BY FRED LEESON
Here’s the scenario: Prominent, wealthy businessman plans to build a tall, impressive downtown building. Acquires a full block and clears it. Hires one of the most prominent architectural firms in the city to design it. Begins construction.
Then a huge economic downturn cripples the economy. Wealthy businessman hits the skids. Work is stopped on the foundation of the new building. The site sits untouched for several years, looking something like an archaic ruin. Eventually, new financing is arranged by other entrepreneurs and construction is completed.
Chances are you think I’m referring to Tom Moyer’s Park Avenue West, an artfully-designed 33-story mixed-use tower that now sits idle as a hole in the ground, immediately west of the Nordstrom store. Come next April, it will be three years since work stopped on the tower, which has since been scaled back to 26 stories. And there’s still no firm date for resuming construction.
Ah, but I deceive you. The opening vignette is NOT about Park Avenue West. Rather, it’s a surprisingly similar episode that unfolded a mere two blocks east of the Park Avenue West site in the 1880s. Is it possible that history suggests the outcome for Park Avenue West?
The wealthy entrepreneur of the early 1880s was railroad builder Henry Villard, who envisioned a wonderfully grand hotel for downtown Portland to sit on the block that is now Pioneer Courthouse Square. Villard hired Whidden & Lewis, Portland’s leading architecture firm of the era, to draw up plans for an eight-story, U-shaped chauteau-style building that would curl around an attractive central courtyard. Construction began in 1882.
The effects of a major recession that hit the East Coast in 1883 took several months to have its full impact on the far-flung West Coast. Financial setbacks forced Villard to halt construction on his hotel while it was still in its foundation stage. It sat untouched and was commonly known as “Villard’s ruins” for five years before other investors put up money to finish the hotel in 1890.
The good news was that the elegant new hotel lived up to Villard’s original plan. It hosted 11 U.S. presidents during its 61 years of operation. Its elegant lobby and fine dining put it in a class of its own. During the boom years of the 1920s, A.E. Doyle, who had succeeded Whidden & Lewis as that era’s most prominent architect, designed a never-built addition that would have filled the courtyard with a central tower.
Sadly, time wasn’t good to the Hotel Portland. In the 1940s problems were detected in the foundation. The belief at the time was that repairs would be too expensive. The hotel closed in 1951. The Meier & Frank department store bought the block, cleared it and built a modern two-level parking garage and gas station in its place. A deal negotiated in the 1970s by the now much-reviled former Mayor Neil Goldschmidt removed the parking structure and converted the old Hotel Portland block to today’s much-respected Pioneer Courthouse Square.
Meanwhile, back at Park Avenue West, the news isn’t good. Tom Moyer, the movie-theater mogul who plowed millions from his theater profits into the 1000 Broadway Building and Fox Tower downtown, now suffers from advanced dementia. His granddaughter, Vanessa Sturgeon, who has held the reins of TMT Development in recent years, said early in November that the firm hoped to land new leases for the unbuilt tower in 2013, and suggested a possible building completion date in 2015. (Original tenants were to include the Nike retail store and Stoel Rives, Oregon’s largest law firm. Both tenants backed out when construction stopped.)
Just a couple weeks after Sturgeon’s reference to leasing in 2013, Oregonian reporter Jeff Manning wrote about deep conflicts in the Moyer family arising from Sturgeon’s management of the family empire. The upshot is that the Moyer family could be headed for difficult and time-consuming litigation over the family fortune, perhaps comparable to the courtroom turmoil that arose in the Naito family after entrepreneur Bill Naito’s death in 1996. If so, it is probably safe to assume that even the 2013-15 time frame for resuming work on Park Avenue West is premature.
At its original height of 33 stories, the Park Avenue West was intended to fill a significant gap in Portland’s skyline. Given the low-scale buildings immediately around it, it seemed destined to enjoy visual prominence for decades to come. Its many years of planning included a deal negotiated by Tom Moyer to allow the surface of the adjacent southerly block to be developed into a public park in return for several levels of underground parking. The carefully designed result, Director Park, in time should become as much loved as Pioneer Courthouse Square as a jewel of Downtown Portland. It also was to have been the front yard, so to speak, for the graceful tower designed under the guidance of Robert Thompson and his firm, TVA Architects.
In 2009, when the affects of the Great Recession had become painfully clear, TVA scaled the design back from 33 stories to 26. Condos that once had been planned for the upper stories were scrapped. "We've tried to keep the verticality of the building," Thompson told the Portland Design Commission. "By any standards, it will still have a significant impact on the skyline."
We shall see. For now, Portland can expect the hole in the ground to remain for at least a few more years. Perhaps it should be called “Moyer’s ruins,” with a nod to Henry Villard and the Portland Hotel. Which leads one to suggest that, like the example of the Hotel Portland, perhaps the Moyer family should negotiate a deal with new developers to come in and finish the project. At some point the hole becomes blight, although one doubts that the City of Portland is willing to force the owner to abate the nuisance the way it would with an ordinary homeowner.
It all adds up to a sad conclusion for the brilliant career to Tom Moyer. It is merciful if he no longer understands. Aside from being an excellent and mild-mannered business tycoon, this is the man who as an amateur boxer once traded blows with the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson.
Near the end of a long planning process and several public hearings leading to approval of the original 33-story plan, the elderly Moyer showed up at one of the final Design Commission meetings in 2007. He sat silently in the back of the room and listened to the final wrangling over bicycle parking and other tiny details. It was the kind of minutia that would drive most high-powered entrepreneurs crazy.
As part of my work reporting at The Oregonian, I approached Moyer and asked him what he thought about the planning process. Vanessa Sturgeon cut in and tried to prevent him from answering. I tried to tell her I only wanted a brief answer to one question, but it didn’t matter. Tom Moyer was already answering.
"It's something you go through," he said quietly. "When you get to the end, you know you've talked about everything."