Yesterday I spoke with Philip Stewart, chair of the Historic Resources Committee for the AIA/Portland chapter and an architect with Myhre Group, about the ill-fated Apple store on Northwest 23rd Avenue.
Stewart told me that the Apple store represents one of the only cases in recent memory where the city’s Historical Landmarks Commission did not follow the recommendation of the AIA Historic Resources Committee. He also provided Portland Architecture with a copy of the support letter written in May. Here’s some of that text:
The commercial streets of NW 23rd and NW 21st bisect the district and contain buildings from a wide array of time periods. Generally, these two streets are pedestrian-friendly and contain an eclectic mix of evolving retail, office, and institutional buildings. This existing condition echoes the intent of the Historic Alphabet District’s first Design Guideline, which states that 'most properties change over time.'
The proposed building will be replacing a structure that is lacking a pedestrian connection to the street and is out of scale within its context. While the new building will be contemporary in design, the structure’s scale is in keeping with its commercial and residential context in terms of overall massing, height of storefronts, and height of parapets. The HRC believes that the design is a correct interpretation of the Historic Alphabet District’s second Design Guideline, which encourages designers to 'differentiate between old and new.'
Designing structures that aesthetically compliment historic neighbors can contribute significantly to the neighborhood’s vibrancy – new development can create momentum for well-designed future growth…Here, the Historic Alphabet District’s third Design Guideline is met, part of which states that 'new development will seek to incorporate design themes characteristic of similar buildings in the Historic Alphabet District.'
The HRC, therefore, supports the insertion of this new retail building onto the southwest corner of NW 23rd and NW Glisan because the architecture is appropriate to the stylistically diverse neighborhood, and it meets all three design guidelines for the Historic Alphabet District.
At the same time, Stewart says blame for the project’s dissolution should not lie solely with the city’s Historical Landmarks Commission. After attending the last HLC hearing on the Apple store, he says what the Commission was asking for could easily have been accomplished without fundamentally compromising the architecture.
The Landmarks Commission was most concerned that there weren’t any awnings on building. That sounds trivial but isn’t. What they’re saying is the reason they didn’t support the design is it wasn’t ‘Portland enough’. When it rains and drizzles a lot, you need a protective entry. That’s not a major design thing. On a modern building like that you can put a modern canopy that still looks modern. It’s just a basic retail tool.
The other major thing was they thought there should be more windows on the Glisan side. I don’t really think the commission was opposed to the design. They were looking for something that expressed a little more of a Portland look. This is the same prototype that they build in Chicago and elsewhere. It’s not the metal façade, but otherwise it’s basically like what they’ve built in other places too.
Based on Stewart’s take, it’s fair to ask if the brouhaha over the project’s dissolution is based more on symbolic battles of historic versus modern than real ones. At the same time, it’s still an open question of whether the Commission dropped the ball on this one.