Friday, October 29, 2021

Reviving Grace Peck Terrace


Grace Peck Terrace

 The Irvington National Historic District wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye in 1979 when the Housing Authority of Portland designed and built the six-story Grace Peck Terrace for low-income seniors and residents with disabilities.

 Forty years later, the 95-unit apartment building suffers from water infiltration in its window frames and its stucco facades.  What might be described as a "low-budget modern" architectural style does not fit well with the houses and apartment buildings from the early 1900s to 1920s that surround it.

 The good news is that Home Forward (nee: Housing Authority) wants to upgrade the building with facades and windows that shed water better and provide a more compatible appearance with the historic neighborhood.

 Granted, the Grace Peck will never be confused with an old building.  However, different materials and colors could create a better fit in the district. “We want a much more durable and sustainable fa├žade,” Dave Otte, a principal with Holst Architecture, told the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission during an advisory meeting. 

Thin-brick version with window bands (Holst Architecture)

Holst presented two potential revisions for the whole building.  The first featured thin bricks on most of the walls, and wider bands of windows on the five residential floors.  A second option favored narrow strips of oko skin, a fiberglass reinforced concrete cladding material, with a more random pattern of windows.  A common element in both schemes was enclosure of 61 small balconies that extend from apartment interiors to the outer walls.

Otte said eliminating the balconies would give tenants greater flexibility in arranging furniture and eliminate any friction among tenants as to which ones have balconies and which ones don’t.  Based on testimony from one resident, however, the landmarks commission preferred to see the balconies remain – and asked if there was a means for providing balconies for ALL apartments.  At present, the balconies amount to about 20 square feet each – but provide enough room for pots for flowers or tomatoes. 

Oko skin version (Holst Architecture)

The commission did not take a formal vote on the proposals, but by consensus preferred the oko skin plan better than the one with thin bricks.  The horizontal oko cladding would be a visual nod to the lap siding common om most houses nearby.  Some members felt the first version with the wider window bands would make the building look too much like an office building.  Jannel Waldron, a Holst designer, said the option with oko skin allows for “a more playful pattern to the windows.

 Holst is expected to return to the landmarks commission sometime in the next few months with a final proposed design.

 Portland’s proposed historic code revisions come to the City Council on Nov. 3.  Preservation advocate Constance Beaumont offered the following:

 While a number of the proposed rule changes have been welcomed by the preservation community, others have raised concerns.  Among the latter:  

  • diluted requirements for relevant expertise on the part of Historic Landmarks Commission members;  
  • a stronger role for the Planning and Sustainability Commission, which has been hostile to preservation in recent years, and a weaker role for the Historic Landmarks Commission; and  
  • new criteria for demolition approvals in historic districts.   

It will be important for those who support the preservation of Portland’s historic and architecturally significant resources to weigh in on the HRCP proposal and to emphasize to Council the value of these resources to the city as a whole.  

Given the upcoming hearing on November 3, I wanted you to know ASAP about several backgrounders available on-line to help those interested in submitting testimony:

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Friday, October 22, 2021

Progress on a New Burnside Bridge


Tied Arch Version (Multnomah County)

Even though funding sources and a specific budget are not yet known, designers of the proposed new Burnside Bridge are looking at ways to cut costs.

 So far, the likeliest cost-savers are slimming the bridge width from five vehicular traffic lanes to four, and narrowing pedestrian/bicycle lanes from 20 feet widths to 15.5 feet on both sides.

That said, a couple major decisions appear to have been reached in designing a bridge to replace the earthquake-vulnerable existing bridge, which is nearly 100 years old.   The west end running to and from the Skidmore-Old Town National Historic District is to be supported by long girders, extending to the mid-river bascules that allow the bridge to open for river traffic.  This design has minimal visual impact as motorists and others travel westward into Old Town.

 Bridge planners also have decided that bascules – which allow the bridge to open and close using counterweights below the roadway – are the preferred system handling river traffic.  The bascule system would be similar to how the bridge operates today, but would be entirely new mechanically.

The new bridge could be Portland's only bridge capable of handling major traffic after a high-intensity earthquake.  That is the primary reason for scrapping the current bridge. 

 The final major planning decision for the new bridge is how to handle the “long span” from the bascules to the east end of the bridge at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, crossing the I-5 freeway and Union Pacific Railway tracks.  It is squishy soil under the Willamette River’s east bank that renders the current bridge violently broken in case of a major earthquake.  The soft soils extend as much as 200 feet below the surface.

 Two options being studied for the eastern portion included a tied arch structure, akin to the big arch of the Fremont Bridge, and a cable-stayed option akin to the structure of Tillicum Crossing.  The option chosen could have a large impact on the final budget, but the appearance of the structure itself would be a landmark – for better or worse – in the center of Portland for many decades to come. 

Cable-stayed Version (Multnomah County)

 It is reasonable to guess that the ultimate choice could pit aesthetics against costs.  A final recommendation is expected next February, with the rest of 2022 being devoted to the final design.  Megan Neill, engineering services manager for Multnomah County, said a funding strategy has yet to be defined. 

 She said a federal infrastructure plan proposed by President Biden is likely to be one component, but she added, “We’ve always known we have to fund additional funds.”  As a start, county motorists are already paying bridge fees when renewing their vehicle licenses.

 CLARIFICATION: Last week’s screed about Portland’s proposed overhaul of rules for adding or removing historic landmarks and landmark districts missed a key point that could be a benefit to preservation advocates.  The proposed rules streamline the process and reduce costs for seeking landmark status for individual sites, and recommendations to the City Council would be made by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission.

However, the Planning and Sustainability Commission would be the body involved in recommending additions or changes to historic districts.  Given the makeup of the current commission, is it’s laughable to think they would propose anything but reductions to the city’s landmark districts.

 ---Fred Leeson

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Friday, October 15, 2021

Preservation: Hard Times Ahead


A long political war of attrition against architectural preservation and historic districts by the Portland homebuilding lobby returns for what could be a developers’ triumph at a Portland City Council hearing that begins Nov. 3.

A major revision of Portland’s rules for designating and protecting city’s historic landmarks would dilute the membership and authority of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission, and cede more responsibility for historic matters to the developer-driver Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission.

Assuming they are approved, the changes probably will make it harder to create new historic landmarks and allow the city to chip away at the city’s existing districts, either block by block, building by building or by elimination entirely.  Gossip also suggests that amendments may be offered to the City Council that are even more severe than the proposed code changes. 

The proposed rules, in concert with earlier changes by the Oregon Legislature, whittle away at protections in National Historic Districts to varying degrees, depending on when the districts were approved by the National Park Service. 

 In reviewing proposed reductions in historic districts, the Planning and Sustainability Commission could advise the Council that the goals and policies of the city’s Comprehensive Plan are “equally or better met” by reducing the level of historic protection.  For a commission incessantly oriented toward new development, that clause is a loophole big enough to make room for bulldozers.  

 The revisions include many goals sought by the developers for the past seven years or so at City Hall and at the state Legislature.  Economic, environmental and historic values as mean little to the developers, whose primary desire is to demolish old houses and built expensive new housing in Portland’s popular National Historic Districts, such as Ladd’s Addition, Irvington and Northwest Portland’s Alphabet District.

 Interestingly, the current Landmarks Commission member are not expected to oppose the new rules.  Kristen Minor, the landmarks chair, said some aspects were “a bit of a surprise,” but added, “There are some really great things in their as well as some we are concerned by.”  For whatever reason – perhaps reading the handwriting on the wall – the seven current commissioned are expected to stay silent. 

Some elements to the proposal that will win support from the preservation community.  These include better opportunities for placing solar panels on historic properties, and allowing demolition of stand-alone garages to make more space available for accessory dwelling units.

 It is disturbing, however, to see the quality of landmarks commission members and their jurisdiction diluted in the proposed new configuration. 

Current rules require five of the seven landmarks members to have professional experience or expertise in preservation–related areas.  The proposed rules suggest that all seven members have “an interest” in preservation, but all new members, appointed by the mayor, conceivably could know little about it.  Filling the commission with bankers, economists and contractors will make preservation even more of an uphill fight.

 In another step backwards for preservation, the Landmarks Commission would not make recommendations to the City Council on proposed new landmarks or revisions to old ones.  Instead, the Landmarks Commission would offer advice to the Planning and Sustainability Commission, which would make recommendations to the City Council.

 Given the scope of the bulky code revisions, this article cannot dwell on all of its aspects.  Those who want to read the proposal itself can find it here:

 Meanwhile, preservation advocates have created a new website that outlines the benefits of preservation as well as commenting on the proposed city code changes.  The site provides easy access for sending comments to City Council members.  See it here:

 Despite the antipathy by the current council and the Planning and Sustainability Commission against preservation, there is something they cannot change: The actions of home owners, entrepreneurs and building owners who maintain our vintage buildings for the economic, social and environmental value they represent.  They deserve our continuing respect. 

--Fred Leeson

 CLARIFICATION: The comments above about Portland’s proposed overhaul of rules for adding or removing historic landmarks and landmark districts missed a key point that could be a benefit to preservation advocates.  The proposed rules streamline the process and reduce costs for seeking landmark status for individual sites, and recommendations to the City Council would be made by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission.

However, the Planning and Sustainability Commission would be the body involved in recommending additions or changes to historic districts.  Given the makeup of the current commission, is it’s laughable to think they would propose anything but reductions to the city’s landmark districts.

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Saturday, October 9, 2021

Rebuilding O'Bryant Square


Chain-link fencing encircling O’Bryant Square in downtown Portland signifies an old and unfortunate situation.  Don’t blame it on the pandemic, or on political protests, or on houseless campers.

Instead, the causes of the indefinite loss of this small public park date back to the early 1970s and to flaws in the parks design…or construction…or both.  It is a sad tale of an urban renewal project that was supposed to bring active urban life to a small and quiet corner of the downtown core.

 In the end, two dominant features in the half-acre plaza turned into disasters.  The brick building housing public restrooms attracted drug users, sexual activity and graffiti painters. The large bronze fountain, stylized to be a rose as viewed from above, eventually leaked water into the parking below and apparently damaged the reinforced concrete construction.

Parking was closed in 2017.  The park itself was fenced off in 2018 “due to structural issues in the parking garage beneath the downtown plaza,” according to a city announcement.

 Three years after the fences were installed, nothing has changed.  And no plans are yet in the works.

  "The park and the garage underneath the plaza remain in need of repairs,” said Mark Ross, a Parks Bureau spokesman.  He said the city is evaluating options and finds itself fighting against rising costs in the construction industry.  He added that the bureau “is looking into a way to have some type of activating feature/programming along the edges of the park, in a safe manner, in the interim. We will update the public when plans become more firm.”

Grand opening, 1973 (Portland Archives)

 The park, dedicated in 1973, was named for Hugh O’Bryant, a carpenter who was elected Portland’s first mayor in 1851.  He won the seat with 104 votes in the city's first year of incorporation.  

Ironically, the small park became better known by the nicknames of “Paranoia Park” and “Needle Park,” in regard to people who used it for illegal purposes.  Ironically, the park had become popular in its latest years with lunchtime eaters who frequented dozens of food carts located on a parking lot nearby.  Alas, the parking lot has given way to a high-rise tower now under construction since the park was closed.

 The city isn’t inclined to ask for my design guidelines for recreating O’Bryant Square but here they are, anyway:

  1) Demolish the current structure and forget about underground parking.  Downtown Portland doesn’t need more incentives for motorists, and the 90 or 100 spaces (depending on what article you read) aren’t enough to make much of a difference, anyway.

2) Design a park with a water feature of some sort –and if it leaks, let it leak into Mother Earth.  Add lots of hardscape and permanent seating.  This should be a pleasant place for downtown workers and visitors to enjoy outdoor lunches or nice weather.  Perhaps creative designers could incorporate a small, open-air shelter for rain protection.

3) Include public restrooms, but not in structures that are easily vandalized or used for illicit purposes.  The small Portland Loos used in several locations could be a model, perhaps with shells that look something more attractive than giant aspirin capsules. 

4) Oh yes, the chain link fences.  Out of here! 

 As a personal note, the plaque above lists the members of the 1973 City Council, the year that I began covering City Hall as a reporter for the Oregon Journal newspaper.  I heard or talked with those five members --  Anderson, Ivancie, McCready, Schwab, Goldschmidt  -- three or four times per week.  I often disagreed with them on one issue or another, but this I know:  They never would have left this park fenced off and in disrepair for anywhere NEAR this long.  

--Fred Leeson

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Saturday, October 2, 2021

Preserving the Thompson Elk and Fountain


(City of Portland image)

Of all the damage done to downtown Portland last year, the strangest episode was the attack by hooligans on the David P. Thompson elk statue and octagonal granite fountain that formerly sat in the middle of S.W. Main Street.

Since 1900 when they were installed as a gift from an early Portland mayor, David P. Thompson, the bronze elk and fountain had become perhaps Portland’s most beloved work of public art.  For commuters arriving over the Hawthorne Bridge they essentially heralded entrance to Downtown Portland.

 Over a year ago, the elk was rescued and repaired by the Regional Arts and Culture Council, and now sits in seclusion in an undisclosed warehouse.  The Portland Water Bureau removed and saved what remained of the granite fountain, which had eight spigots for watering horses and dogs.

Many questions now arise:  When – and where – will this beloved work of art be returned to public prominence? Should the fountain and elk be considered a single work of art, or separated so the elk could sit on a less intrusive plinth?  Is Main Street the best place, given the sizable obstacle the fountain presents for Tri-Met buses and bicyclists navigating around it? Is there another suitable location for it?

Because the combined statue and fountain is a designated city landmark, the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission eventually will be making a recommendation to the City Council about its return.  Several city officials met with the commission to gauge their thoughts.

Oregonian newspaper, January, 1900

Although no votes were taken, the commission had a clear consensus that the fountain and elk are indeed a single work of art, and should be preserved as such.  There also was a consensus that Main Street is still the proper location for it, but that an alternative could be considered in addition to some other interesting possibilities:

 -- One possibility might be widening Main Street between Third and Fourth Avenues, so there would be easier access for buses and bicycles.  This would require removing small portions of Chapman and Lownsdale Squares allow for the widened street.

 --Another might be closing Main Street to buses and cars between Third and Fourth Avenues, and making the fountain into a public plaza between the Chapman and Lownsdale Squares.  This would require new routes for several Tri-Met lines.

 --Another possibility, suggested by Landmarks Chair Kristen Minor, would be to move the fountain and statue from the center of Main Street to one side of other.  This would have the fountain more accessible to pedestrians who might want to splash in the water, and allow bike and bus transit to progress more smoothly.

-- If a move is considered essential, an option might be putting the fountain and elk in new plaza proposed in the South Park Blocks in the Madison Street right-of-way that would closed to traffic.

 On balance, the landmark commission’s comments should be good news to those concerned that the fountain might not be restored, and that the elk might be moved or put on some sort of new plinth.

 As William J. Hawkins III, one of the city’s most notable preservation advocates put it, “You don’t cut landmarks into little pieces and distribute them around.”

What did the elk have to do with Thompson?  The early Portland mayor was a successful businessman and public servant.  He loved animals, domestic and wild, and was a founding member of the Oregon Humane Society.  At 19, he herded cheep across the Oregon Trail.  The elk statue represented wildlife that roamed the region before the Caucasian pioneer era.

 SOUTH PARK BLOCKS UPDATE:  On another matter, the Landmarks Commission voted unanimously to support a revised nomination seeking to add the South Park Blocks to the National Register of Historic Places.  The nomination now goes to the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation that meets Oct. 20 in Salem.

 The nomination will be opposed by the Portland Parks Bureau and by Portland State University, which apparently believes six blocks of public park are more important to the campus than to the general public.  Park users and park advocates supporting the nomination are expected number in the dozens.

---Fred Leeson

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