Sunday, December 27, 2020

End of the Burnside Bridge?


When the inevitable Cascadian subduction zone earthquake -- the Big One -- hits Portland someday, engineers say 40 of the 44 bridge lanes that connect the east and west sides of the Willamette River will collapse or be unusable for the near future.

 And while two lanes of the Sellwood Bridge are expected to survive the quake, landslides on Highway 43 south of Portland may prevent vehicles from entering or leaving the West Side.  Tillikum Crossing’s two lanes were never intended for auto or truck traffic.

 Thus the Burnside Bridge has been designated to be the “east-west lifeline route,” and Multnomah County has been planning for a couple years on how to prepare that bridge for a major quake.  If you want to see a scary video simulating a collapse in a major quake, click here:

 The tentative conclusion is to build a “long-span” replacement bridge that would extend from West 2nd Avenue across the river to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The estimated cost is $825 million for a project to be completed in the late 2020s.

 In short, the Burnside Bridge that has served since 1926 with its twin bascules would be toast.

 Or would it?  John Czarnecki, a preservation-oriented architect and former chair of the Portland Landmarks Commission, contends that another option, enhancing the current Burnside Bridge, was dismissed prematurely.

 During an informational meeting before the Portland Design Commission in December, Czarnecki called the bridge one of the city’s “best celebrated public works,” deserving of appreciation and preservation.  “There is a simplicity and modesty of this bridge that will be lost.”  He added, “Please, let’s take a careful look at what we’re losing…and what we have the opportunity to maintain.”

Designing a bridge to run through the heart of a major city is a complicated task.  Designers and engineers are concerned about obstruction of city views, accessibility under the west end of the bridge, maintaining a safe crossing above the I-5 freeway and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks on the east side.

 “There is a whole smattering of different options we are looking at,” said Steve Drahota, a consultant with the HDR engineering and planning firm that is part of the county’s planning team.    

The long-span proposal that is the leading option so far would move structural elements above the roadway, as opposed to the structure that now sits below the Burnside deck.  How bulky and how the structure is shaped will affect the views of the city by passengers travelling either direction.

 The two primary structural types are tied arches that look like small versions of the Fremont Bridge, and a cable-stayed structure that would be a larger version of Tillicum Crossing.  Advantages of these long-span options include reduced structural elements in Waterfront Park and completely spanning the squishy ground that historically was a marshland on the river’s east bank.  The long-span approach also would protect the Interstate-5 freeway and Union Pacific’s railroad tracks.

Possible tied-arch option (Multnomah County)

 Since the bridge must continue to accommodate river traffic, it needs to be provided with a center lift span or a version of the current bascules that lift the movable sections by use of counterweights below the bridge deck.  The center lift system would require two bulky towers near the river’s center, substantially adding to the visual clutter.

 Czarnecki believes not enough attention was given to enhancing the current bridge.  While such an enhancement is predicted to cost 8 to 10 percent than a new long-span bridge, he believes the potential long-term benefits, including the historic design of the current bridge, are worth it over the long run.

 Enhancing the current bridge presents its own problems, however.  Additional supports would be needed on both ends, presenting more obstacles in Waterfront Park on the west and eliminating the skateboard park on the east.  The squishy ground on the east bank, which amplifies ground movement in earthquakes, conceivably could leave even the enhanced bridge subject to serious damage.

 A potentially new option raised in the Design Commission hearing would be retrofitting and saving the existing bascules and historic appearance while adding long-span designs on the east and west ends.  If feasible, however, this option might preclude the possibility of widening the entire bridge by 20 feet, as currently envisioned in the long-span approach.

The Design Commission expects to hear an update on potential bridge designs in the next couple months.  More information on the project is available at:

Sunday, December 20, 2020

What's next for Lloyd Center?


What traditionally is the busiest season of the year for retailers likely will be the death rattle for the Lloyd Center, the huge shopping mall in Northeast Portland with 1.3 million square feet of retail, office and restaurant space.

Macy’s, the primary retail “magnet” at the mall’s most desirous location, will close Jan. 1.  The few shoppers showing up this holiday season are greeted by glaring yellow signs offering the sale of store fixtures, along with all other retail inventory.  Likewise, the GAP is closing its Lloyd Center location.  Gossip from the mall suggests that several others are likely not going to renew their leases in January.

Many of the mall’s small retail shops are already vacant, while those that remain are struggling, at best. Blame it on COVID-19, or the changing habits of retail shoppers, or some combination.  But reality is reality.  At age 60, the mall’s life in retail seems finished.

 Macy’s departure follows a several other giants – J.C. Penney, Sears, Nordstrom, J.J. Newberry, F.W. Woolworth, Marshalls and a multi-screen cinema – who left Lloyd Center over many years as the center’s gradual decline became increasingly evident.

 Cypress Equities, a Dallas, Texas firm, bought Lloyd Center in 2013 for $148 million.  It then launched an “upgrade” project that included shrinking the ice rink, eliminating the attractive pedestrian bridge over the ice and adding an elegant spiral staircase that is seldom trod by human feet.

 The question now is what happens to an urban footprint that amounts to 18 square blocks of valuable city real estate.  Cypress Equities should be no stranger to the challenges, since it owns 16 major shopping and mixed-use malls around the country. 

 One option would be to tear everything down and start over with high-rise apartments or office buildings allowed by the zoning regulations.   A couple years ago, the Lloyd Center was mentioned as a potential site for a major league baseball stadium, although talk of landing a team has gone largely silent.

Pedestrian street for housing? 

 While the original mall was a had a creative Mid-Century Modern cachet, the inevitable tinkerings of the retail world managed to snuff out its original architectural charm.  However, since one of the goals of preservation is to save the environment from wasteful demolitions, one can think of other potential uses for much of the center as it stands. 

Perhaps the easiest option is to convert all the smaller shops to office space.  The third floor along the major concourses always held offices for doctors and dentists.  A compromise might be to consolidate retail on one level, leaving two other levels for offices. 

Housing also could be a realistic possibility along the long, three-story concourses that run east and west from the ice rink.  All those small shops already are equipped with plumbing, which would make the transition easier to apartments or condominiums.  Removing the roofs that were added about 1990 would open apartments or condominiums to fresh air.

Covered parking could be available to tenants.  Some of the existing shops could become offices for doctors and dentists, or barber shops, hair salons, small eateries and convenience stores with built-in constituencies.  Since these areas are served by escalators and elevators, they would provide accessibility for a senior housing community.

At two and three stories, the largest former retail outlets pose more of a challenge for repurposing, given their size and limited natural light.  One possibility as a major tenant might be a large home improvement center.  Home Depot snooped for a site in the Hollywood District almost 20 years ago before backing off in a recession. 

 Another possibility could be demolishing the large stores at the east and west ends of the mall to make way for multi-story buildings of offices, condos or apartments.   Similarly, the largely unused parking structure at the mall’s northwest corner could be removed for more productive use of that real estate.

Joe Brown's Carmel Corn -- a survivor from the earliest days

 The Lloyd Center opened to massive crowds in 1960.  Its proximity to downtown Portland – about two miles – made some experts ponder whether both retail cores could be successful located so close together.  Downtown retail has been severely hurt by the pandemic and by political protests, making it questionable to say whether it is really the survivor, but in the long run it is a better bet than the Lloyd Center.  

 Regardless, Lloyd Center holds vivid memories for many Portland shoppers and diners who remember the early years of the open-air mall with its many retail and eating options.   Today it feels almost like a modern-day ghost town. 

 Now we have to wait and see how executives in Dallas, Texas, figure out what happens next. Or whether they sell out to some other developer with something else in mind. 



Sunday, December 13, 2020

Eaton Building: In Jeopardy, or Not?


To her credit, Vanessa Sturgeon, the president of TMT Development, wasn’t obligated to attend a meeting of the Downtown Neighborhood Association board to explain why she is seeking removal of the 115-year old Eaton Building from Portland’s historic inventory list.

Her reason was a good bit puzzling.  

The Eaton, at 622 SW 9th Ave., was built as a hotel to serve guests attending the 1905 Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition.  The interesting brick structure contained 70 rooms, including 16 suits including bathrooms.  Many years later, the building was converted to the 22 apartments it contains today.

 In 1984, the City of Portland included the Eaton on the historic inventory, a list of scores of buildings throughout the city that were regarded for their historic value in Portland and their worthiness to be designated as city landmarks or placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  While the Eaton was deemed worthy for either designation, no such designation was ever sought.

 Now Sturgeon is using a city code provision that allows removal from the inventory after a notice period of 120 days.  Removal is automatic; there is no opportunity for objection or a public hearing.

(Oregon Journal, 1904) 

 So, DNA members were curious to ask why.  Sturgeon’s answers were puzzling, at best.  She called the inventory “a made-up list” that imposed restrictions without any benefits.  Asked what those restrictions were, she replied, “I don’t even know what the restrictions are.”  Moments later, she added, “It would be expensive for me to have a lawyer come and explain it all.”

 In fact, there are no restrictions on buildings included in the inventory. (We will get to the likely motive shortly.)

 In the meantime, Sturgeon assured the DNA that she has no intentions of selling or demolishing the Eaton.  She said the apartments are being upgraded one at a time as tenants move over.  “They are really nice apartments,” she said. Sturgeon said she has no interest in placing the building on the National Register, although such a listing could offer tax benefits. 

John Czarnecki, an architect and DNA member, said “This would be a real shame to remove this building.  The brickwork is fabulous.”  He said he liked the scale of the Eaton on the street.  “It is an exceptional building.” The image below shows the romanesque arches on the top floor, the brick quoins on the corner and the subtle but elegant window decorations on the lower floors.  

 Czarnecki said the Eaton was designed by Henry J. Hefty, an architect who practiced in Portland from 1884 to 1912.  Hefty’s most notable building was the First Congregational Church erected in 1890.  Its over-sized bell tower made it visible from almost anywhere west of the Willamette River for decades.

In 1890, Hefty won a design competition to design Portland's City Hall.  His plan was a large, heavy building that was eventually deemed to expensive to complete.  Whidden & Lewis designed a smaller building finished in 1895 that sits on foundations prepared for Hefty's work. 

 Sturgeon predicted that major property owners with buildings listed on the historic inventory will be asking to have those structures removed from the list.  In the Eaton case, “This has nothing to do with demolition,” she said.  “We have no intention of selling the building.”


The likely motive for delisting requests from Sturgeon and other owners likely lies in proposed city code changes pending before the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission in advance of City Council consideration sometime next year.

 Under the proposed new rules, removal from the historic inventory could not happen unless it was accompanied by a demolition permit application.  The demolition application would require a 120-day period in which interested parties could try to buy the building to spare it from demolition or try to make plans for moving the historic building to a new site.

 By removing a building from the historic inventory now, a person planning to demolish a building ostensibly would eliminate the 120-delay.  Not being on the inventory presumably would make it easier to sell a building, especially if a developer is accumulating more than one contiguous property in hopes of building something much larger.

 Unlike many developers, Sturgeon’s firm has experience building skyscrapers (Fox Tower and Park Avenue West) as well as managing historic buildings.  TMT Development also owns the old Studio Building and Guild Theater, a couple blocks south of the Eaton Apartments.

 Though Sturgeon repeated that she has no plans to sell or demolish the Eaton, Story Swett, an architect and preservation advocate, called removal from the historic inventory “a first step down the road.”  He added, “It’s dismaying and disappointing to have this happen.”


Saturday, December 5, 2020

Holiday Reading Suggestions

 Now that we are in the throes of the holiday shopping season, the chief executive here at Building on History figured it was a good time to recommend books that should interest anyone who cares about architecture and Portland history.

 You will note that one author is common to all of them, William J. Hawkins III.  A native of Portland who is now into his eighth decade, Hawkins is an architect and architectural historian who knows more Portland history in his pinky than most of us will ever attain.  For several decades, including this very day, he has been the conscience of efforts to preserve the best of Portland’s vintage buildings and city parks. 

The books:

Classic Houses of Portland, Oregon, 1850-1950.  William J. Hawkins III and William F. Willingham, 1999. 591 pages.

This large volume contains photographs and architectural details of some 200 houses in the Portland region, including some grand old mansions that fell to wreckers along the way.  Many interior photographs are included.

 This is far more than a picture book, however. People interested in learning about the many historical styles of residential architecture will find descriptions photographs and drawings of 22 different design categories, including lists of characteristics that lay people can use to evaluate houses that interest them.

 If nothing else, a reader must stand in awe of the incredible array of amazing houses that still grace out city. 

The Legacy of Olmsted Brothers in Portland Oregon.  William J. Hawkins, III.  2014.  198 pages.

  While this book is more about landscape design and parks, visits by the renowned Olmsted landscape architecture firm to Portland starting in 1903 had a lasting impact on Portland neighborhoods and the city park system.  Hawkins’ great uncle, Lester Leander Hawkins, helped escort John Olmstead about the city in 1903 in a horse-drawn wagon, and served as a prominent member of the Portland Park Board that implemented many of the suggestions outlined by the 1903 Olmsted report.

 The Olmsted firm laid out plans for the 1905 Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition, as well as mapping out a whole series of proposed city parks and arterials that would connect them.  The scenic Terwilliger Parkway also was an element of the Olmsted plan, as well as another scenic route along Willamette Boulevard that never received much formal attention.

 On a later trip to Portland, the Olmsted firm laid out streets in the Laurelhurst neighborhood and initiated plans Laurelhurst Park, long considered one of the city’s most attractive public spaces.  Several other park locations identified by the Olmsteds were developed by the city in succeeding years.   The book also spells out direct and indirect influence of Olmstead street layouts in several other Portland neighborhoods.

The Grand Era of Cast-Iron Architecture in Portland.  William J. Hawkins III, 1976.  211 pages.

 This heavily-illustrated book is an exhaustive inventory of cast-iron buildings erected during a roughly 40-year span beginning slowly in the 1850s and accelerating rapidly in the 1880s.  For a time, Portland had the most outstanding collection of cast-iron buildings on the West Coast and the largest collection outside of New York City.

 Hawkins’ research explains in detail the rise and fall of the iron-fronted buildings, which can be considered in some ways as forerunners of prefabricated buildings.  The saddest part of the book is an extensive number of photographs showing these interesting buildings being demolished after World War II, mostly for the creation of parking lots for automobiles. 

 If Portland still had these rows of early buildings, they would be a foremost tourist attraction on the West Coast.  This book helped start Portland’s interest in architectural preservation that continues to this day.

Architects of Oregon.  Richard Ellison Ritz, 2002.  462 pages.

This book is an alphabetized, biographical listing of deceased architects who practiced in Oregon in the 19th and 20th Centuries.  Ritz died before this historical resource was finished, and William J. Hawkins III stepped in to complete this extensive project and shepherd it to publication..

It is an excellent reference that lists notable buildings whenever possible.  Listings may run from a mere few sentences to a few pages, depending on the importance of the architect and amount of historical references left behind. 

 For better or worse, the most viable way to find any of these books for purchase is through the Seattle-based internet seller that starts with the capital “A.”  You know, the company that makes billions but doesn't pay taxes.