BY FRED LEESON
If big new buildings are a reasonable measure, the boom in today’s wobbly economy is health care.
Just as construction begins on the $300-plus million Collaborative Life Sciences Center in Portland’s South Waterfront district, work is finished on the $245 million Randall Children’s Hospital on the Legacy Emanuel Medical Center campus. At nine stories and more than 300,000 square feet, it is the largest and costliest project in close-in North/Northeast Portland neighborhoods for decades.
Emanuel threw a party on Feb. 11 to show off the new building, designed by the Portland-based firm ZGF Architects. Visitors by the hundreds lined up to tour the new structure, which is sleek and shiny on the outside and spacious, airy, and colorful on the inside. ZGF has carved itself a niche in the children’s hospital realm, having done comparable projects in Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, Texas and Saskatchewan.
Like college campuses, big medical complexes evolve over time with new buildings and seemingly-continuous remodeling as demands, services and technology change. Good Samaritan and the Providence complexes in Portland clearly have adopted general aesthetic schemes that create some continuity among buildings. Good Sam has used red bricks to unify its campus while Providence has stayed with light brown/orange masonry in a nod to its original Art Deco –tinged building.
Emanuel, alas, is all over the map. Anyone looking for design cues sees a befuddling mixture of gray masonry dating from the 1910s and 1920s to a peculiar space-agey looking structure, now the day surgery center, that must be late 1960s or early 1970s. Throw in a modern parking garage with bright orange-painted steel beams and perforated metal cladding that says, “Erector Set.”
Faced with this eclectic mish-mash, ZGF obviously opted to add to the mix with something irrepressibly modern, shiny and sleek rather than to pull from existing cues. As clearly the tallest and biggest structure on the campus, it likely will set the tone for future expansions, whenever they occur.
As a historical footnote, it is worth remembering that the commercial heart of the old community of Albina was leveled early in the 1970s for an urban renewal project, the centerpiece of which was to be an Emanuel Hospital expansion. Alas, not long after the the once-thriving- but- run-down neighborhood business center was demolished, Congress slashed federal funding for the Emanuel project and it never happened. A sizable portion of that land still sits vacant at N. Williams and Russell Street as a parking lot; the medical center’s subsequent improvements, including the new children’s hospital, all moved in other directions.
Had the Albina commercial center been allowed to continue in existence, it no doubt would have seen the same kind of entrepreneurial revitalization we see today on N. Mississippi and numerous other vital neighborhood centers. But to the eyes of city officials at the time, the buildings were old and run-down and demolition was the easiest, quickest option. Sadly, the commercial center included numerous steet-car-era buildings with storefronts topped by housing….exactly the kinds of structures that New Urbanists now see as a key to urban vitality.
I once asked the late George McMath, a guiding light for architectural preservation in Portland and first chairman of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission, whether there had been any serious discussion about saving the commercial heart of old Albina. McMath told me there was little interest in the African-American community – of which Albina was the heart – in favor of preservation. And he said -- rightly so, no doubt-- that any such momentum had to come from the community itself.
The upshot is that a historic and interesting piece of Portland was obliterated and still sits vacant today. Think about that as you drive past the vacant lot on your way to see the new hospital. Fortunately, our society no longer engages in “bulldozer” urban renewal, and the Emanuel site is one good reason why. One would hope we would know how to do it better today.