BY FRED LEESON
Nostalgia can hit in unexpected ways. As the City of Portland goes about trying to draft a Central City 2035 plan to guide downtown and inner-East Side development in the next quarter century, I found myself looking up the famed Downtown Plan of 1972.
In the summer of 1971, I was a summer intern at the now-departed Oregon Journal newspaper, where I was assigned to be the newspaper’s only night general assignment reporter on weekday evenings. Thus I found myself attending and often writing about meetings of the Downtown Plan’s Citizen Advisory Committee, chaired by Dean Gisvold, a young Portland attorney.
It’s amazing to look at that plan today, which is available on the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability web site. Superficially, it was still the era of the typewriter; the maps and graphics are surprisingly elementary viewed against today’s professional standards.
Yet the content of the plan is incredibly striking and clear. It’s impact is obvious today: North-south transit spines of Fifth and Sixth Avenues; east-west spines on Morrison and Alder Streets; a central downtown public square; a pedestrian-oriented Waterfront Park available for big and small events; increased downtown housing; a high density building spine along the north-south transit spine, stepping down towards the river; transit; commercial and pedestrian-friendly uses on ground floors; increased transit, pedestrian and bicycle use at the expense of automobiles.
The plan even makes a passing nod to housing and commercial opportunities on 26 acres of mostly vacant railroad yards in Northwest Portland. Today we call it the Pearl.
The motivations for planning in the early 1970s were different than in 2011. Today the process is mandated, bureaucratized and institutionalized under statewide rules and regulations. When the Downtown Plan was initiated in the final years of Mayor Terry Schrunk’s administration there were no state rules. The motive was desperation: Downtown Portland as it had been known for decades was dying; this was an attempt to make it vital once again.
The 1972 Downtown Plan is hallowed -- and rightly so -- in planning history. It was intelligent and prescient. It was an outstanding roadmap for its day.
One recommendation of the 1972 plan was not been honored, however, and it has ramifications in the 2035 plan. Although there were no designated historic districts in the early 1970s, the 1972 plan recognized the importance of Portland’s historic fabric. “Density and design standards for new buildings need to respect the setting and character of historic and architecturally significant buildings,” the old plan said. At another point, it advises to “protect historic areas from incompatible development.”
Alas, the city government went on to do exactly the opposite. In the 1980s, the City council zoned the heart of downtown, including the national historic districts, as CXd, the densest of the city’s many commercial zones. As the city explains CXd, “Development is intended to be very intense with high building coverage, large buildings, and buildings placed close together.”
The impact of the high-rise zoning on historic districts such as Skidmore/Old Town and Japan/Chinatown has been painful. Owners of vacant lots and low-rise old buildings hold out thinking their land will pay off later as sites for high-rise towers. Cathy Galbraith, director of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation, a historic preservation advocacy group, says the high-rise zoning leads to benign neglect. She also says it makes one wonder whether the city would rather see the historic districts simply disappear over time, in favor of high new high-rise projects.
Fittingly, historic preservation is one of several elements being discussed as part of the Central City 2035 plan. City planners hosted two symnposia in May and June, where several of the brightest minds in development and preservation discussed the challenges, opportunities, successes and failures of preservation in Portland.
As a result of those meetings, an ad-hoc committee of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation is drafting a Platform for Preservation that outlines preservation goals and priorities for the Central City plan. A final version is expected soon. Key members of this informal brain trust included Cathy Galbraith, architects Paul Falsetto and Christine Yun, and Portland architectural and neighborhood historian, James Heuer, also a Bosco-Milligan board member.
Not surprisingly, changes in zoning that would reflect the context and density of the Central City’s numerous historic districts is one key priority. Another issue, not visited in earlier plans, calls for the city to study ways it can encourage seismic bracing of the Central City’s many unreinforced masonry buildings, given new geological evidence about the Cascadia subduction zone and the high probability of a major earthquake in the foreseeable future.
Buildings such as the historic Union Station railroad depot pose a real danger in a major earthquake. Experts predict that the unreinforced campanile would collapse into the main lobby under it, posing a serious threat to the lives of anyone in the building. The Platform for Preservation urges the city to study how other jurisdictions are encouraging earthquake bracing upgrades, with tools such as low-interest loans and property tax incentives. The issue is as much about human safety as it is about retention of historic building fabric.
Other elements of the platform include:
- Undertaking a new historic resources inventory that considers not only the architectural merit of vintage buildings but also sites of social, cultural and ethnic significance. Many buildings that may have played important roles in Portland history may not be significant architectural landmarks, but worthy of preservation for other reasons.
- Establishing affordable, centralized design review with appropriate design guidelines for historic districts. The Platform for Preservation envisions a central Historic Preservation Officer and a staff that can give building owners timely, constructive advice on renovation projects.
- Recognizing positive energy conservation and sustainability aspects of preservation. Cutting-edge research shows that even the “greenest” new buildings take 40 to 60 years before they hold an advantage over an older building that is reasonably upgraded with insulation and other energy-saving devices. This research contradicts conventional thinking that often favors demolition of old buildings to create a carbon-reduction benefit.
- Encouraging the city to be a better steward of its own historic resources, including Union Station, the North and South Park Blocks, and publicly-owned items both large and small of historic and public importance.
Professional planners and a citizens’ committee headed by historian Chet Orloff are expected to prepare a final proposed Central City plan late this year. City Council action is expected sometime in 2012.
One hopes that the final product will be as intelligent, useful and outstanding as the 1972 original.
Fred Leeson is a Portland journalist and president of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation and its Architectural Heritage Center.