When former Mayor Vera Katz stepped down from City Hall last month, architects and designers lost an ally. "People complained about her all the while during her tenure," says architect and former planning commissioner Marcy Mc-Inelly. "But in the days before she left, I began to think, 'What are we going to do without her?'"
Two Katz ideas, the Mayor's Design Initiative and the Portland Design Festival, are in limbo with her retirement.
Mayor Tom Potter, however, says he's not turning his back on design. "The buildings that will be built during the next four years will define Portland for the next 50," he told WW by email. "So their design is critical. But good design must reflect the needs of the community who will live with these buildings every day."
Ultimately, a stagnant economy may force Potter to be more cautious than Katz was during the late-'90s boom. "She kind of said, 'Let's do it. We'll find the money later,'" says Amy Miller Dowell of the Portland Design Commission. "I can understand how some would find that troublesome, but I think it's been good for the city."
Here are three big projects that will test Potter's commitment—and define his architectural legacy.
Potter takes office on the eve of a $250 million, five-block development deal for the east end of the Burnside Bridge. It's a crucial gateway to eastside Portland that desperately needs a more pedestrian-friendly intersection (wider sidewalks, better lighting) at the busy Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard-Burnside Street interchange.
All three developers vying for the job combine high-density office, residential and retail space. But Gerdling/Edlen and Opus both pitched projects wrapped around big-box retailers (Home Depot and Lowe's), provoking public outcry, which forced them to redraw their plans.
The Portland Development Commission will select the winning bid in April. Its decision will hinge on clout, resources and design. Brewery Blocks developer Gerding/Edlen has the best local track record, but Opus has a national organization behind it. The third contestant, Beam, was the only firm to avoid the big-box trap from the start and boasts legendary English architect Sir Norman Foster on board as a consultant.
The PDC makes the final decision, but Potter's influence is still important. "PDC's main concern is not the best design," says McInelly. "Their purview is urban renewal districts—raising money and creating tax bases." The mayor can add political weight to public consensus about which proposal is the best fit for the neighborhood, which buildings are most compelling, and which design creates the most inviting public space.
The long fight is over—Sky Tram is on its way. But there are still a lot of questions hovering over South Waterfront, the biggest new Portland development in more than a century. How tall will the buildings be? Who will design them? How will the neighborhood integrate with riverfront greenspace?
Along with primary tenant Oregon Health & Science University, co-developers Williams & Dame and Gerding/Edlen have promised a modern, eco-friendly, high-density neighborhood.
But last year, when OHSU backed away from hiring local architect Brad Cloepfil, Portland's most acclaimed architect in a half-century, critics worried that the banal designs of the Pearl District would be repeated in South Waterfront. With thousands of jobs and residents predicted, designers are hoping the project still meets its initial promise.
"I think the tram's international design competition created a lot of excitement," McInelly says. "Why couldn't we have a similar competition ongoing for the buildings in the district? It's important that our local talent be tapped, but I think we should be looking internationally, too."
MAX is scheduled for a $160 million expansion along the 5th and 6th Avenue transit mall. But thanks to a $5 million November budget cut in the city's accompanying improvement district, there's virtually no money for street improvements such as station platforms and shelters, or for redevelopment of key parcels along the line.
If MAX extensions aren't designed well at the sidewalk level, "it's going to be worse than it is now," says L. Rudolph Barton, head of Portland State University's architecture department. "I don't think there's a terrible downside to waiting a couple years when the funding cycle brings another opportunity." If you can't design it right, he says, why do it?
All three proposals for the Burnside Bridgehead are online at: http://www.pdc.us/ura/central_eastside/burnside-bridgehead.asp .
The South Waterfront district is online at http://www.thesouthwaterfront.com .
Putting MAX along the downtown Transit Mall is part of a larger plan to extend a new light-rail line from Portland to Milwaukie. For more info, see http://www.trimet.org/improving/southcorridor.htm