Enclosed below is the second half of my recent email interview with Rick Potestio, principal with Mahlum Architects.
In addition to being against the Burnside-Couch couplet proposal discussed in part one of our interview, you've also come out against the Bus Mall redesign downtown and a MAX line there. Why?
My objections to the bus/rail transit mall project stem first from the fact that no comprehensive master plan has been generated for the city that integrates land use, multi-modal transportation and urban design. I believe that Portland has matured such that it is time for a public debate on a future vision for the city and region that will address all forms of transportation.
I think that a rail transit system should be designed in accordance with very clear and distinct objectives. Heavy and light rail should serve inter-city travel and connect major points of activity such as airports, employment and entertainment centers. Trolleys should serve intra-city travel, connecting neighborhoods, institutions, business districts and parks.
I think that the largest obstacle to achieving this goal is the fact that much of the MAX system runs on surface streets with multiple stops and slow speeds. Exacerbating this situation is its existence on the surface streets of downtown Portland. Inter-city or long cross regional travel is slowed by the need to traverse downtown Portland. Because express trains would not be compatible with the pedestrian character of downtown, I believe a subway is an obvious solution.
To illustrate the problem, I know people who reside in Northeast Portland and work in Hillsboro. They ride their bikes to the Goose Hollow station and then board the MAX train to reach their jobs. This is faster than boarding at Lloyd Center, the closest stop to their homes, and riding the train through downtown.
I believe that rather than adding more MAX lines to downtown's streets, the city should be planning a route around the CBD that connects to a few major points and institutions and interfaces with an expanded trolley system. I believe that bypass tracks should be incorporated into the existing MAX lines outside of downtown to facilitate express trains.
I realize that an immense amount of study and planning has gone into this project, much of it by very dear friends, and therefore tread cautiously in my suggestions. However, I think that if we had a master plan for a tiered system of rail transportation it would shed light on other options.
With regard to the transit mall idea, I think it will just not work. I do not believe that cars, busses and rail can occupy the narrow space effectively, nor do I believe that the combination of all these vehicles on the right of way will result in an enhanced and attractive environment for pedestrians or result in better transit service.
I think it is very difficult for a regional oriented transit mall to also serve as an attractive pedestrian/retail environment because the nature of its use is to move people in and out quickly. As such it is the antithesis of a destination where people congregate and stroll. This is an inherent contradiction that people intuitively understand and therefore they behave accordingly. Amsterdam provides examples of intensive multi-modal streets, where trolleys share space with buses, bikes, pedestrians, and the occasional auto. However, the large scale regional train systems are not included on these streets.
But here are further considerations:
The Pioneer Courthouse is one of the most important federal buildings in the west, and one of the most architecturally significant buildings in the country. Can you imagine placing a steel fence twelve feet high around it, covering that fence with garish advertising and then placing that fence in constant motion? That is in effect what MAX will do. The building will be lost behind a moving wall of trains and TV personality portraits. The cupola will be obscured by wires and posts. The desired calm of the square will be shattered by the constant energy of moving trains. The postcard shot of the monument will be destroyed by the MAX blur in front of it.
In lieu of a fully realized subway, I have a counter-proposal that I think makes sense and saves dollars: place both north and south bound trains on Sixth Avenue, and send the trains below grade for three blocks from Alder Street to Taylor Street. Place a transit station under Pioneer Square. Close Sixth Avenue to all bus and auto traffic between Alder and Taylor, creating widened sidewalks along glass pavilions that shelter the descending and ascending tracks and trains. This would enable one to connect Pioneer Square directly to the Pioneer Courthouse, creating a unified, two block long public space. This act would justify a renovation to Pioneer Square that would re-orient the square on an un-obstructed view of the Pioneer Courthouse. I would continue the arc of the square on the north side to create symmetry on axis with the Courthouse. I would place the principal entrance to the underground transit station at the site of the old bookstore entrance. Further changes to the square could open up the corners, create a dining terrace, provide permanent shelter for food venders, and create a real fountain in the place of the one that flanks the entrance to the restrooms. (Restrooms would be accessed from the transit station and would no longer be on axis with the cupola or flanked by waterfalls--a very peculiar metaphor indeed).
By using only one street to accomplish the light rail function, half the disruption (and cost?)of the project might be avoided. Those savings could be applied to pay for the short subway and improvements to the square.
What other firms or projects in Portland do you like other than your own?
I like Holst's Belmont Lofts, Skylab's new digs, and Doug Fir. I like the Eliot Tower by ZGF. I think that the Portland Art Museum's new addition, with the sculpture court and space between, the Eliot to the west and the church tower to the east comprise one of the best urban spaces on the west coast. I like ZGF's work at OHSU. (I am not impressed by the new hospital with the funny canted side). River Campus Building One by GBD is the most remarkable building on the skyline, and a landmark in sustainable design. I anticipate the Metropolitan tower will set a new standard for high rise condos in the Pearl. I look forward to work from Bill Neburka of Works Architecture, and Gary Larson of MulvannyG2. I would greatly appreciate seeing Gary's work published such as his Pasco Baking Co. and the GranPac Building--both in north Portland. They are extremely elegant in form, function and composition.
Who have you learned a lot about architecture from?
Thomas Hacker, Earl Morisund (UofO), John Cava, and Bill Hawkins have taught me the most. In many ways I think John Yeon was Portland's most talented/sensitive architect, and Pietro Beluschi, Portland's most talented/visionary architect. I think Frasca's early work is extremely strong and beautiful.
What's your favorite city other than Portland?
Right now it is Torino. It combines the grandeur of Paris with the sensibility of Italy. It is the best model for Portland I have yet seen. A great city on a river, with hills to one side and mountains to the other, it has parks, piazzas, grand arcades, great streets, trolleys, and neighborhoods. NBC is doing a fantastic job of showcasing the city.
I love Paris and Nice. And of course I love the cities of Rome and Venice...how can you beat that? But I always think in terms of Portland and what is relevant to Portland. I have just returned from Amsterdam and Torino. Amsterdam and the Netherlands are amazing. Portland can learn a lot from the Netherlands regarding transportation systems, urban planning, architecture and of course, its bike culture...but for style and scale,(as well as food and wine), I think Torino is the place to emulate.