more accessible.

“The opportunity to fully developed the site, changed our thinking,” says the Beard market initiative’s founder, Ron Paul. “We have have expanded footprint and height. The value of the above-market real estate can defray the public cost of building the market.”

Paul concedes it “changes the timetable” of the market’s hoped-for 2018 opening date.

As with much of Snohetta’s work, the scheme blends elegant solutions to gnarly problems like truckloading and breaking up what would be something of a 650-foot grocery aisle with dynamic, fluid spaces that prize social interaction and sensual awareness of light, air, and materials. Over what often can be the disorienting chaos of a market floor would be a calming, recycled wood ceiling following the main corridor between the stalls. Even the truck entrances have been carefully integrated into pedestrian circulation and the architecture to avoid the ubiquitous roll-up garage doors that so often mar the experience of the sidewalk. The two towers—which Dykers cautions are purely conceptual studies at this point—lean in and out to allow the inhabitants of each to see the river while creating individually unique reflections off their faceted forms to those driving or walking by.

Snohetta has been widely celebrated for its designs of the Great Library of Alexandria, the Olso Opera House, and the 9/11 Memorial. The firm’s redo of New York’s Times Square is underway. But Snohetta’s involvement portended a more certain future for the Beard Market, the ambition of the new proposal suggest only time will tell. Combined with Melvin Mark’s proposed office tower, the redevelopment would stand among the downtown’s largest in the last 25 years with such projects as Pioneer Place of the early ‘90s or five-block Brewery Blocks of the last decade.

The site plan of Snøhetta's market proposal.

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