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Portland central city plans: past, present, future

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Do you remember what you were doing on March 24, 1988? I was a 10th grader at the time, counting the days until I could get my driver's license and speed recklessly through McMinnville, and reading Cliff's Notes of literary classics for English class. But here in Portland, that day saw the release of the Central City Plan (pictured at left).

In other words, it's been more than 20 years since Portland, that much hailed bastion of planning, has updated its plans for the greater downtown core.

But fear not: We won't be sliding back into Dallas or Atlanta-like tendencies just yet. The city is currently at work on a new Portland Plan. A citizens advisory committee is expected to begin work in September, with completion in 2010. There are also intra-neighborhood plans like the North Pearl District Plan, which for example could see that area near the base of the Fremont Bridge go considerably taller. (Which makes sense.)

The last Central City Plan in 1988 was largely an expansion of the 1972 plan, which created high density office and retail cores downtown as well as the Transit Mall along 5th and 6th Avenues. The 1988 plan focused on greater connections with the river and expanded the notion of the central city to the south and east. The '88 plan also emphasized introducing housing to the urban core.

In an interview published earlier this month in The Oregonian by Stephen Beaven, Steve Iwata of the Planning Bureau said the goal this time around is to bring more jobs to the central core neighborhoods. "I think we've done pretty well on the housing side," he said, "But job creation, that's a significant challenge."

I'd amend that thought just slightly: We need more job creation in the northern part of the central city, particularly the Pearl District. There are already numerous office spaces under construction there. But we still need lots more housing in the traditional part of downtown and in Old Town. That's the only way we can get downtown to stop feeling dead on evenings and weekends, or overrun with vagrancy. This phenomenon has improved measurably in the central core over the last 20 years, but there is still a long way to go.

How would the rest of you like to see the new Portland Plan for the central core put together?

Arun Jain, chief urban design strategist for the city, has with his staff created several studies of past Portland planning efforts, such as those involving famed New York freeway builder/neighborhood destroyer Robert Moses, and earlier plans involving the famous Olmstead Olmsted brothers of Central Park fame. (The plan at right is from 1897.) Jain, who I also interviewed in June for Design Within Reach's 'Designs on Portland' discussion series, has also scoured the globe for cities whose topography, street grids, relationship with bodies of water and other factors either resemble Portland or provide a historic case study: Barcelona, Savannah (Georgia), Glassgow Glasgow, Edinburgh, Philadelphia and Kyoto.


Of the street grid examples, "Each city uses its grid differently," Jain says. " Some follow it rigidly (Philadelphia, Barcelona, Savannah) whereas others manipulate it for emphasis (Kyoto, Edinburgh, Glasgow).  Philadelphia and Barcelona have disturbed the monotony of their grids through powerful diagonals but Savannah deliberately enhances its character through repetition and extension of the historic grid."


"In contrast, Kyoto plays with its grid by combining or further sub-dividing it to satisfy changing function and need. Kyoto also overcomes monotony through a height strategy that allows only temples and prominent structures to dominate.."


Regarding topographical factors, Jain says, "Cities with the strongest natural forms have a natural advantage in framing and defining their urban form.  Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Kyoto have capitalized on their assets by deliberately limiting development on surrounding hills, preserving only large historic monuments and allowing only few prominent institutions and outlooks."


Each city’s relationship with water varies, too. Proximity to water frames and contains the urban cores of Philadelphia and Kyoto, while Barcelona and Savannah have water as an edge, and Glasgow and Edinburgh embrace both sides of their river.

Then there is the character and identity, something as important to Portland as its architecture. "Barcelona pursues its agenda of social equity in terms how art and design are expressed in the city," Jain says. "Glasgow has chosen to leave industrial artifacts to retain historic memory and character and reinvent itself as a cultural and youth-oriented city.  Edinburgh has strict design guidelines to retain historic character and ambiance while using monuments and icons to pursue the creative city and promote innovation.  Kyoto encourages preservation and restoration of the traditional Machs building form.  Savannah has adopted a strategy to createa city of parks.  Philadelphia has used a mix of traditional historic inheritances and reuse of existing infrastructure to continue its evolution."


What do these comparisons mean? They provide a template, or a guide, for how we go forward with issues like establishing more creative and recurring uses of Portland’s grid, creating better waterfront relationships to and across each river bank, promoting civic functions and events to strategically activate street life, and enhancing existing assets (such as bridges) through lighting and design. If we don't, we could end up with a freeway-strewn city like Moses planned in this map.


At the same time, planning can only do so much. It's the private sector who mostly fills out the city. That said, Jain is right that we ought not to plan in a vacuum. We don't want Portland to be any other city, but some of them have been at it a lot longer than us.


Meanwhile, there is also an upcoming series of evening lectures as part of Riverfest that will feature a variety of speakers who will discuss Willamette River's role - past, present, and future -- in shaping the city we live in. The lectures will be held September 2, 3, 4 and 5 from 7:00pm - 9:00pm at the former McCall's restaurant at 1020 SW Naito Parkway. The series is officially called "The Lower Willamette Group/Port of Portland Willamette Chautauqua". Just don't try to say it five times fast.

by Brian Libby, 2008

Published with permission of Portland Architecture

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