My View: Art museum plans pose needless barriers
The Portland Art Museum wants to take over a pedestrian way (the vacated portion of Madison Street between the Park Blocks and Southwest 10th Avenue) and to close the space, with a new building they call the Rothko Pavilion. They have hired a powerful Portland lobbying firm to shape public opinion on their project, which comes before the City Council on Dec 7.
The earlier hard-edged, intransigent voice has been replaced by a softer voice. But the Goliath influence is still apparent.
The primary focus has been redirected to represent the proposal as an effort to make accommodations for people with disabilities. And in fact, there are some excellent changes to the interiors of the two existing buildings that are easy to support. There will be repurposed spaces inside the buildings for more art and programming. More importantly, the second story (potential skybridge) will create a level connection between the two museum buildings, with elevators on either side — an improvement for those with disabilities as well as for all museum-goers. All this is easy to support.
Although we back most of the plan, we do not support the ground-floor part of the proposal. The current ordinance requires the vacated street to "not be blocked in any manner" and to "not be used for any purpose other than an open mall."
This ordinance language must be retained to ensure unimpeded access from the South Park Blocks to 10th Avenue, at least from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., for all users. But on Dec.7, the museum is going to the Portland City Council to ask permission to change this language.
Currently there is a wide passage way (between 14 and 22 feet wide) along the vacated Madison Street. If features a gentle incline, rising four feet over a full block, and accessible 24/7 by anyone on foot with a pet, stroller, bike or in a wheelchair.
The incline is barely noticeable when one is pushing someone in a wheelchair. Today all pass freely along this passage.
The proposal calls for turning that passageway into a ground-floor enclosed lobby, with stairs and a steep ramp leading from Park Avenue to the new enclosure.
The museum has promised to make the lobby accessible, free of charge, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. But to go from Park Avenue to the 10th Avenue streetcar stop, a person in a wheelchair would have to go up a steep ramp and pass through two doors.
Having to negotiate instead a steep ramp and two doors through an enclosed lobby is not an improvement for the neighborhood, nor for the community with wheels or disabilities. The enclosure would create both a physical and a psychological barrier for all users on the ground floor. Also, the remaining plaza areas will remain safer if there is a walkable passageway rather than two night-time dead ends.
Therefore, as a renter and an owner living on the east and west sides of the museum, we cannot support the ground-floor part of the proposal.
Excellent examples of museum skybridges over ground-level open passages exist. Among those are Chazen Museum in Wisconsin, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Courtauld Institute in London. The museum should explore this option before asking for ordinance language changes.
The museum has not yet reached out for alternative ground-floor design ideas. At one hearing, the museum's spokesman famously replied to a question about the need for a plan B, by saying, "Sorry, we're not designing by committee."
The museum needs to reach out to neighborhood residents on both the east and west sides of the museum and work with a true "stakeholder group" (as the lobbying firm recommends) before proposing likely unnecessary ordinance changes.
Asking for ordinance changes first is the reverse of what should happen. A concept proposal that addresses these ground-floor concerns should be presented before any ordinance language is changed. That is the Portland way.
David is currently getting beaten up by Goliath.
Wendy Rahm served as past chair of the Arts Commission in Arlington, Virginia, and is a member of the board of the Architectural Heritage Center in Portland. Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard is co-founder and director of International Making Cities Livable.