BY FRED LEESON
Sometime in the next few months, Portland will see a new architectural element that conceivably could become the next big rage in big box retail.
Ron Tonkin Toyota, at 755 S.E. 122nd Ave., will erect a large, back-lit “entry portal” that will serve as background for the bright red Toyota logo and provide a pedestrian entrance into the Toyota side of the large auto dealership.
The design is dictated by Toyota, and franchisees have little leeway to change it. But that didn’t keep the city Bureau of Development Services from wondering if there wasn’t a better way. The planning staff rejected the illuminated portal, prompting an appeal by Tonkin to the Portland Design Commission.
“The signage itself is not the issue,” said Chris Caruso, a city planner. “It’s the illuminated wall.” She added, “When illuminated, it will be a visually dominant feature of the neighborhood…We’re not sure how far this wall can be seen.” She estimated it might be as far as a mile. Caruso suggested that a better result might be white metal panels illuminated by lights in front.
The wall is composed of white, diffused glass panels measuring four feet square. The entire wall, which will be attached to the building, will be approximately 48 feet wide and 28 feet tall. Before the appeal hearing, the city attorney’s office had ruled that the wall itself is not a sign, so its total square footage would not be regulated by city sign regulations.
Ed Tonkin, a senior executive in the family-owned automotive sales empire, opened the appeal on the company behalf. Unlike some entrepreneurs who take a “why is this dumb little commission interfering with my rights as a property owner” approach, Tonkin opened with a tactful statement thanking the commission for taking its time to consider the matter. He compared the glow from the illuminated wall to the glow of the moon, soft and without glare. “This doesn’t shine in your face,” he said.
A Toyota representative said the bulbs are positioned behind a metal diffuser, and that only 26 percent of the bulb’s light makes it through the glass. At 30 feet away, the wall generates 2.4 foot candles of light, less than a tenth of the amount required for normal reading. At 50 feet, the measurement is 1 foot candle, and at 100 feet it is zero, according to Toyota’s calculations.
“It’s a matter of glow, not glare,” Tonkin said. He said glare would be greater off a metal panel system. “We cannot and will not make it metal,” he said. “They (Toyota) won’t accept it, and we won’t do it.”
Tim Heron, senior BDS planning manager, asked the commission to consider the significance of the illuminated wall as an architectural element. “It’s an important case,” he said. “We don’t deny things lightly. It’s an important precedent.” For example, he said approval could open the door for a retailer such as Home Depot to put large, illuminated (orange) walls on its buildings.
A mitigating factor in the Tonkin case, however, proved to be a setback from S.E. 122nd Ave. of some 420 feet – two equivalent of two downtown blocks – from the street to the dealership façade. In the commission’s view, the large setback was an element that few other big box outlets would be likely to meet.
“I’ve seen these in real life and I am not offended by them,” said Jane Hansen, a design commission member. “I don’t see a negative side of this.”
Although there was no neighborhood opposition to the Tonkin plan, commission members felt that the illuminated wall should be turned off at some reasonable evening hour. The dealership is often open until 9 p.m., and customers engaged in car deals sometimes remain on the site beyond closing. The commission decided that the wall should be switched off at 10 p.m.
Fred Leeson is a Portland journalist and president of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation/Architectural Heritage Center.