Visiting New Orleans for the first time last summer, my favorite moment actually came not while on foot exploring the city’s historic buildings, but in a car on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. Because the lake is over 23 miles across, initially while driving north you can’t see the other side, as if traveling into a blue, hazy abyss.
Maybe downtown Portland is experiencing a similar kind of moment: not literally crossing over Lake Pontchartrain or even the Willamette River, but finding its way after one shore has been left and before the next has come into view. Maybe it’s time to be more intentional: to push the pedal down.
The city faced a similar moment in the 1970s, as downtown struggled with middle-class flight and an over-emphasis on automobiles and parking. A new generation of young leaders brought energy and ideas, transforming with transit and public spaces: Tom McCall Waterfront Park, the MAX light rail system, Pioneer Courthouse Square.
These days, it’s been hard to envision the future with so many homeless tents and boarded-up storefronts. Yet it’s precisely because Portland’s downtown has struggled during the pandemic and this tentative aftermath (like all big-city centers) that we can look more purposefully forward.
Maybe the picture is starting to form. In November, voters approved a transformation of city government, with a bigger assembly of leaders replacing the old five-person City Council. Greater inclusiveness could bring more involvement and ideas.
Office workers are also continuing to trickle back, especially when they have good reason. I marveled earlier this year visiting what is arguably America’s greenest new office: downtown’s PAE Living Building. That’s the way to bring more remote workers to the workplace again: sustainable, welcoming spaces that inspire.
We also need to activate downtown creatively, in a way that goes beyond buildings. World cities like Paris have seeded emerging mini-renaissances by handing over more of their roadways to bicyclists, pedestrians and other non-car transportation. Portland is set to begin building its long-planned Green Loop around the central city, sprinkling more pocket parks and bioswales into the central city. Yet there is arguably impetus now to go further, bolder. What whole streets in downtown, Old Town or the Pearl might we make pedestrian and bike-only?
We also need to double down on the central-city as an arts and culture destination. Local leaders face a decision about Keller Auditorium, for example: restore it or build new in a different location, probably outside downtown? That decision involves more than the Keller itself.
Not every arts investment has to cost hundreds of millions. What about these empty statue pedestals, over two years after the 2020 protests? Some citizens want the bronze likenesses of Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt returned, while others want them to stay gone. Thankfully city leaders recently announced a partnership with Lewis & Clark College to finally hold a public discussion. But in the meantime, what about a series of temporary art displays showcasing today’s local artists? We need tactical temporary acts of artful urbanism.
Some of my favorite downtown architecture of recent years has been school facilities, be it K-12 examples like the new Lincoln High School or several new destinations at Portland State University, most recently the Vanport Building. PSU’s expanding presence into the South Auditorium District is a way to, like a Keller restoration, help activate downtown’s least-vibrant corner.
While there may be a growing sense that downtown will ever go fully back to the way it was, therein also lies the opportunity: to bring that next destination, once invisible, into view.