Sunday, February 25, 2024

Hard Times Come Again

Montgomery Park (nee Ward) circa 1927

Portland’s urban core clearly isn’t what it used to be.  A recent consultant’s report suggested that office vacancies will hit 40 percent this year, and it might be higher already with unexpired leases going unused.  Fewer workers downtown mean fewer business opportunities for others.

 A dramatic example is the nine-story Montgomery Park building in Norwest Portland, which sold for $255 million in 2019..It was flipped recently back to the lender for $37.7 million.  “The bargain price points to the woeful state of Portland’s commercial real estate market,” wrote Jeff Manning, an outstanding “Oregonian” business reporter.

Montgomery Park joins Jackson Tower, the J.K. Gill Building and the Loyalty Building as prominent office sites that have been turned back to their lenders without winning any alternative bids.  Clearly, big-money investors currently are keeping their wallets in their pockets..

The new entry won't happen

Swept way with the pandemic was a plan approved by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission to revitalize the old Montgomery Ward building by adding a glassy new western entrance and several new retail and restaurant spaces.  Plans once approved by the commission for renovating four other historic sites in or near downtown also appear to be dead or on hold. (Notable examples include re-use proposals for the former Multnomah County Courthouse and First Church of Christ Scientist.)

For the most part, central cities evolve organically.  Offices bring workers downtown who eat lunch, drink coffee, go to bars and restaurants after work, and frequent nearby retail shops.  All those ancillary enterprises suffer and close when workers and shoppers disappear.

What also is lost is the communal experience Portlanders used to feel by shopping downtown at the major department stores, going to movie theaters and concerts.  As people become more entrenched and isolated on their cell phones and computers what Portland – and other cities – lose is a “sense of place” that makes a city feel different and special.   

What does the future hold?  The “pandemic-induced deterioration” described by one analyst does not appear to have speedy solutions.  Substantial numbers of workers have found it preferable to work from home, and internet-based shopping shows no signs of ebbing.   Downtown and its important historic buildings could take on much more of a “ghost town” feel unless smart minds can conceive of new ways to make the urban core vibrant again.

 Faced with the glut of new shopping opportunities in the suburbs, Portland more than 50 years ago launched a wide-ranging “Downtown Plan” aimed at retaining its urban importance.  Its major conclusions at the time led to the creation of Waterfront Park, the downtown transit malls and development regulations that sought to place taller buildings in the heart of the core – all good ideas at the time.

 Now it might be time to gather concerned citizens and smart minds from many specialties to undertake a new long-range plan, taking into consideration the unavoidable consequences of the current trends.

 What’s at stake is the loss of urban reputation that could lead someone speaking of Portland to borrow the famous line from Gertrude Stein:  “There is no there there.”  It would be a communal loss ranging beyond our pocketbooks. .    

 ---Fred Leeson

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Monday, February 19, 2024

Is this the 'Long Goodbye?'


Gone...soon to be forgotten?

Thousands of residents apparently responded when Portland officials asked late last year for responses to an internet survey  about whether to return historic statutes that had been illegally removed from city parks in 2020.

 Alas, now that the survey deadline has passed, the survey results evidently never will be disclosed.  Many people apparently objected to the bias they believed they saw and independent number-crunchers found that none of the answers met the standards of statistical significance.

 Thus the City Council is expected on Feb. 28 to wade into public review of a proposed two-page policy that clearly makes public impressions about diversity, inclusion and equity more important than someone’s historical significance.

 On the face of it, that means goodbye, Abe Lincoln; adios, Teddy Roosevelt; and farewell, George Washington.   You can review the proposed policy here:

 The policy tries to include some other options, like expanding the historical context for public figures who have come under attack for views that were not publicly prominent in their own eras.   There are people who think the issue of “presentism” of modern political correctness, so to speak, should not outweigh the historical significance of an important person.   The proposed policy includes a cumbersome review process for artworks that have been called into question by residents who feel offended by them, ultimately leading to a recommendation to the Portland City Council.

 But the overriding reason for disqualifying a work of public art is this: “The subject or impact of a piece of artwork is significantly at odds with (the) City’s values of antiracism and equity. 

 Compromises may be possible.  One idea being explored informally is the “president’s exception” that would allow the return of Lincoln and Roosevelt to their historic bases in the South Park Blocks, and moving George Washington to Washington Park.  (The Thomas Jefferson statue belongs to Portland Public Schools, so the school board would have jurisdiction.)

Experts who have studied the proposed city policy say it contradicts some other codified city planning regulations.  One requirement is that statues listed on the city’s own historic inventory would have to be reviewed by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission.  The landmarks commission is scheduled to discuss this point at a meeting on Feb. 26.  Anyone interested in testifying at the Zoom meeting can sign up here:

 Just two days later, the City Council is scheduled to consider the proposed policy submitted by Commissioner Dan Ryan.  One can imagine that no speedy or lasting answer can be expected quickly.

 ----Fred Leeson

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Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Square one...again

 The subject of a heroic Portland architectural preservation “save” finds itself in limbo again thanks to the pandemic and disarray downtown.

The 1883 Ladd Carriage House, one of downtown’s last and most artistic wooden buildings, is now up for sale following the closure of the upscale Raven & Rose restaurant and bar near the end of 2021.  While its landmark status likely will save it from demolition, there is now way of knowing what its future holds until a new buyer takes control. 

Though its windows are now boarded up for protection, the building is still turn-key ready for use as a restaurant and bar.  But in its many earlier decades, the one-time horse and carriage barn also housed retail shops, a dance hall, architectural office, construction office and a law office.

The historic three-story building was threatened with demolition starting in 2004.  After considerable hand-wringing and advocacy by preservation advocates, the building was jacked up and moved three blocks where it sat in a parking lot in 2007 and 2008 while underground parking was constructed on its original site.   

Upon its return, the building needed a lot of restorative help.  A tremendous amount of time and treasure went into saving the building and converting it into a first rate restaurant,” said Paul Falsetto, an architect deeply involved in the project.  “I can only hope the eventual new ownership would continue with that use.”

Among old-building lovers, the carriage house is significant for its interesting design and exterior craftsmanship, as well as for its historic connections to downtown and to William S. Ladd, a pioneer businessman, banker, developer and early Portland mayor.  The glorified horse barn as built across what was then S.W. 7th Ave. (now Broadway) from Ladd’s 30-room mansion that was demolished in the 1920s.

Falsetto said the carriage house “displays its historic value to the city through its elaborate exterior visage, and the advantage of a restaurant use is that people can experience its interior as well. The second floor ‘hayloft’ is one of the great historic spaces of its era, with its original and unique truss work in full display.”

 Unlike the long-departed Ladd mansion, the carriage house was designed in the English Stick Style by architect Joseph Sherwin, a native of England.  It is Sherwin’s only known work in Portland. In its original guise, the structure included space for twelve horses, Ladd’s personal carriages, a hayloft, and residential quarters for the estate’s coachman and gardener. 

The Raven & Rose restaurant, which opened in 2011, was hurt economically by the pandemic and by homeless campers who set up tents along the Columbia Street frontage.  While Portland has made efforts to clean up the tent sites, downtown remains less populated during daytime and evening hours because many employees continue working from home instead of downtown offices.

Those of us who believe that vibrant urban centers mark a pinnacle of civilization have to wonder how downtown Portland and urban centers will survive in the years ahead.

 “For downtown Portland to regain its stature after a challenging past few years, we need our important buildings to return back to full life,” Falsetto says.  “A reenergized Ladd Carriage House would be a shining example of this, and show yet again that reinvigorated historic properties link past civic pride with positive hope for our city’s future.”

 By the way, the asking price is $3.5 million, should you be interested. Is it negotiable?  Likely so. You can see more images of the building at the real estate listing site here:

 ----Fred Leeson

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Monday, February 5, 2024

'Enlightenment' in Portland Parks

New pole and light (Portland Parks Bureau)

 Preservation advocates had good reason to be worried last year when the Portland Parks Bureau started removing iconic vintage light poles from several parks, citing and damage from water and rust.

 The Parks Bureau’s spotty record on preservation over the years prompted concerns about what the new lights might look like.  But now there is good news: For all but the most particular observers, the new poles and lights will look substantially indistinguishable from the old ones.

 Of course a lot of people simply won’t care what the new ones look like.  However, lights are a contributing element to the appearance of a historic park … especially at night when their electric glow adds an attractive ambiance.

 Because 88 lights and poles will be replaced in and near Mt. Tabor Park, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the new equipment needed approval from the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission.

By a vote of 4-1, the majority found that the proposed poles and lights were “close enough” in appearance to the old ones that date to the mid-1920s. (The park itself was created in 1909.)  Brett Horner, the Parks Bureau planning manager, said the new poles already have been placed in Duniway and Laurelhurst Parks, and also will be used as replacements elsewhere.

Old light and pole (Portland Parks Bureau)

 The only significant difference in appearance is that the old poles showed a slightly taller polygonal base.  Otherwise the poles and glass fixtures are substantially indistinguishable. One advantage of the new fixtures is that they will not allow light to escape from their tops to help reduce light pollution at night.

Horner said the old poles were attached to steel wires wrapped around rebar staples inserted in concrete.  As water inevitably worked its way into the concrete poles, the steel wire suffered from corrosion, making them eligible for falling over.  Water intrusions also leads to cracking and flaking in the concrete.  Horner said the old anchoring system was a “very deficient design.”

 Unlike the old poles, the new ones will be sunk five feet into the ground.  Horner said holes will be bored only slightly larger than the bases of the new poles.

 Maya Foty, the landmarks commissioner who voted against the light plan, said she wasn’t convinced the Parks Bureau had done enough research to determine that all lights in Mt. Tabor Park needed to be replaced.  She also noted the differing appearance of the poles at ground level.

 ----Fred Leeson

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