where to begin…

Downtown Portland from the Eastbank Esplanade, unknown photographer

Downtown Portland from the Eastbank Esplanade, unknown photographer

Portland is a beautiful city, but there are a lot of ugly parts to it. Ugly is a personal opinion, but for this reference ‘ugly’ refers to aspects of the city that degrade or negatively impact it as a place for human habitation. Almost all of Portland’s ugly parts were “great ideas at the time,” in that at one time or another a decision was made in the best interest of the parties at the given time. Take for instance the alignment of Interstate 5 through the city especially the East bank of the Willamette. At the time, the Highway Department and the City decided to save some money by paving over the dilapidated Eastside riverbank even though planners (including Robert Moses of all people!) recommended cutting a grade-separated trench several blocks further from the river much like I-405 is today. If the trench had been built we could have capped it over with a park or development and enjoyed the economic vitality and natural capital of a useful riverbank.

One of the many topics I hope to explore on this blog is the examination of the ‘ugly’ parts individually and create a dialog of how to make things better. Not all topics will be as large as I-5, most ideas are about small spaces and their cumulative effects on Portland, and other places, as a whole.

The public realm is not the only part of the city worth a conversation, there are far more private developments that have shaped our urban landscape for better or for worse. A lot of the time the private projects of yesterday are what steer the design of today. The private development can also work hand in hand, be influenced by, or work as a precedent to alterations to our public realm. The decision to align the I-5 freeway along the river bank was also steered by local businesses who would have been displaced with a more inland route. The fact that the riverfront was in an economic slump at the time made the private land cheaper and more desirable for the city to raze. Today, we see the opposite happen as a group of private landowners and prominent businessmen have pushed for a publicly owned Streetcar line to be built to encourage redevelopment in the same area along I-5 on the East side. The hopes are to get the same level of private investment as the Pearl District received after the building of the Streetcar there. Most of the Pearl District was privately built, and what was not privately built was voluntarily taxed for. The “new” neighborhood is not finished yet, nor has its younger kin the South Waterfront District, but the Pearl has taken nearly 30 years to come to fruition. The Eastside is a different story, a longer story of constant re-purposing and re-use from the times it was its own city to being an industrial sanctuary to being a small business and creative sector incubator. Here we have a new expensive piece of public infrastructure, much like I-5 for its time, that is welcomed with open arms by the community, but how will it affect the area? Only time will tell…

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