Posted by Jonathan Maus ( Publisher/Editor ) on August 12th, 2010 at 11:41 am
“By the 1970s, less than thirty of the two hundred seventy… buildings downtown remained…When did Portland start to trade its most unique built feature for acres and acres of pay by the hour asphalt?”
— Dan Haneckow, historian
A recent post on local historian Dan Haneckow’s Cafe Unknown blog, delved into a sad part of Portland’s urban legacy — the demolition of downtown buildings to make room for surface parking lots. He writes, “By the 1970s, less than thirty of the two hundred seventy cast iron buildings downtown remained.”
But why? It wasn’t always just to make room for highways and onramps. Here’s what Haneckow thinks led to this practice:
“By then  a cycle was in place. As more businesses left the old downtown, the time lag toward a downward adjustment in property taxes added to the expense of keeping a vacant building. Demolition removed the buildings from the tax rolls. The rewards of surface parking lots, initially seen as a low cost stop gap before new development, soon became apparent. Three quarters of a century later the first lots are still in place, as are the vast majority of those that followed.”
The Portland Mercury blog picked up Haneckow’s post and reporter Sarah Mirk added that “a whopping” 29% of Portland’s Old Town district is surface parking lots.
Here are two images showing the striking transition of a few downtown blocks from 1935 to 1968:
This morning I was at a meeting on the 24th floor of the ODS Tower at SW 2nd and Alder. When I looked to the north I spied one of the surface parking lots in Haneckow’s post. Ironically, the lone building that remains on the block has a billboard for a local car dealership painted on one side of it: The tagline reads, “For the love of cars.”
On a more positive note, the City of Portland recently buried a surface parking lot near Pioneer Courthouse Square (itself a former parking lot) to make room for Director Park. Also, the Portland Development Commission is getting closer to a deal to bring a popular Asian grocery store, Uwajimaya, to an existing parking lot in Old Town.
Hopefully, as fewer people choose to drive into downtown, we can continue to trade those surface parking lots for new businesses, parks, and other amenities that don’t come with such a high cost and that offer benefits everyone can enjoy.