Elements of Urbanism: Portland

April 3, 2008 60 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Portland was founded along the banks of Oregan's Willamette River and quickly grew as a port city. In 1979, the city adopted an urban growth boundary. Since that time, a city that was more spread out than Jacksonville in 1950 is twice as dense than Jax today.


Portland Population 2006: 568,380 (City); 2,337,565 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1851)

Jacksonville Pop. 2006: 790,689 (City); 1,277,997 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1950: Jacksonville (204,517); Portland (373,628)



"A three-story building originally built in the early 1900s was demolished on the western edge of Downtown, leaving several residents combing through the ruble for choice bricks.
Jacksonville Economic Development Commission Deputy Director Paul Crawford said his office issued the demolition permit because the building was condemned and had no significant historical value"
Hundred years comes down - Jax Daily Record 3/28/08

William Morris, one of the owners of KBJ, said that while his firm supports historic preservation, he never believed the old church was significant.
Church helped save souls, but can it be saved? - Times Union 5/07/08


"At 7 a.m. tomorrow, Jacksonville will implode the 10-story Rhodes-Futch-Collins Building on Main Street. The demolition is scheduled to bring the 88-year-old building crashing down in a matter of seconds, making way for construction of the new main library.
The city acquired the Rhodes building after voters approved a half-cent sales tax hike for the Better Jacksonville Plan in 2000."
Demolition clears way for new library - Times Union 8/16/02

Jacksonville still struggles to understand the importance of preserving existing building stock in the urban core.



This disrespect of historical building fabric has led to the creation of a core heavily blighted by vacant overgrown lots, parking lots and isolated structures. These empty spaces severely limit Downtown's potential for pedestrian friendly vibrancy.



Downtown Portland avoided the dark period that many U.S. urban cores went through in the 1970's and 1980's due to a master plan that DID NOT call for widespread demolition and reconstruction of existing building stock.  Instead, existing building fabric was embraced and integrated into the downtown master plan.  The result has been the creation of a neighborhood that contains an equal mix of old and new infill development.  



"DDRB board members expressed discomfort with narrowing the sidewalk and even considered removing two parking spots along Laura Street to create more space."
DDRB approves changes at annex despite loss of sidewalk - Jax Daily Record 3/28/08

Jacksonville's planners have developed the mindset that streetscapes featuring expensive sidewalk improvements are necessary to stimulate the redevelopment of nearby property.  The areas that were fairly vibrant before the streetscape projects continue to thrive, while the others that previously struggled continue to struggle.  This proves that there is more to attracting businesses and pedestrians than wide sidewalks, brick pavers, fancy benches, and expensive replica light posts.



In Portland, for the most part, the sidewalks are simple in design.  What brings life to the street are the activities that take place on and adjacent to them.  Another important aspect is the land use factor that promotes all developments to positively integrate with the sidewalks and properties adjacent to them.  






Many of downtown's streets have the width to accommodate additional on-street parking spaces, which would benefit downtown residents, business owners, and their customers.  More on-street spaces and the elimination of unneeded loading zones would decrease the need for many existing surface lots, which could be used for additional infill development.



Both Portland and Jacksonville's Northbank contain compact street grids that are designed to encourage easy walking.  Like Jacksonville, most of Portland's downtown streets are one-way.  However, in Portland every square foot of property is utilized.  This includes reducing one way streets to one lane to increase on street parking for the end user.



Smart Parking Meters
"Parking meters downtown are working fine," Councilman Art Shad said at the Finance Committee meeting. "I don't know that it's worth the hit to replace perfectly good meters with new-fangled meters."
Parking meter idea shot down by council - Times Union 2/26/07

"Better hang onto your quarters.
Jacksonville administrators had hoped for a smooth approval of a $500,000 request to replace downtown parking meters with technologically superior meters that would accept dollars and debit cards.
Instead, skeptical City Council members doubted the meters needed to be replaced"
Parking meter idea shot down by council - Times Union 2/26/07

 Jacksonville's archaic parking meters are a form of visual blight and continue to remain a negative on the push to make the Northbank core attractive to the business community and consumers.




Portland is one of many cities that have installed "Smart Meters" in their central business districts.  While many overlook the importance of improvements such as this, these images show there is a striking difference, with the removal of obsolete clutter.  Nearby businesses also benefit from the fact that the meters are more user friendly, accepting multiple forms of payment, as opposed to only quarters.




"A motion was made by committee member William Tripp Stanly and seconded by committee member Oliver Barakat to grant conceptual approval for the medical office building for LaVilla II Partners - DRC application #2006-1, Subject to the following conditions:

1. Move the building to the right-of-way line fronting Davis Street.

2. Provide an open and inviting facade at the pedestrian level for the first floor garage, which may include windows, awnings, structural elements, marquees, overhands, or other design elements."

Design Review Committee Meeting Minutes - 2/26/08

 The recommendations listed above, resulted in the approval of this facade on a major corner of the downtown core.  Continuing to grant approval to projects that integrate poorly with their surroundings, such as the Sax Seafood Restaurant, JTA's Laura Street TOD development and LaVilla Medical Partners (shown above) show that we still have a long way to go in understanding the ultimate importance of making our buildings interact well at street level.  As a result, new projects that should go to enhancing pedestrian connectivity and urban synergy only further separate us from that goal.




In Portland, like other compact cities, the majority of buildings take advantage of street corners by making them places of activity.  If we can embrace this concept with future developments of all sizes, Jacksonville could one day enjoy this type of streetscene as well.




During the early 1980's, both Portland and Jacksonville were at the forefront of mass transit planning in their downtowns.  Despite heavy opposition, Jacksonville proceeded with the construction of the Skyway, an expensive rubber wheeled elevated people mover.  Since that time, the Skyway has been labeled a boondoggle attracting less than 3,000 riders a day, well below the 56,000 a day estimate once mentioned by local transportation planners. 

The Skyway even gained international attention when ABCNews featured it on their prime time World News television program in a segment called, "$200 Million Ride to Nowhere" .



Portland, on the other hand, moved forward with a 15 mile starter light rail line.  Since its opening in 1986, the Eastside Max has spawned over $2 billion in development and redevelopment along its route.

That blue contraption is definitely not Bus Rapid Transit.  Maybe we should take note?




Our Northbank was once filled with unique small buildings such as the Elena Flats on East Duval Street.  Today, many of these structures are considered by local leaders to be visual forms of blight that are better off demolished.  The demolition of small structures like this help limit investment in the core by urban pioneers.



As mentioned earlier, Portland's core avoided the downfall many of America's cities went through because of a commitment to not destroy large swaths of the core for pie in the sky urban renewal projects.  Today, we can see the results of the decisions made 30 years ago.  The same simple buildings we destroy on an everyday basis here, have been renovated into a wide range of uses, giving Portland's downtown a unique sense of place.




Corner of Ocean & Union - Downtown Jacksonville

There are many things we can learn from the trials and errors of a city like Portland.  However, all of their hard work would have not paid off without planning for a future that integrated existing building stock, giving the community something to start with, as opposed to leveling everything and beginning from ground zero with a limited budget.


**-All Portland images provided by ForAteOh, a member of www.skyscraperpage.com