Next summer, only 10 scant months away, the gleaming new Ritz-Carlton hotel development is slated to open its doors in Portland’s West End: a high-end, high-stakes project that Mayor Ted Wheeler has made clear he sees as a linchpin to a depleted downtown’s hoped-for bounceback.
The opening also marks a deadline of sorts for the derelict, graffiti-pocked O’Bryant Square, which sits directly catty-corner from the Ritz, and will be clearly visible from the high-rise’s hotel rooms and luxury condos.
These days, O’Bryant Square—known by some as “Paranoid Park”—draws a regular pack of skateboarders who hop the fence; trash collects around its edges and tents periodically line its perimeter. A Smart Park garage sits below the park, a design that won awards for its innovation when it was first unveiled but was also the cause of the park’s demise when water damage to the garage from the rose-shaped fountain that sits at the park's center forced its closure in 2017. The park itself was fenced off not long after, in March 2018.
Ever since, city officials have waffled over what to do about O’Bryant Square; plans to demolish the parking garage and reactivate the park first surfaced three years ago, but so far haven’t come to fruition.
But now—with the Ritz opening looming—Dylan Rivera, a spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, says that $3.54 million has been set aside to begin demolition of the parking structure in 2023; an ordinance before city council that would formalize putting the demolition out to bid is forthcoming.
About $673,000 of that funding comes from parking revenue, $670,000 is from the city’s general fund, and the remaining funds are from onetime fees assessed on new developments by Portland Parks & Recreation, Rivera says. He did not outline a timeline for the start or completion of the work, saying it was too soon still to know.
The city had hoped for up to $5 million in funds for demolition and refurbishment at O’Bryant Square from federal economic development and tourism grants, but that money went elsewhere in the city of Portland, Rivera adds.
Still, once the garage is gone and structural stability concerns are resolved, the parks bureau plans to “activate O’Bryant Square with fun activities and programs, upon the completed parking garage demolition ... with the target of immediate implementation once the site is available after the PBOT work,” says Mark Ross, a spokesman for the Portland Parks & Recreation.
Randy Gragg, the executive director of the Portland Parks Foundation, says his nonprofit is working with the parks bureau on the future of O’Bryant Square.
“The Portland Parks Foundation is in discussions with Portland State University’s Center for Public Interest Design and has a grant out to a national entity to bring some experts to Portland to help think through how O’Bryant can best serve its very complicated and diverse surrounding constituencies, which include everything from the Ritz on one corner to Multnomah County’s new Behavioral Health Resource Center on the other,” Gragg says. “The goal is to get the plaza up and running around the time the Ritz opens. That is going to be more temporary activations, but it will help us figure out how the space will be used and who will use it and how the square can serve these radically different communities in a fun and meaningful way.”
O’Bryant Square did have a brief renaissance in the mid-2010s as the de facto dining room for the dearly departed food cart pod that used to line a square block between SW Alder and Washington Streets between Ninth and 10th Avenues. (Those food carts have since been displaced to make room for the construction of the Ritz; a relocated pod in the nearby Ankeny Square has had trouble gaining traction.)