Portland Building (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
It was nearly two years ago, in January of 2014, that City Council members first considered a costly overhaul for the Portland Building.
One can't blame them for having been shocked that a building completed in 1982 was suffering such extensive structural and water damage, or that a combination of construction costs and temporary relocation for its approximately 1,300 municipal employees could push into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Which is why Council members like Dan Saltzman said at the time that "we should basically tear it down,” and Nick Fish called the building "a white elephant.”
Ultimately the decision to spare the Portland Building wasn't based on its design, by the late Michael Graves, having a prominent place in American architectural history as the first major work of postmodernism. It had nothing to do with the Portlandia statue sitting atop its western facade.
Instead, Council members approved a $195 million restoration because it's still cheaper than starting over with new construction. So while the approval was grudging, it was still approval. “This is a day we wish we didn’t have to be here for,” Hales said. “We wish it was built so well the first time, and that it hadn’t leaked. I wish we didn’t have to do this, but we do. I think all of us in a situation like this say ‘there’s got to be a cheaper alternative than that.’ But it appears that’s not the case.”
Besides the question of whether to renovate the Portland Building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, there has been the question of how much its unacceptably low natural light levels could be improved. Before last week's City Council vote, I happened to interview the city's chief administrative officer, Fred Miller, about the building for an upcoming article. He believes the light levels can be improved by changing some of the glazing - not the tiny cubed windows, but the other shaded facade glass.
"We are light deprived," Miller said. "There’s no doubt about that. And employees generally don’t like working in this building. It’s a place that people would say pretty consistently and unanimously needs to be improved as a workplace. The real issue for us, I think, in terms of light, is we have these big vertical windows on the outside that on the inside are blocked. Why they were blocked from the inside I don’t know. But if we were to unblock those, we'd have the opportunity to do something that gets much more light in. I’ve heard we have something like 18 percent of the available light coming in, and we could get over 60."
Miller also noted that if the shaded Portland Building glass is made more transparent, the city's Historic Landmarks Commission may have some deliberations over the move, because it would noticeably change the exterior look the architecture. Yet when Graves visited Portland this time last year, not long before his death, he expressed approval for the change during an interview I did with him for Architect magazine. "Buildings all need care, and so does the Portland Building," he said of its need for renovation.
Portland Building (photo by Brian Libby)
There may also be opportunity to improve the building's interiors with more of an open-office plan; one interior designer recently described the offices' tall cubicles as almost like little buildings. Graves also recommended glassing in the building's ground-floor loggias, which would improve its presence at street level.
However much they were holding their noses, City Council clearly did the right thing here. No one blames them for expressing frustration over the high cost of fixing what should be a still-robust building after 33 years. But this is also a matter of coming full-circle with what the Portland Building always was: a building that, despite its architectural pedigree, was built on the cheap. To approve this $195 million restoration may be concerning given how the city has limited budget resources, but it's also an opportunity to demonstrate that Portland no longer does things on the cheap. To that end, I'd like to see Council take more of a prideful ownership of their decision. It may be spending a lot of money, but it's demonstrating that Portland understands the broader importance of investing in and preserving its most significant architecture.
The Portland building is just one of numerous local landmarks facing the dilemma of restoration or demolition.
Centennial Mills is already being partially demolished, and the plan to preserve its two largest structures is openly being reconsidered; the mayor even outright endorsed demolition because of the cost and because of the incredibly ill-advised decision to retain the Portland Police Bureau's riverfront horse paddock on the site. Honestly I'm not sure what to do with Centennial Mills given how deteriorated it all is, but it would be a blemish on Council and the city as well as a massive lost opportunity if we weren't able to renovate at least a building or two.
Veterans Memorial Coliseum recently saw a City-sponsored study confirm that the arena not only fills an important niche among central-city venues and will turn a profit upon even a modest restoration but that it such a move will have an economic impact worth multiple times the cost of a restoration. Its restoration costs are big too, but only a fraction of the Portland Building's renovation costs or the cost of a new arena. For the past six years I've been part of the group trying to save and restore Memorial Coliseum, so I'm admittedly biased. But then again I'm biased in one direction or the other about all local architecture. It's kind of the point.
The US Postal Service is also vacating its mid-20th century facility on NW Broadway, and while the architecture is handsome enough to merit consideration of renovation or a hybrid of old and new architecture, it will most likely be torn down. If so, none of us will shed tears. But again: the right design could transform what's there in a compelling and sustainable way.
There's also the question of the Multnomah County Courthouse, which will be vacated after the county builds a new downtown facility a few blocks away at the edge of the Hawthorne Bridge. It very well may be sold to the private sector and renovated into something like a new office space, but currently its future is very much in the air.
No one would ever argue that all old buildings or even all historic buildings can or should be saved. But if the post office must go, Centennial Mills and Memorial Coliseum are, like the Portland Building, architectural cornerstones of our city, exemplifying a range of styles and purposes and bringing distinction to each of their surrounding environments.
We may not choose to build a postmodern confection with small windows today, but if the interior can be improved we have to understand and embrace the Portland Building's significance. That's what City Council did last week by committing to its renovation. And it's what they should do with the other landmarks in need.
Recently Mayor Charlie Hales announced that he would not seek re-election in 2016, perhaps given an expected tough if not uphill battle against former state treasurer Ted Wheeler. Hales said he can't run for re-election and tackle the city's needs at the same time. He spoke of the affordable housing crisis as just one area that needs full-time attention. While there's no doubting the importance of that issue, or related concerns about poverty and homelessness, that doesn't mean we can't also devote urban renewal dollars and other funding sources to restoring the city's most important landmarks. Let Council be open about their concerns about cost, for that is part of the process. But as with the Portland Building, our city's leaders must also be custodians of the city's most important places. Restoring these buildings isn't just a grudging task, but a powerful and lasting opportunity.
Don't apologize for that, Mr. Hales. Own it.