After a Portland Development Commission vote, the Portland Public Market’s nearly decade-long search for a home has collapsed again.
The Pacific Northwest College of Art outmaneuvered backers of the proposed market, after both sought the historic 511 Broadway Building as a future home. Market supporters got the bad news when the PDC voted last Wednesday to bow out of the public process. PNCA exercised an option called an “educational-use transfer,” which gives academic institutions the right to bypass local processes and negotiate directly with the federal government, which owns the building.
In the past month, a lot of ink has been spilled in the local media trying to determine the best use of the 511 Building, and the PDC made the right choice. PNCA is a well-funded entity that has been around for a century while the public market has little momentum and doesn’t exist .
Before market backers regroup and home in on the next iconic building (in the past they’ve also had their hearts set on Union Station and the Skidmore Fountain building to house a PDX version of Seattle’s Pike Place Market ), they ought to explore why their efforts continue to fail. In food-obsessed Portland, a year-round market should have been an easy sell.
Back in the ’80s, Ron Paul and Amelia Hard, the market’s principal backers, helped sprout the city’s culinary movement. But PDX no longer resembles the place for which the original, 1993 Public Market proposal was penned. It called for a home for bakeries, coffee shops, wine merchants, and specialty-foods purveyors—amenities that Portland now has. In 1993, there was no New Seasons Market or Ken’s Artisan Bakery. And the Farmers Market was dinky.
Today, entrepreneurs have filled the niches that the city once lacked, while our Portland Farmers Market is lauded as one of the nation’s best. From nationally acclaimed restaurants to a thriving food-cart culture, Portland houses an impressive amount of foodie micro-enterprises.
That Portland needs a “kitchen and pantry” is Paul’s favorite one-liner, but PDX has plenty of them. What it doesn’t have is a landmark, year-round market and forum for food and food education. Safe to say that will only happen if a concerted effort is made to engage the public. A recent poll on the local foodie website Portlandfoodanddrink.com expressed overwhelming reader support for a year-round public market, but market backers have failed to harness this enthusiasm. In the days prior to the PDC hearing, public market backers didn’t even send out a press release to muster support for its 511 bid.
Vancouver, B.C.’s, Granville Island Public Market is a project Ron Paul often cites as an example for Portland. In 1979, it didn’t begin life housed in an iconic shell, but in a bunch of nondescript metal buildings that would transform an industrial wasteland into a showcase for gastronomy. PDX’s Central Eastside Industrial District could be our Granville Island. It’s where land is cheaper, urban renewal funds are available and Portland’s creative heart most strongly beats.
“The eastside wasn’t a viable location six years ago,” remembers veteran Portland chef David Machado. “Today it’s a viable location.”
Imagine taking a ferry—like in Vancouver, B.C.—across the Willamette River from Tom McCall Waterfront Park to the James Beard Public Market on the Eastside Waterfront: a collaborative effort of foodies like Paul and Hard plus the cadre of young chefs and artisans currently not part of the effort. It would be the right revitalizing project for the close-in east side and a link to the historic Produce Row in an industrial area where thousands already work.
“The river is no longer a barrier for people to engage with a public market,” says Brad Malsin, whose Beam Development is already busy reinventing portions of the inner east side.
Regardless of location, Ron Paul needs to take his message beyond bureaucrats and City Club debates. He needs to take to the streets, engaging the public. In addition to the sporadic (but necessary) fundraising galas, why not shut down traffic and plan a midnight market on the Burnside Bridge in the middle of July? Make us feel it, Ron!
Portlander James Beard famously said, “Food is our common ground.” So if we’re to honor his legacy with a showcase market, the effort ought to be our common ground as well.