downtown portland midtown blocks proposal

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This proposal was prepared as the final product for Portland State University's urban design methods class. It evaluates the context of Downtown Portland Midtown Park Blocks and makes recommendations for their redevelopment into a pedestrian environment that strengthens the area's east/west connections between the West Hills and the Willamette River.


  • Midtown Blocks Urban Design Proposalfrom the hills to the river

    December 2014

  • EXECUTIVE SUMMARYThe Midtown Blocks have long been a gap in Portlands vision for a string of parks running from the north end of downtown to the south. The City was never able to acquire the all the blocks and has only built parks on two of the eight blocks. The rest are developed with a variety of buildings and uses.

    This report proposes abandoning the north/south orientation of the Park Blocks and, instead, using the Midtown Blocks as a permeable urban environment in which to create the east/west connections the central city needs.

    These east/west connections will draw a growing residential population in the West End through the Park Blocks to retail and jobs in downtown.

    This report proposes a phased development that includes adopting design guidelines that create a high quality streetscape and identifying three particular east/west streets to be developed as easily recognizeable pedestrian thoroughfares.

  • The ProblemWhat should be done with the blocks between the North and South Park Blocks?

    While the original vision for the Park Blocks was of one continous string of parks from north to south, that is not currently possibe with buildings occupying most of the remaining Midtown Blocks. Therefore, the City needs to create a plan for the future development of these blocks.

    The character of the Park Blocks changes through downtown. The South Park Blocks (area 1) are very green, wooded, and have an institutional character. The Midtown Blocks (area 2) are intensely urban. The North Park Blocks (area 3) are shaded and somewhat unwelcoming.

    While the original vision concluded at the North Park Blocks, contemporary visionaries have endeavored to connect the park blocks all the way to the northernmost riverbank. This link is interrupted by a stretch with no parks (area 4), then picks up again in the Pearl District with three veery different styles of parks interwoven into a mixed use urban neighborhood (area 5).

    Over time, the original North and South Parks Blocks developed indepentendly of each other. The South Park Blocks became more institutional while the North Park Blocks remained largely residential until the decline of the nearby rail yard. Today the South Park Blocks serve a growing residential population while the North Park Blocks are largely empty.

    The Midtown Blocks are surrounded by some of the most active blocks in the city, but have suffered neglect due to their confused purpose and the failure of the City to follow through on implementing a development strategy. This sets the tone for the area and is difficult to overcome in the institutional memory of people.

  • EARLY VISIONThe concept of the Park Blocks existed even in the early years of Portland. Lownsdale set aside a string of blocks from his holdings to be turned into open space. Ladd did the same with his land to the north, but Stark refused to contribute land from his much smaller plat between the two. As a result, there was inevitably going to be a small gap in the Park Blocks, but the City of

    Portland hoped to acquire the land as it became available.

    Unfortunately, when Lownsdale and his wife died without wills, the remaining handful of Lownsdale blocks that had not yet been developed into parks were sold off by the family. At that time, the City had just begun to buy land for Washington Park and, without the budget for acquisition, passed on

    their chance to purchase the final blocks. The fate of the Midtown Blocks seemed to be sealed.

    A HOLE IN THE FABRICFor decades, the plight of the Midtown Blocks has hounded the City. Several plans and visions address their development, most advocating for completing the original vision of a promenade of parks that extends the entire length

    Backgroundof downtown Portland.

    Without the Midtown connection, the Park Blocks have developed independently, with different characters and uses not as a spine to downtown

    CHANGING NEEDSPortland has changed a great deal since the proposal of the Park Blocks in the 1850s. The age of the ship and train has come and gone, replaced by the personal automobile, which dramatically changed the fabric of downtown with its demand for parking. Portland has installed mass transit in the forms of buses, streetcars, and light rail. The city has expanded well beyond the east bank of the Willamette River and is now home to over 600,000 people.

    The city has also gained a global reputation as a livable city that emphasizes sustainability wherever it can. This has all made it a very attractive place to live and the region anticipates over 2 million additional people in the next two decades. Portland will need to become denser as well as more efficient about its provision of resources.

  • Existing ConditionsMost of downtown Portland and the Midtown Blocks in particular, is zoned for mixed use, meaning these blocks must meet a variety of needs. The Midtown Blocks are adjacent to a residential neighborhood, a retail core, a cultural core and within walking distance of the office and government blocks of downtown and the densest neighborhood in the city: the Pearl District.

    It is a heavily studied area of downtown, subject to many plans, designs, and visions. The Central City Concept 2035 and West Quadrant Plan distill the

    expectations of broader plans and inform the scope and structure of more focused plans.

    HUMAN SCALEThe study area has a unique characteristic in downtown in that, instead of the traditional 200 x 200 blocks, the Park Blocks are half blocks and the streets on either side, SW 9th and SW Park Avenue, are also narrower than surrounding streets. The two form a couplet, one flowing north, the other south, each with one lane of traffic and two lanes of parking. These narrower streets, around narrower blocks,

    are even more human scale than Portlands typical blocks (which are already hailed as very walkable and welcoming), begging for more human activity and a very special development.

    TRANSIT CONNECTIONSPortland already has a many north/south connections and downtown alone has five (out of 13) north/south streets dedicated to the streetcar and MAX. Broadway is a softer connection, but still noteworthy and the Park Blocks and Waterfront create two more soft north/south connections. In

  • contrast, downtown Portland only has two east/west MAX streets and two bicycle streets (which dont even run the whole breadth of downtown).

    RETAILThe Midtown Blocks are flush with a variety of reatil including regional anchors and local businesses. The streets are lined with restaurants and shops and the area is a popular place for developing hotels. The area houses the Fox Tower and is a block away from Pioneer Place Mall, both of which host entertainment, dining, and shopping opportunities.

    Existing ConditionsARCHTECTURAL VARIETYThis area of town includes a large variety of architecture that spans two centuries of development. The level of investment in the blocks and the popularity of the area has ensured that several older buildings have been preserved and/or rehabilitated. To the north, the blocks are characterized by exteremly tall, modern construction.

    HEIGHTThis are of downtown is part of the red crescent, meaning it is where some of the tallest buildings are allowed to be built. Adjacent to the

    west is a zone of the second tallest height allowances. This creates an ideal synergy among the various uses of a downtown: residential, employment, retail, and civic.

    DESTINATIONSThese blocks are home to or adhacent to several important Portland civic and retail destinations. These include Nordstrom, Target, Pioneer Place, Pioneer Square, several government buildings, the art museum, and the central library. These create regional draws while setting the Midtown Blocks up as a funnel of sorts.

  • RecommendationWhile it is tempting to hold to sentimental visions, Portland needs to abandon the emphasis on using the Midtown Blocks to complete the Park Blocks, focusing instead on developing more east/west connections. While no plans have necessarily recommended this for the Midtown Blocks, the plans for downtown and the central city are very clear in their expectation that downtown Portland will develop more east/west connections.

    ORIENT TO THE RIVERThe plans also call for more orientation to the river, recognizing the river and the waterfront as underutilized resources. This indicates east/west connections from the hills to the river rather than additional parallel north/south connections.

    These new east/west connections should connect both banks of the Willamette River as parts of the central city, therefore, they should be conceptualized as extending beyond Front Street to the east bank.

    DRAW PEOPLE THROUGHThe West End is a largely residential neighborhood to the west of the Park Blocks that has been targeted for immense housing growth in response to the population increase Portland will experience. To the east of the Park Blocks is downtown Portlands retail, commercial, and employment core. Portlands downtown retail requires more people to support it, which can come from additional residents of the West End. Those residents will need access to shopping, entertainment, and jobs

  • Recommendationshould prepare for that. Also, the proposed freeway cap would be sited between Lincoln High School and the Midtown Blocks, potentially feeding even more people through the blocks on their way to the retail core, waterfront and beyond.

    EMPHASIZE STREETSCAPEA great deal of downtown land is streets, which the City owns and has control over. Streets are the most efficient way