Driving along Interstate 5 or Interstate Avenue, it's easy to forget what a price is being paid — and not just for the asphalt.
This summer, two planning efforts — one real, one imagined — have me thinking about the big future moves Portland inevitably must make.
Admittedly, that future is probably still a distant one. Yet it's undeniable that someday two huge pieces of transportation infrastructure hugging the east side of the Willamette River — Interstate 5 and Union Pacific railroad's Albina Yard — are going to have to get out of the way for a new kind of American city.
The last half-century has seen metropolises around the world reclaim their industrial waterfronts, not just because they're desirable as public space but because industry itself has changed, largely preferring fewer urban locations in order to avoid gridlock and allow further expansion.
It takes just a few seconds looking at a map to see just what prime riverfront I-5 hogs from the Marquam Bridge at OMSI all the way north to the Oregon Convention Center. Same goes for the acres of asphalt and train tracks at Albina Yard along lower Interstate Avenue that rob North Portland of a public riverfront that ought to be its crown jewel.
Of course I-5 is particularly here to stay given that it's about to be expanded at the Rose Quarter: a Don Quixote-like effort to fix a clog point that's based not just on a lane reduction but the interchange with Interstate 84. But that expansion could still be paired with a tunnel replacement for the Marquam Bridge, freeing up hundreds of millions of dollars in riverfront real estate.
Union Pacific likely is parked at Albina, but they have valid reasons to move this transfer station — maybe even out of the Portland area altogether. After all, this is where trains are sorted for departure to destinations nationwide.
In other words, it really has nothing to do with riverfront access. It may be more than 100 acres, but it's highly constricted. No one could credibly argue that this is the highest and best use of this idyllic urban waterfront locale.
That's part of the argument made by Mohammed Badreddine, founder and principal for the Albina Rail Relocation Project, and by architect Jonathan Konkol, who on his Plan Design Xplore blog actually created an entire plan for the acreage, with 120 blocks (in the standard 200x200 Portland size) of space divided into housing for over 9,000 as well as commercial space and parks.
Each of these big ideas will take a tremendous amount of political will and billions of dollars. But every great city, for all its enduring landmarks, is continually being remade. These two massive places of riverfront industry are emerging as problems that were once solutions.
Both of them reflect the way industry fit into cities in their times," Konkol reasons. "Urban railyards made sense in the late Victorian era. The way we do shipping and industry now is very different. It makes more sense to put it in the periphery."
"With cars," he adds, "that was the dominant way of moving stuff around for most of the 20th century. Both reflect their times. But those times have come and gone."
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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