The block behind the Fox Tower has traveled a circuitous route to become Simon and Helen Director Park.
Developer Tom Moyer, owner of the block, sought to redevelop it since the 1970s. Downtown parking magnate Greg Goodman proposed to turn the block into a 550-space, 12-story parking structure in 1995, which was to be called the Park Avenue Plaza. In 1998, Moyer and ex-Portland mayor/Oregon governor Neil Goldschmidt proposed not only turning this parcel into a park, but razing several consecutive buildings along the street for greenspace as part of a larger plan to connect the North and South Park Blocks.
Director Park is the compromise, although an attractive one and mostly very well done. It is first and foremost a 700-car underground parking garage, as one is reminded from the numerous above-ground entry structures here. But this is also a piazza where people can congregate at outdoor tables and kids can play in a fountain. On two sides of the park, granite paving blurs the line between park and adjacent street, giving off a pleasant European feel. The most striking feature, however, is Director Park's 1,000 square foot glass awning. (More on that later.)
At one point this was to be called Marilyn Moyer Park, after Tom Moyer's deceased wife. He had previously donated $1 million to the park and requested the name in her memory. Moyer also, of course, donated the land for Director Park itself. But the city and its public steering committee later decided to give away naming rights in exchange for further funding. Jordan Schnitzer, from the wealthy local family whose name dots many institutions, donated $1.97 million for the plaza and asked city commissioners to name it for his maternal grandparents, Simon and Helen Director, Russian and Polish immigrants who met in Portland in 1916. I wonder if that decision has to do not only with finances but also with the fact that Moyer's Park Avenue West Tower, now partially constructed across the street from Director Park, effectively killed the chance to extend the Park Blocks.
With all due respect to the memory of Marilyn Moyer and of Simon and Helen Director, I don't like to see public spaces simply named after whomever the biggest donor wants. It seemed more fitting when these spaces were named after those who have led or contributed to the city in a substantial way, such as former governor Tom McCall (after whom Waterfront Park is named) or the late gallerist William Jamison (after whom Jamison Square in the Pearl is named). Marilyn Moyer also already has the Marilyn Moyer Meditation Chapel at The Grotto named after her, and while this is the first naming honor to go to Simon and Helen Director, it is about the 100th thing named after a member of the Schnitzer family.
Instead of Director Park, what if we'd called it Bill Walton Square, after the hero of the Blazers' lone championship? Or Mel Blanc Park, after the virtuoso cartoon voice artist who came from Portland. Name it Dick Bogle Plaza, after the former City Council member who recently passed. Dedicate it to James Beard, the father of TV food chefs. Or Clark Gable Square after the actor who once lived in Portland. Or Mark Rothko Park after the legendary painter who got his start here. Or if news turns out for the worst, what about even Kyron Horman Piazza?
The involvement of ZGF in this park, because of its glass canopy, recalls another design by the firm that I love: the glass canopy at Portland International Airport. It's one of my favorite works of architecture and engineering in the city. ZGF also recently completed the Jaqua Center at the University of Oregon in Eugene, another glassy marvel, as well as its own headquarters as part of the 12 West building. Suddenly ZGF is doing much of the most interesting glass work in the city and beyond.
A Harvard graduate who has taught and chaired landscape architecture departments at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard since 1976, Olin's eponymous firm received the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Landscape Design in 2008. Earlier this year Olin was on the winning team in the competition to design the new United States Embassy in London with architects KieranTimberlake. Olin is also a Guggenheim Fellow and was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Olin's list of past projects is hugely impressive. In New York he worked on Bryant Park and Battery Park City as well as a renovation of Columbus Circle. Olin also collaborated with celebrated architects Daniel Liebeskind on the Jewish Memorial in Berlin and Richard Meier on the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. In short, Olin is another star landscape architect contributing to Portland, joining the ranks of Lawrence Halprin, Peter Walker, and the Olmsted brothers.
This summer, the public has flocked to Director Park. A World Cup soccer match between England and the USA filled the park with revelers to watch on a giant-screen TV. Tonight there is a viewing party for the masterful Vincente Minnelli musical An American In Paris with Gene Kelly. And during the several times I have visited Director Park, there have always been people there. Particularly I think people gravitate to the tables and chairs dotting Director, the simplest of design moves but something noticeably lacking in Pioneer Courthouse Square. What's more, for all the wonderful energy of the downtown food cart scene, there are very few places to sit down and eat your lunch. The 10th Avenue food cart pod is just a couple blocks from Director, making it an ideal spot to eat.
Actually, though, you can eat without leaving the park at all. One of Tom Moyer's provisions for donating the land above the underground parking for a park was that 30 percent of the space be devoted to commercial activity. Enter Violetta, a smart little cafe that makes some of the best corn dogs I've ever tasted. The kitchen is adjacent to the glass canopy, encouraging visitors to sit back and people watch in the piazza.
Some, myself included, wondered before Director Park's construction whether it would mean too much public space clustered together in this portion of downtown with Pioneer Courthouse Square and the North South Park Blocks each only a block away. So far, though, I think Director has carved a niche for itself as a different kind of park space from the others nearby. This isn't a wide open expanse like Pioneer, nor is it an intimate tree-lined setting like the Blocks. Director is the place to sip espresso at an outdoor table on a sunny afternoon. "It's growing on me," one prominent Portland artist and curator told me of Director Park yesterday as I found him at one such table chatting with a friend.
Materials also help make the park what it is. The light granite surface creates a series of subtle but attractive patterns. Better yet are the wood benches placed along two sides and around the perimeter of the fountain.
Much as Director Park has impressed with its instant success at place-making, its complementary feel to nearby Pioneer Courthouse Square and the many fine details of the design, I am plagued by a lingering worry that the design will only work in the summer. Specifically, I'm skeptical of the glass canopy. It feels too tall and skinny to keep away the rain. Although I'm admittedly yet to test this theory, I'm concerned that during the long rainy months Director Park's signature canopy will be a place people hope to congregate only to find that the drops are still hitting them.
For many years I've yearned for Portland to have a winter-garden, a partially or fully enclosed glass structure where people can still enjoy the sensation of being outdoors (natural light, air) yet protected from the elements. When you're inside Memorial Coliseum's concourse (outside the seating bowl) this sensation comes through dramatically, but the MC is not a place where the public can congregate freely without a ticketed event. As Director Park was being designed and built, I had great hope that it would serve that role: Portland's public indoor-outdoor winter garden. I hope I'm wrong about Director Park, that the canopy isn't really too tall and thin to be that kind of year-round space.
What's more, I realize the canopy isn't the only criterion for judging Director Park. Visiting there in recent days, it felt like the congregating point of downtown Portland as much as beloved Pioneer Courthouse Square if not even more. And if Moyer's Park Avenue West Tower eventually finishes construction, the park will be bookended with retail including a new Nike Town store in that building as well as, hopefully, a re-opened Guild Theatre on the west side of the park.
It's because of this kind of good feeling about the design of Portland's newest downtown public space, though, that one wants it to last throughout the year.