BY BRIAN LIBBY
In March of last year, Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability introduced the concept of what is being called a Green Loop around the central city, "an easy and smooth pathway through the Central City’s parks and open spaces," as it's described on the bureau's website, "a six-mile walking and biking path that invites residents, employees and visitors to experience Portland’s urban core in an entirely new way."
With the Broadway Bridge and Tilikum Crossing as its northern and southern borders, the proposed Green Loop would run north-south on the east side via either Seventh Avenue or the MLK/Grand highway couplet, and would connect on the downtown side to the North and South Park Blocks. The ideas of how much of this Green Loop would be manifested, however, are still to be determined. Would it be restricted to a series of key individual sites, or might it include major changes to the roads themselves, such as with bioswales or expanded pedestrian and bicycle space?
The City's materials have referred to the Green Loup as a "Central Path," as if it could be as much of a game-changing destination as New York's Central Park. That's some serious ambition, especially for a city that has a history of shying away from big moves in favor of small changes. It's easy to imagine this big idea coming down to some bioswales along the road and a few small public parks on a series of little public parcels created by angled roadway intersections. But I hope I'm wrong, and it's at least a good sign to see the city aspiring to such efforts.
And now that the University of Oregon's John Yeon Center has become involved, sponsoring a design competition to generate ideas, maybe the idea of this Green Loop can start to take off with some creative thinking about what it can really be. Loop PDX is offering $20,000 in funding to the winning team that can produce a viable scheme that amplifies neighborhood character, creates new recreation opportunities, connects the inner and outer city, and invites conversations between strangers. Early registration for the competition ends today, but ultimately people can enter until January 22, with submissions due February 29 and winners announced at Design Week Portland in April.
With that in mind, I recently interviewed the Yeon Center's Randy Gragg about the competition and the thinking behind it.
Portland Architecture: Might this competition mark a new chapter for the Yeon Center? If I'm not mistaken, the mission so far has centered on Yeon-designed properties like the Watzek & Shire as well as public discussions. How does co-sponsoring this competition speak to new avenues the Center can pursue?
Randy Gragg: Loop PDX is a further broadening of chapter we’ve already begun. Since I became director, the Yeon Center’s mission has been to “preserve Yeon's legacy by inspiring future acts of visionary architecture, urbanism, and conservation.” Besides being a great designer, during his life, Yeon was involved in everything from writing treatises on road design to behind-the-scenes advocacy for a better design for Waterfront Park. My first year, we did a 4-part series on “Portland Parks: Past, Present, and Future” in which we invited 5 designers to propose parks that Portland hasn’t thought about. Lango Hansen’s proposal won an ASLA unbuilt award. So Loop PDX is just building further on the inspiration. And this time we’re offering a prize: up to $20,000 to further develop the winning concept!
As you know, Portland has had very few real design competitions over recent decades, perhaps in part as a backlash after the Portland Building or the Portland Aerial Tram competitions, or perhaps because we just lack wealth and high-profile-project ambition. What's your take on the usefulness of competitions and what they can do for the city?
The aerial tram got painted politically as the reason for the dramatic budget overruns—which was a load of crap, and another story—but the result of that competition was a gateway icon for the southern entrance to the city and a beautiful work of infrastructure. Loop PDX is a tiny competition by comparison, but it offers an opportunity for younger designers and teams to put there stuff out there and for more established firms to let some ideas fly outside the usual confines. Sadly, with the way the US in general and Portland in particular commissions architecture, it’s almost impossible to do larger design competitions (exhibit 1: the Multnomah County Courthouse). But maybe Loop PDX can open up the thinking about the usefulness of competitions for seeding for smaller projects.
Part of what interests me about the Green Loop is that on the east side of the Willamette it seems to more or less follow the Grand Avenue/MLK Boulevard couplet, a multilane US highway that doesn't seem very attractive to cyclists, pedestrians, or those seeking nature. How can we humanize the couplet while still accepting its necessity?
In the Loop PDX competition brief, the east side routes the Bureau of Planning has identified are SE 6th, 7th, and or 8th. We’re encouraging competitor to stay on those streets. I know there’s an advocate or two for MLK/Grand, but I don’t see how it can be done effectively with the streetcar on one side and the bridge on- and off-ramps on the other. Seems like it wouldn’t be very inviting for loopers or the adjacent businesses.
Besides your involvement with the Yeon Center and supporting John Yeon's legacy, you've also written extensively about Lawrence Halprin's great contributions to the city. What can participants in this Green Loop competition learn from Yeon and Halprin?
Interestingly, both Yeon and Halprin were extremely interested in processional experiences. Halprin’s Portland work—Lovejoy Fountain, Pettygrove Park and Keller Fountain he dubbed the “Portland Open Space Sequence.” He connected them with allees. They were our first “green streets”—circa mid-‘60s. Halprin's Roosevelt Memorial is similarly sequenced. His Hass Promenade in Jerusalem stretches between vista points and parks for several of miles. Whether designing houses or paths in The Shire, the 75-acre preserve he designed in the Columbia Gorge, Yeon was equally conscious of how even a short path can become sensory experience. The Watzek House he described as a “sequence of revelations.” It’s all about terminal vistas and surprising rooms. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a 6-mile loop in the city that was a “sequence of revelations”?
The competition brief in one of its indexes suggests a series of potential sites along the loop such as the east edge of the Broadway Bridge and the interchange at SE 7th & Sandy. Could you talk about some of the potential that exists at these sites to do great green place-making?
Mark Raggett and his team at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability have done a great job at identifying six big opportunities. Each has unused, publicly owned land that is too small to be developed but big enough to make a place; that have transportation infrastructure nearby, and offer a range of other opportunities ranging from cool views to nearby up-and-coming retail. Besides being spots where the city could conceivably get behind implementing a good idea, fast, these sites offer an easier step into the competition for designers or makers or activists who might otherwise be overwhelmed by the scale and abstractness of the larger loop.
As much as a Green Loop would seem to be a positive contribution to the central city, some might argue that Portland's neighborhoods further out from the center need green space more urgently. How do we balance the needs of the central city with outlying areas?
For sure, we need to invest in outer neighborhoods, but let’s face it: the central city is getting gridlocked. If we’re going to absorb more of the region’s growth in the inner city, with the limited infrastructure of our streets, we will simply have to get out of our cars. The loop offers an invitation to transform that inevitability something more than stripes on the street or a bike lane in between the parking strip and sidewalk. It’s an act of platemaking. And, as the loop takes shape, it will become an invitation to build more densely along it. An address on the loop will mean something. What I’m hoping the competition will prove is that, at least the first phase of this can be done inexpensively in phases through the participation of designers and the community. This can happen in small gestures and new places—or even, to start, in events. And it can be done by people and good ideas, not just the government.
Besides the individual site opportunities, what might be some tools in the toolkit for greening the rest of the loop: the ordinary roadways on either side of the river? Are we talking bio-swales, widened sidewalks, planters, or something more uncommon and substantial?
We’ll see what the competitors come up with! If in Portlandia, everyone “puts a bird on it,” in the world of Portland urban design, we’re “putting a bioswale on it.” Green infrastructure is important. But I’m frankly hoping we’ll see proposals for social infrastructure, something akin to San Francisco’s contagion of “parklettes" or an annual Sunday Parkways crossbred with Pasadena’s Do-Dah Parade. I’d like to see some ideas that unleash the Portland DIY spirit and its deep well of design talent and ability to make stuff. Let’s do something fun and interesting, and let’s do it now.