BY BRIAN LIBBY
Recently, wondering where things stood with the James Beard Public Market's ongoing efforts to raise money for a home at the west end of the Morrison Bridge, I reached out to the organization's leadership for an interview. Once we sat down to talk, I got more of a surprise than I was looking for.
It turns out that this summer the market's board of directors voted to abandon the multiyear dream of building at the Morrison Bridge/Naito Parkway site, and they have re-opened the discussion about where the James Beard Public Market will ultimately be built.
"We had for years dedicated our efforts to place the market at the west end of the Morrison Bridge. But the site just doesn't fit," explained Fred Granum, who last year succeeded the late Ron Paul, founder of the Beard Market campaign, as executive director. "Creating a public destination is our goal. We foresee hundreds of thousands a year coming. But the ramps on Naito Parkway [inside of which the market was to be built] would pose a true pedestrian hazard. Our wonderful friends at the City of Portland have pondered how the ramps might be modified. And there was continuous support from Mayor Hales and the Portland Bureau of Transportation to explore that with traffic studies. But it became obvious a few months ago that it wasn’t going to happen in our lifetime. The mission this organization has is to get a public market open. The challenges of that site were inhibiting our ability to do that. We as an organization reflected that there’s got to be another site. This is not the only site with the attributes we need."
The Morrison Bridge site was always a challenging one. It seemed like the JBPM leadership always wanted the bridge ramps to be gone, but their architect, Snøhetta, ultimately produced a design (or at least a rendering) based on the ramps staying and the market constructed inside and underneath them. The mayor and the relevant city bureaus seemed amenable to having the ramps removed, or at least engaging in studies of ramp removal, but at the end of the day the cost of removing the ramps might have easily fallen on the JBPM itself, which was not realistic given that the market is busy enough fundraising for itself.
"Clearly you’re talking years and years if not decades before it would happen," Granum added. "It was simply a huge task. Citizens like us can say those ramps should be modified, but there’s a lot of considerations we identified that were more than we were able to address in a timely fashion with our financial constraints in mind. We didn’t get into this to reconfigure traffic patterns."
What's more, even if the ramps had been removed or a commitment was made to remove them, Naito Parkway is still an exceptionally unfriendly place for pedestrians. The street acts as a barrier between downtown and Tom McCall Waterfront Park, and retail is barely existent there. Things have improved in recent years with the opening of projects like the White Stag Block for the University of Oregon and the Mercy Corps headquarters just across Burnside, not to mention the Better Naito temporary reconfiguration of the street in the summertime. But ultimately the riddle of Naito probably would have needed to be solved before a major entity like the JBPM was willing to locate there, and that will take a long time.
Finding a new location for the Beard Market would seem to set back efforts to get it built, but ultimately Granum and his team believe it will allow them to build something sooner, not later. "We can do it sooner and cheaper at another site, and there are immediate opportunities that would accommodate our requirements," Granum said, "and will allow us to fulfill the vision that the constraints of the Morrison bridgehead would not have allowed."
So what happens next? "We’ve been invited to participate in the master planning at the OMSI site," the executive director explained, "and we're in conversations about the Innovation Quadrant it's part of. And there’s another site in the downtown area for which the developer has approached us. So we are soon to have a selection, I would anticipate. It could be two moths, four months. We’ve been very enthused by the interest others have about placing the market elsewhere."
The OMSI property makes a lot of sense because it's still on the waterfront right across the Hawthorne Bridge (downtown's most popular span for pedestrian crossings) from downtown, and well connected to transit including both MAX and the Portland Streetcar. And while the saddest part (from an architecture lover's perspective) about the abandonment of the Morrison Bridge site may be the end of the Beard Market's relationship with the internationally-renowned architecture firm Snøhetta, it turns out that Snøhetta has been hired by OMSI to master plan the museum's 17-acre property.
"We have the highest regard for Snøhetta," Granum said. "They’ve been a great, super, visionary partner in helping us capture the essence of what the market needs to be. They really get the culture here. But we anticipate wherever we build will be in collaboration with other people. We would not presume at this stage to dictate Snøhetta will be the architect. Would I like them to be? Sure. But I don’t want t to be out there that any body collaborating us somehow we get to dictate who the designer will be. We can’t walk in saying, 'Thou shall hire Snøhetta.'" But if the connection at OMSI were already established, perhaps Snøhetta could be re-hired as Beard Market designer. They certainly did a superlative job the first time around.
Tilikum Crossing (Brian Libby)
There is one drawback to the OMSI site, at least until the district transforms: to be successful, the market probably ought to be within walking distance of residential areas. It's arguable that not many people live near the Morrison site downtown, but that's quickly changing, not just with respect to apartments and condos but more and more hotels. The OMSI site is not very close to many hotels, unless you start looking at the ones across the river; but I'd go ahead and count that proximity as being in the site's favor. It's just that there aren't many people living near OMSI. The closest would be neighborhoods like my own, Ladd's Addition in Southeast. That said, residential development may become part of the OMSI site as it builds out. Certainly the majority of the Central Eastside's zoning will continue to not allow residential, but it will be possible at this southern cluster near Tilikum Crossing.
If not the OMSI site, another intriguing possibility for the James Beard Public Market would seem to be South Waterfront and, more specifically, the Zidell Yards. Recently the Zidell Marine Company announced it will next year shut down its barge-building terminal next door to OHSU's Center for Health & Healing and the Portland Aerial Tram. The Zidell facility's main structure, known in-house as "The Barn," is about two football fields long, all wide-volume open space. The market doesn't need all of it, but taking, say, half or one-third would provide an ideal home while giving the district a "there there," a reason for non-residents and people who don't work for or get treatment from OHSU to come to the area.
There is one other possibility for a Beard site that comes to mind, but unfortunately seems far less likely: Centennial Mills. If located here the market would be close to many thousands of Pearl District residents, be right on the river in a historic and food-oriented site (Portland was once the third-richest city in America because of all the Oregon wheat that shipped out of these mills), and still be just a few blocks north of downtown. Yet the city has been seemingly focused more on tearing down than building up, and it has seen a series of relationships with potential developers fizzle. Naito Parkway would also still be a problem here; Centennial Mills arguably needs a pedestrian bridge over Naito and the railroad.
Ultimately, of course, only time will tell where the James Beard Public Market lands. But make no mistake: although Portland already has farmers markets and food halls, we still need this project to happen. While it's disappointing to see a great project like Snøhetta's disappear or become relegated to the annals of the permanently unbuilt, we may wind up seeing the market come to fruition sooner along one side of Tilikum Crossing than we would have at the Morrison Bridge site, and given that latter site's constraint, the architectural space being created could still be better (particularly if Snøhetta or its caliber of firm were involved) than what any architect could shoehorn between a pair of circular bridge ramps.
I also hope that as city leaders such as our incoming mayor consider the fate of the James Beard Public Market, they engage not in the kind of siloed thinking that has plagued Portland development in recent years but instead think of the JBPM as one important piece of a larger civic puzzle in the central city. We should be thinking about how the OMSI parcel and the Innovation Quadrant along either side of Tilikum relate to other opportunities for the central city such as on both sides of the Morrison Bridge with the Rose Quarter, the Blanchard Portland Public Schools site, Centennial Mills, and the downtown Postal Service site.
The James Beard Public Market as we knew it is dead. Long live the James Beard Public Market! It's a reminder of that old cliche that the Chinese characters for "crisis" and "opportunity" are actually the same.