The proposed master plan addresses a historic inequity the best way possible: with great place-making.
With the Portland metropolitan area's population projected to grow by hundreds of thousands over the next two decades and a long effort to promote high-density development over sprawl, there may be no better place for such growth than inner North Portland — specifically the area including the Rose Quarter, Broadway and Portland Public Schools' Blanchard Education Service Center.
It's not just a great 21st-century neighborhood waiting to happen, either. It's a 20th-century neighborhood waiting to be restored.
First platted in 1873, Albina, as this area was once known, was a city in its own right before being annexed by Portland in 1891. Albina was home to a succession of immigrant communities: Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, and particularly African Americans following the Vanport Flood of 1948. But then a succession of large urban renewal and infrastructure projects — Memorial Coliseum, Emmanuel Hospital and Interstate 5 — transformed the area. Each project had value, yet it's not by accident that these projects were built where black neighborhoods had been.
Albina Vision, the master plan created by Hennebery Eddy Architects for a consortium led by Meyer Memorial Trust chief investment officer Rukaiyah Adams and former Portland Parks and Recreation director Zari Santner, is one of the most exciting urban-design proposals the city has seen in years. And it is quintessentially Portland in its twin embrace of social justice coupled with pedestrian-oriented placemaking.
This area could not be more centrally located, just across the Broadway Bridge from the Pearl District, next door to the burgeoning Lloyd District, conveniently adjacent to any number of transit options (I-5, I-84, MAX, the Portland Streetcar) and a gateway to Northeast Portland.
The Rose Quarter has long been an urban-planning disaster: a ghost town of failed retail establishments and empty parking garages when there isn't a Blazer game or a big concert. Then there's the stretch of Broadway forming its northern edge, where a relatively new Portland Streetcar line speaks to the high-density development opportunities waiting to happen here. Coupled with the possibility of capping Interstate 5 as part of its proposed expansion at the Rose Quarter, there is a chance here to not only create a vibrant urban setting but to literally bring back the neighborhood that the freeway in particular wiped away.
Yet barriers to Albina Vision remain. The Oregon Department of Transportation is resistant to freeway design that serves surrounding neighborhoods as much as cars, so the cap could be miniscule while on- and off-ramps could dominate. City leaders seem so concerned with placating the Trail Blazers and protecting parking revenue that the obvious transformative move — burying the parking spots underground and redeveloping the land as housing or offices — never seems to happen. There also seems to be hesitancy about embracing an urban design effort that originated outside City of Portland planning offices.
Yet the fact that Albina Vision is community generated, with an eye on both the future and the past, is one of its greatest strengths. And unlike large development plans overseen by Prosper Portland such as the Broadway Corridor, Albina Vision starts with the basics: re-establishing a grid of 200x200-foot blocks in a way that enables an appropriately-scaled group of buildings instead of one or two block-sized behemoths.
These days, Mayor Ted Wheeler could use a victory, and Albina Vision ought to be tailor made for it: a development plan that provides jobs, densifies the central city smartly, and addresses a historic wrong of midcentury urban renewal. It's time for Wheeler to become a dealer and see this vision through.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com
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