The Architectural Foundation of Oregon has announced its annual Honored Citizen. And no, this doesn’t have anything to do with a discounted meal at Shari’s restaurant and pie house. Instead, it’s a kind lifetime achievement award for those who have made a lasting contribution to the built environment, either here in Portland or elsewhere in the state. Past honorees include urban naturalist/advocate Mike Houck, architect Robert Frasca, philanthropist Jean Vollum, and landscape architect Barbara Fealy.
Although he won a Bronze Star in World War II parachuting behind enemy lines with the Army’s famed 82nd Airborne division, locally developer John Gray is best known for resort projects like Sunriver in central Oregon near Bend and Salishan on the coast just south of Lincoln City. Each is a remarkable and lasting demonstration of how Gray patronized talented, noteworthy local architects like Van Evra Bailey and John Storrs, the latter of whom designed Salishan.
In Portland, Gray was also a developer of John’s Landing, named not after himself but the B. P. John Furniture Company, the largest of several furniture manufacturers along the west side of the Willamette. John Storrs’ designs helped Gray and others transform the area into Portland’s first riverside residential and commercial development.
As it happens, I’ve been thinking about John’s Landing lately because I’ve been getting weekly acupuncture treatments on Southeast Macadam. (Remember when they used to call South Waterfront “North Macadam”, by the way?) Although one certainly has to respect and applaud the way John’s Landing was redeveloping relatively central riverfront property decades before it became widespread, I don’t find it a pleasant place to spend time.
It’s unfortunate: This is a major arterial highway, and cities have to have them. Even if there were a streetcar all the way to Lake Oswego and lots of commuters were using it, we’d still need a four-lane road going south from Portland. And because of the hilly terrain, there aren’t that many alternatives. It’s not as if there are other streets on a grid to diffuse the traffic. So I don’t blame drivers in this regard or the need for the highway going through here.
However, this is not a pedestrian friendly place, either in the relationship of the sidewalks to the busy street or the architecture. Some of the houses in John’s Landing are very nice, and so is Willamette Park. But from OPB’s ugly and banal corporate headquarters to the car dealerships to the lowest-common-denominator restaurants (excepting the yummy breakfast spot Café du Berry and a couple others), it’s unfortunate that in pedestrian-friendly Portland that south Macadam doesn’t feel more pleasant to walk or shop at. I don’t mean to say that it’s a hopeless string of strip malls and fast food, but John’s Landing could use a dose of North Mississippi and even the Pearl. Don’t you think?
This is not meant to take anything away from John Gray, either. Quite the contrary. He was a visionary, it seems, and one who patronized some of the best local architects of their time. Particularly if one lived in Oregon during the 1970s or 80s, when there was far lest development on the coast or east of the Cascades, places like Salishan and Sunriver were distinctive places that felt as much like California’s famed Sea Ranch development: modern but born from nature and a sense of place.
And John’s Landing seems capable of taking on new life given how the space between this neighborhood and Portland is filling out (South Waterfront), including perhaps a streetcar to be extended through. What could we do with John’s Landing to compliment the strides that John Gray and his architects made in the last generation? And to whom can this airborne builder pass the baton to?