Take 3

A Missing Park Block Returned

Three different viewpoints on the final chapter of downtown’s longest-running saga

By Randy Gragg October 29, 2009

Soon to be completed (and maybe even named), Park Block 5 at SW Park and Yamhill will set new precedents for the design of downtown streets and the treatment of rainwater. See “Design Notes” (below) for park highlights.

THE NEXT TIME you feel like whining about how long it takes the City of Portland to get anything done, consider the new plaza being built at the corner of SW Park and Yamhill for some calendar recalibration. Most city decisions take months or years to implement. Park Block 5 has taken decades—16, to be exact.

Landowner Daniel Lownsdale first platted the property in 1848 as one of 11 narrow park blocks, hoping to create a ribbon of green through the future metropolis. Lownsdale’s heirs, however, had different plans for the land and challenged his gift in court. They won six of the blocks back from the city, including the soon-to-be-fabled Park Block 5.

City plans in both 1903 and 1912 proposed reclaiming all 11 of Lownsdale’s blocks ?as open space, but developers built six hotels and two office buildings on them instead. Park Block 5 remained empty until the automobile arrived and “park” became a verb. Portland’s 1972 Downtown Plan reaffirmed civic hopes for a return to the green and grassy kind of “park,” but soon after, an International House of Pancakes rose at one corner of the block. It wasn’t until 1995 that the land began its unlikely journey to true parkdom; ironically, the process was set in motion when Park Block 5’s longtime owners, the Goodman family, decided it would be a fine spot for a 12-story parking garage.

The Goodmans’ proposal met with such a frenzy of public and political blowback that nearly all six of the missing park blocks were reclaimed—only with the hope of turning them into a giant downtown shopping mall (go to the next page “Seed of a New Park” for a quick tour of that controversy). But all’s well that ends well. What’s now taking shape blends elements of all the historic ideas for Park Block 5: The new park sits atop 678 parking spaces. The streets bordering the missing park blocks are slated to become curbless expanses of granite, which will create a unique retail district. Dotted with rainwater-cleansing planters, the revamped streets also can be easily blocked off from cars for downtown festivals.

The park was designed by an all-star cast that includes landscape architects Laurie Olin, based in Philadelphia, and Portland’s Carol Mayer-Reed; Robert Thompson of TVA Architects; ZGF Architects; and local artist Tad Savinar. It will feature a small restaurant, downtown’s 16th fountain, and its first large-scale outdoor canopy. Perhaps most important, Park Block 5 (likely to be named for a still-unrevealed donor) will create new open space in what will soon be the city’s most densely developed district. All in all, a perfect subject for Take 3, Spaces’ quick ?critique of architecture.

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The Critics Respond

MICHAEL MCCULLOCH is a Portland architect who just finished an 11-year stint on the Portland Design Commission. Notable projects include the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center, the Audubon Society’s Portland headquarters, and various buildings at OHSU.

ROBERT PERRON has worked in Portland for more than four decades, designing landscapes ranging from Salmon Street Springs Fountain to O’Bryant Square. He is currently master-planning major resorts in China.

The park as historic precedent:

MM The trade-off of private development funding public space is great. The city doesn’t have the power, money, or will to just create new public space. So this is a good precedent: If you’re going to build in our sky, give us something on the ground. It’s also a great rethinking of the park blocks pattern: not just open space filled with elm trees and pigeons.

RP One of the great things about downtown Portland is those park blocks. The farmers market is one of the best things we have. I advocated for linking all of the Park Blocks. I doubted the land could be assembled, but I always take the 100-year view—at a minimum. You get what you get.

The overall design:

MM Laurie Olin is the nation’s premier maker of spaces like this. But it’s a diagram of Portland’s insecurity. Without the pavilion and fountain, festivals and other functions would have more freedom to develop. Every Italian town has one of those spaces. I wish the city was confident enough in its culture to just let stuff happen in that space. The Italians are totally comfortable with that kind of spontaneity.

RP I would have made the park more green. It’s important for the continuity with the other park blocks. The more downtown builds up with density, the more important those green blocks become.

The pavilion, canopy, and fountain:

MM Portland Parks and Recreation felt absolutely compelled to put a restaurant pavilion in this park. Pioneer Square’s pavilion struggled until Starbucks came in. To me, it’s questionable that a private company should so dominate public space. The image, ownership, and brand of the pavilion will affect the park. But if you accept that the pavilion has to be there, the canopy and pavilion work nicely together. The upper southwest corner is a natural overlook. How they are dealing with rainwater is smart. You can turn the fountain off, which I like, but I’m less convinced when it’s on.

RP What makes great public spaces exciting is not the way they are designed but the randomness of the way people use them. Let them move the furniture around. That way, there can be a thousand people there, but you can still make a place to read the newspaper in private. The canopy gives the park a sense of intimacy. Otherwise, it would be defined only by the buildings around it. I don’t think we needed another fountain. This space is pretty filled up. If some kids want to play Hacky Sack, there’s no place for them to run without running into something. If you’re going to have water, make a water wall to muffle all the traffic.

The use of star designers:

MM That so many parks have been designed by outsiders is an interesting contrast to the vertical city, which is designed almost exclusively by locals. I think it’s insecurity: Let’s go out and find the biggest name to help us. At some point, the culture’s continuity is probably understood and worked out in the long term by local people.

RP I got my start in Portland by partnering with big-name designers Robert Royston and Hideo Sasaki. I learned a lot and the city got more than they would have from just me. It’s a good way to enliven the conversation and fertilize the spirit here. But to do it with every major commission is a mistake.

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