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Museum expansion would prohibit biking, limit walking access near South Park Blocks

Posted by on March 29th, 2017 at 11:37 am

Portland Art Museum’s planned “Rothko Pavillion”.
(Drawing: Vinci Hamp Architects)

A planned expansion of the Portland Art Museum will (PAM) come at a cost of $50 million in new construction — and it would also come at the cost of public access to our city streets.

As part of their plans to build the “Rothko Pavillion,” PAM has asked the City of Portland for permission to close an existing public right-of-way through a plaza between two of their buildings that connects SW 10th and Park at Madison Street. The proposal would add a significant new structure to the museum’s footprint and it has architects and cultural backers very excited. But some advocates are concerned that the new plans will further limit walking and rolling in a part of town where street connections are invaluable.

Places where it’s easy and attractive to walk and roll have small blocks with lots of connections between them. The tighter the grid, the thinking goes, the better walkability a place has. As city blocks become “superblocks,” human-powered trip times increase, which makes walking and biking less attractive.

PAM’s latest plans are just the latest in a long history of limiting access to this block.

SW Madison is red, the proposed pavillion is the blue box. (Note: Not exact by any stretch, we don’t have a graphics department.)

Madison used to connect between 10th and Park, but at PAM’s request in 1968 City Council passed an ordinance to “vacate” the street so the museum could complete a major renovation. That ordinance held PAM to three promises: a permanent, eight-foot wide public easement would be provided; the easement should be free of obstructions and well-lit; and that the area be only used as open mall. After several incidents of vandalism in 1984, PAM requested — and was granted — an amendment to the easement to close the right-of-way between 11:00 pm and 7:00 am. Then in late 2012, PAM requested to further limit the hours of public access. They wanted the public to only be able to use the plaza during museum hours. This time however, the City of Portland’s Planning & Sustainability Commission shot down the request. According to a briefing on the issue created by PBOT Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s office, the museum than unsuccessfully appealed to former Mayor Sam Adams with a threat close public access if hours weren’t further limited.

PAM’s latest request would allow them to expand their programs between two existing buildings by covering the pavilion. The enclosed space would be free to enter and is being billed by the museum as a “cultural commons” between the buildings.

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Existing conditions. Green line shows current easement through the block.

While the new structure has many benefits for our city, the requested easement change would, according to briefing papers prepared by the City of Portland, “Potentially exclude users of the space that are not utilizing it as pedestrian access between SW 10th Avenue and SW Park Avenue, patronizing Museum offerings (e.g., gift shop, café, etc.), or attending the Museum, as well as and/or including bicycles and animals.” Public access would also be reduced by four to eight hours per day.

“More than likely we will request that access be maintained and provided for those who are walking and biking.”
— Rithy Khut, Chair of Portland Bicycle Advisory Committee

If the easement is approved it would make bicycle connections to and from SW Madison more difficult and inconvenient. Madison is a major city bikeway east of the museum because of its relatively low-volume traffic and direct connection to the Hawthorne Bridge — the most heavily used bike route across the Willamette River with a peak-season daily average of over 6,000 trips. SW Columbia has no bike lanes and isn’t considered a bike-friendly street. Salmon would be comparable, but it would mean a four-block detour.

These concerns, as well as potential impacts to walking, have already surfaced.

Local urban planner Mary Vogel wrote in an op-ed published on January 17th in the Portland Tribune that the closure of the plaza would go agaist Portland’s values of reducing demand for fossil fuels. The City should, “Insist on a revision of the Portland Art Museum Rothko Pavilion plan,” Vogel wrote, and instead, “focus on strengthening downtown walkability and resilience — e.g. negotiate a Madison Walkway between Southwest 11th and 12th Avenues to break up this superblock.”

And a December 2016 article about the project in The Oregonian highlighted concerns of people who live across the street from the museum who worry about losing access:

Neighbors worry that means they won’t be able to use it for commutes or to reach places like the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and the Oregon Historical Society.

Ferriso [with PAM] said he recognizes the neighbors’ concerns, but whatever’s lost by closing the walkway an additional 25 to 30 hours is outweighed by the community benefits of improved educational and cultural opportunities at the museum.

Wendy Rahm, an Eliot resident who is a museum patron and a member of the board of directors of the Architectural Heritage Center, worries the museum isn’t listening to stakeholders in her building.

“I think it’s gorgeous,” Rahm said after attending a presentation about the proposed expansion. “My problem with this is that plaza is a pedestrian-oriented oasis in our very increasingly dense city. It is an asset to this part of town.”

PAM’s proposal to limit access on this block was also discussed briefly at a joint meeting of the City of Portland’s bicycle and pedestrian advisory committees on March 14th. A large majority of committee members raised their hands in opposition to the idea. PBAC Chair Rithy Khut confirmed with us this week that they plan to submit a letter to Commissioner Saltzman and, “More than likely we will request that access be maintained and provided for those who are walking and biking.”

This ordinance is scheduled to be heard at City Council on April 20th.

Perhaps Council will consider other options. While in Amsterdam in 2013 I marveled at how that city created a promenade for walking and a path for bicycling through a major museum.

Amsterdam after dark-12

Amsterdam after dark-8

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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Captain Karma
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Captain Karma

Based on history, the new space would be “free to enter” until it no longer was.

m
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m

Excellent article. Clear pros and cons explained in a balanced way. Thanks for posting. Tough issue.

Paul Manson
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Paul Manson

Technically you can’t ride there right now based on the sidewalk rule. (Though I used to cut through until I felt too guilty.) With the streetcar there it makes the bike connection pretty crummy already. And the three blocks to the west have been joined too. This is pragmatically more of a pedestrian access question. I don’t think any policy would want to increase bike use on the block as is.

rick
Guest
rick

Forget that ban ! Not yet April fools !

peejay
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peejay

It’s ironic when we remember that the museum hosted the start of the WNBR just a few years ago, with that very space being used for pre-ride activities.

Disgruntled Employee
Guest
Disgruntled Employee

All this for Rothko?…meh…

Buzz
Guest
Buzz

I used that easement all the time when I worked downtown; mostly walking but sometimes biking.

Pedestrianways that are not afflicted with motor vehicles are a rare treat, and this one should not be closed to the public as proposed.

Jack G.
Guest
Jack G.

While I like the Art Museum, I don’t want them to demolish one of the few pedestrian streets in the city.

I also find this bit from their website to be completely ridiculous
“The project will also create a third-floor sculpture garden that will provide visitors the chance to step outside and enjoy the Museum’s natural surroundings; the rooftop deck will also serve as a space for public programming and events.”

What they really mean is that paying visitors can go out and enjoy what was previously public space. It also allows us to charge groups to rent this outside space that was once free for everyone to use.

What I’d personally like to see happen, is for cars to be removed from the section of the Park Ave and Madison between the Art Museum, Oregon Historical Society and the Schnitz. It would not only create an amazing area linking some of the major cultural institutions in the city, but would become one itself by being a free plaza for everyone. In fact, why not throw some sculptures in and rename it the “Rothko Plaza” or something. If the Art Museum really wants more space, what about the parking lot right across Main St?

Chris Mealy
Guest
Chris Mealy

You can bike right through the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (I’ve done it and it’s a hoot). Portland is missing an opportunity here!

https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/the-bicycle-passage-of-the-amsterdam-rijksmuseum/

rick
Guest
rick

It is shameful to vacate public right-of-way. A church by the SW Community Center by SW 45th Ave did just that and the city did not stop it a few years ago.

Buzz
Guest
Buzz

Also worth noting is that this pedestrian way continues for a second block, between SW 10th and 11th.

Lester Burnham
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Lester Burnham

Pedestrians need at least few places where they can feel same from someone or something on wheels running into them.

MaxD
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MaxD

The City allowed a ROW to be closed along NE 12th between Lloyd and NE Holladay that has much bigger impact on people walking and biking. This is a loos, but the inconvenience seems relatively minor and public gain seems significant (new public art venue). If people want to get fired up about the privatization of public space for money, lets protest taking over Portland’s riverfront for a series of “Fesitvals” that amount to a season-long carnical that occupies some of the most desirable openspace in town. Those lawns, views, and promenade could be supporting the tens thousands of people that work, live and visit downtown daily. instead it is fenced off for profit. I think the City should rent out Naito to the festivals and save the green public openspace for the people!

maccoinnich
Guest

I don’t think that this is a hill I would want to die on. I get all the arguments for small blocks and a tightly spaced grid, but there is no pedestrian connection on axis with SW Madison between SW 11th and 17th. Unlike the Rijksmuseum passageway, which aligns with a bridge, the utility of this one block is pretty limited.

The Central City Plan (going before Council this spring/summer) envisions enhancements to the bike lane on SW Jefferson and adding bike lanes on SW Columbia, Taylor and Salmon. Those would provide really useful connections from Goose Hollow, through Downtown and all the way to the waterfront. Getting those built would be a much bigger priority to me. Maybe the musuem could contribute some funding as an offset for the loss of the pedestrian connection aligned with Madison?

Mick O
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Mick O

Mr Maus, that panning photo of passing cyclists is quite well-done. Nice camerawork.

Doug Klotz
Guest
Doug Klotz

I think this is a good closure to oppose. If this happens, it will signal that many others, like NE Halsey between 15th and 16th that have less pedestrian traffic can be closed. NE 12th Loyd to Holladay was lost because of badly written easement language. There are Pearl District easements, and Lloyd district easements, all of which are vulnerable. Every time one owner owns lots across the street from each other, ther’s a push to vacate. The art museum could build a connection on an upper level, and keepthe plaza open 24 hours. The current restricted, walled path is less safe and inviting than the original plaza was. Now thats used as a reason to restrict it further.

Doug Klotz
Guest
Doug Klotz

Gary B
You mean the church requested it, and the city vacated it. I’m not so sure it’s shameful. Certainly may be in some cases, but in others it may be entirely appropriate.
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Those vacations cut off two streets that could have contributed to building more of a street grid in SW Portland. Instead, the pattern of vlosures on that vicinity was continued.

Jonathan Radmacher
Guest
Jonathan Radmacher

Since Madison is not a thru-street on the other side of the museum, this really shouldn’t have any impact on cycling access (and frankly, regardless of whether I’m biking east or west, this would be a bad choice to use with any regularity).

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

Really hard to get too lathered up about this. Going around the block instead of through the existing passageway means one extra block of distance, which is about thirty seconds on a bike or two minutes on foot.

Doug Klotz
Subscriber

It’s not a parking lot. The Art Museum’ van is sometimes parked in there, though. Since it’s an “easement”, the conditions of the easement would govern. I don’t know if bikes are mentioned one way or the other.

Smokey Bear
Guest
Smokey Bear

This is what we need. A bigger museum. Not.

Smokey Bear
Guest
Smokey Bear

Longer blocks should make walking easier and faster. Fewer lights to negotiate.

Doug Klotz
Subscriber

Longer blocks north/south are what are there. We’re talking about east/west travel.

Mark
Guest
Mark

OTOH, we get a bigger museum. Despite the inconvenience- which is all it would be- I’m in favor of the expansion. PAM is an important cultural institution, and it’s footprint is severely limited. Growing taller or moving are even more expensive/unlikely.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

I’ve used this path many times as a pedestrian. I’ve found it to be a useful connection and would not be happy to lose it. Especially if, as mentioned by many posters above, this would set a precedent for more “vacations” to follow.

Funny how if government confiscates property using eminent domain, they are required to reimburse the owner for the market value of the property. If a private entity takes public property for private use, shouldn’t they also be required to monetarily compensate the public for the loss?

Doug Klotz
Subscriber

In the suburban, auto-oriented city, everyone wants a large footprint, uninterrupted by public rights-of-way. One of the primary attributes of Portland’s downtown is the small block size. The city has already accommodated the Museum by vacating the street, to allow easy walking access from one building to the other, and allowing them to place sculptures in it. At some point, they will have to deal with the footprint they have (which, it seems, also includes a half-block on the north side of SW Main. Can we expect them to be asking to vacate that street next?)

Matti
Guest
Matti

PAM already has a secured space in the ROW that they use for an outdoor sculpture terrace. I would not cede any more of the ROW for private use. As noted by others, there are plenty of design options that can be used for their goal without denying public access. They need to offer design options for public debate. That is why you hire an architect.

Jim Labbe
Subscriber
Jim Labbe

This is such a shame. This little public pedestrian pathway and refuge is one of the most delightful and magical places in downtown.

Kittens
Subscriber
Kittens

I think it is a shame. I used to live near here and often enjoyed this passage and the connection it forms to the adjoining walk North of the Eliot.

I am also decidedly less enthusiastic about the mission and aim of large arts institutions like PAM today.

Where once they embodied a sprit of giving and sharing, they are becoming more and more vein ego-trips for the rich and wanna-be cultural elites. $20 admission to PAM when it has never had a bigger budget or foundation is insane. People of all means should be able to experience great art. Billboards shouting the latest exhibit on HWY 30 do not constitute outreach. They need to do some real soul searching instead of this endless quest for expansion and acquisition.

Take-over of public plaza denied! 🙂

q
Guest
q

The City needs to stop this chipping away at public streets.

Shame on the museum. Instead of being thankful for being granted a major concession–basically privatizing most of a public street–it pushed and pushed for more and more, whittling a perfectly good Portland street down to the token-in-comparison access that exists now.

And shame on it for using the argument (whether stated directly or not) that the current access is so pathetic that closing it even further is good for the city, while hoping nobody notices that it was the museum’s ongoing greed that created that situation.

The result of granting the current request shouldn’t be compared to the existing poor access. It should be compared to the full-street access that existed before the museum cut the street down to the size of a motel hallway.

If the museum was really visionary, as Portland should demand that it be, it would be aiming at re-creating a street-wide bicycle and pedestrian access, instead of plugging it further. And there are lots of architects (perhaps including the current one) who would be excited about designing an expansion that would do that–in fact a lot more excited than designing a lobby that’s open to the public in daylight.

But the architects need some vision and leadership from the museum board to pursue that. If the Board isn’t capable of providing that, it’s not the City’s duty to water down its own expectations to the low level to which the museum board seems to have settled.

Mark smith
Guest
Mark smith

Right of way/easement is right of way/easement. To remove that takes an act of council, public comment and resolution/and or ordinance.

Jay Ferm
Guest
Jay Ferm

Wow, from my perch in Madison, WI it’s not often that Portland gets attention for bone-headed proposals. A few years Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art completed an expansion to the far side of a pedestrian mall. They used a well windowed overpass to make the enclosed connection between the two wings. On the ground level, the expansion embraced the pedestrian mall with interactive lighting and exhibit space. The museum expanded it’s surface contact with the public by designing to the pedestrian mall rather than limiting it. Here’s link to photos:
http://www.archdaily.com/408439/the-chazen-museum-of-art-machado-and-silvetti-associates/51f74cf6e8e44e3ef7000093-the-chazen-museum-of-art-machado-and-silvetti-associates-photo

Good Luck, Portland!

q
Guest
q

A similar thing happened recently with the Japanese Garden. Parks gave it 4 additional acres of public park to wall off, and charge admission if the public wants to use it. Most similarly, Parks allowed it to close off a well-used public trail segment that connected the Rose Garden/Japanese Garden area to the Wildwood Trail, which itself connects to the Zoo and Forest Park. Luckily, people protested and the trail was reintroduced into the design, although so late in the process it’s compromised.

When people did protest, Parks and the Garden (under Parks’ advice) argued that the trail simply could not work there, which obviously wasn’t true, given Parks changed its mind.

My point isn’t to question that expansion, which has lots of benefits, but to point out how the City was too quick to buy an institution’s (the Garden’s) assertion that the expansion required closing part of the public transportation network. Parks even said the trail through the woods was redundant because people could walk along the sidewalk on a nearby street, as if walking through the woods was irrelevant to people’s experience. They even took out several official trail signs, then claimed the trail was an “unofficial shortcut”.

That trail got put back in and the expansion still happened, without any impact to it. But if people hadn’t protested, it would have been lost. And I’d say that trail is less important than a downtown connection, and accommodating the downtown connection is easier than it was to work the trail into the Garden’s expansion.

q
Guest
q

Hello, Kitty
I hear you… museums suck. Who the hell wants to be exposed to new ideas or difficult thoughts?
Recommended 0

I’d say Europeans, especially from places like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, but not Colorado.

q
Guest
q

I asked PBOT this but never got an answer: It seems like the City is quickest to approve street vacations for lightly-used streets, but wouldn’t it be the busiest ones that need the vacations?

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

You may recall the problems we had a few years back when I5 took a two week cruise to Greece. Since then, the city has been very reluctant to approve anything more than a long weekend for highways​ and the like.