Portland Aerial Tram (photo by Bradley Maule)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
On the heels of Oregon Health & Science University releasing its plans for the Collaborative Life Science building on its South Waterfront campus, the once controversial transit project at the center of the development - the Portland Aerial Tram - is celebrating its fifth anniversary.
It's hard to believe that it was only five years ago that the tram was opened to the public, for its gestation is still fresh in one's mind.
Only the second major-city aerial tram in the United States (the other connects Manhattan with Roosevelt Island), the project got off to a difficult start to say the least. Initial projections in 2002 estimated the cost at about $15.5 million, but the final tally wound up at $57 million after sharp rises in cost for materials like steel as well as moving the upper tram station (it became its own structure instead of being attached to the adjacent building). "Instead of landing on a mountainside and anchoring into bedrock, Portland, Oregon’s new aerial tram soars between two 200-foot towers, representing Olympian engineering gymnastics," wrote Randy Gragg in Architectural Record.
Portland Aerial Tram (video by Brian Libby)
In retrospect, it was folly to ever have expected such a major transit project to have cost so relatively little. The $15.5 million price tag seemed to reflect the cost of a ski lift more than a tram, although the uniqueness of the project could easily have been to blame rather than any intentional bait-and-switch tactic. That said, at the time Commissioner Randy Leonard called the affair an "outrageous shell game...all at the expense of taxpayers." The city threatened at the time to withdraw from the project, but in the end, all parties re-committed themselves to sharing the extra costs. Perhaps it was a case of Portland's collaborative, consensus-oriented culture saving the day, or perhaps it was the fact that the tram stood as the lynchpin of the entire South Waterfront district: a new OHSU campus connecting the medical school with its Marquam Hill buildings, as well as a high-density mixed use neighborhood built from scratch on a former brownfield site.
The tram also gave us the only major international design competition of the last quarter century and the first since the Portland Building competition that produced Michael Graves' design. Each of the major finalists brought impressive pedigree and great ideas. New York firm SHoP suggested a lower tram station that recalled Rome's iconic Spanish Steps. Engineer Guy Nordenson (also NYC-based) proposed an elegant sculptural configuration. Dutch firm UN Studio offered a changed configuration that might have better incorporated access for surrounding neighborhoods. Switzerland and Los Angeles-based AGPS Architecture suggested a wood-based tram station evoking the look of ballet dancers, but the firm was chosen most of all for the charisma and smarts of lead architect Sarah Graham, a native Portlander.
In the end, the completed project looked very little like AGPS's original proposal, but the fact that it was still visually striking anyway became all the more credit to the firm. Given that the tram cars would fly over one Portland’s oldest neighborhoods as well as two parks and a freeway meant that the architecture needed to be not just functional but beautiful. The angular pillar of the lower tram station as well as the metallic bubble-shaped cars themselves are now icons of Portland design along with its bridges and MAX trains.
Portland Aerial Tram station (photo by Bradley Maule)
"Portland's Aerial Tram is a pragmatic but philosophical conversation piece," wrote Jeff Jahn in PORT. "Pragmatically it was made for transporting people from the tall new glass towers in the South Waterfront neighborhood to Oregon Health and Sciences University at the top of Pill Hill. But it has courted and accumulated a lot of other meanings. Like the Eifel Tower, Space Needle, Arc de Triomphe and Statue of liberty it will forever be considered alongside the pervasive philosophical challenges and contexts in which it was built. For Portland today the context is questioning man's relationship to the environment (fossil fuels in particular), health care and science as a partner with nature, our use of increasingly scarce real-estate, issues of civic interdependence and the nature and use of the US's power. It is a unique architectural project and time will tell how the conversation it spurs will pan out."
Indeed, five years after the tram's opening, even though city budgets are more strapped than ever, the cost of the tram - ballooned though it was compared to original estimates - seems to have faded away while what the city and OHSU bought has become as embedded in the city's cultural and architectural fabric as the upper station is in Marquam Hill bedrock.
Of course it's not to say that a project budget nearly quadrupling should be cast off as unimportant. Yet how many of you can tell me the cost of Pioneer Courthouse Square, or the first MAX line? What often seem like big costs at the time can fade away in the ensuing years if the project holds up as a well-used, well-functioning, beautiful design.
When I took a ride on the Aerial Tram a few weeks ago (for a music video project I'm working on), it was a seemingly lazy Tuesday afternoon. But the tram was full to capacity, not only on my trip up and down the hill but countless trips before and after as I photographed the outside of each station. The tram is clearly what it set out to be: an invaluable connector for doctors, patients and administrators at OHSU, enlivening the burgeoning South Waterfront neighborhood with bustle and energy. If South Waterfront is still, compared to the rest of the central city, somewhat isolated and its streets without bustle, that is only going to change as more residents are added to the neighborhood and the Collaborative Life Science project takes root.
And in the broader picture, whether riding on the tram or driving on Interstate 5 or walking along the banks of the Willamette, one can see emerging a continuous strip of high density urbanity from downtown moving south. Now that there's a MAX and pedestrian bridge across the Willamette River being built nearby, and a pedestrian bridge over I-5 for connections to the historic South Portland neighborhood, the urban fabric will continue to be made - something the tram helped make possible.