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.
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.
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.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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Based on history, the new space would be “free to enter” until it no longer was.
Maybe it is my self-hating nature, but I have never felt welcome in that fenced sculpture court unless I was a paying visitor. Nothing about it’s design suggests it is a venue open to others and I am pretty sure that was a subconscious design intent. Only “certain” people made to feel welcome.
The rest: not for you.
Excellent article. Clear pros and cons explained in a balanced way. Thanks for posting. Tough issue.
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.
I know that it is legal to ride on sideways in Portland except for a downtown core (That this block is in.) Is this not a parking lot, with access to a multi use path? What “Sidewalk rule” is broken here?
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.
The current loading dock for the museum opens onto the former Madison Street.
Forget that ban ! Not yet April fools !
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.
All this for Rothko?…meh…
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.
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?
“Also worth noting is that this pedestrian way continues for a second block, between SW 10th and 11th.” buzz
Buzz…that’s an important point to make. My first thought, reading this story after a long day of work, was that it’s not a big deal to walk around the block on either the south or the north side streets using the sidewalks on Main or Jefferson. Walking the easements is much nicer, quieter, more peaceful. I have used both, a lot. Those two blocks are an amazingly refreshing break from the noise on the street.
The museum could conceive a different idea that could be better, and keep the ground level easement open to the fresh air and light. Elevate the gallery space, leaving ground level open and free. Expanding onto the parking lot north of the museum annex (former masonic temple.) sounds like an excellent idea, if for no other reason than that the parking lot has been an eyesore for long time….though the loss of afternoon sun onto Shemanski Fountain would not be good.
Actually, the Eliot owns that block from 10th to 11th. If PAM closes their block, what’s to stop them from closing their block as well? Might as well, since a lone 1-block easement is a lot less useful than one that continues through the Museum.
I suspect that there is an easement for public passage granted by the Eliot. But if the museum passageway was closed, it’d be easier for the Eliot to argue they should be allowed to close theirs, too. It’s the Domino effect on public space.
Because once they did that, then they’d start lobbying for closing the street off at certain hours. Then they’d block part of it, …..and we’re back where we are now, with a city government that won’t protect public right-of-way for public use.
Comment hopelessly in the wrong place. I was referring to closing Main St..
You can bike right through the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (I’ve done it and it’s a hoot). Portland is missing an opportunity here!
Sounds like the perfect opportunity for a junket to Amsterdam for some research!
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is one of the top 5 art museums in the world. With a bike path through the museum, Portland Art Museum could have one thing in common.
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.
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.
They vacated a section of SW Florida Street. SW Trails along with the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition (Oregon Walks) opposed the street vacation. It was to the south of dangerous SW Vermont Street.
Also worth noting is that this pedestrian way continues for a second block, between SW 10th and 11th.
Pedestrians need at least few places where they can feel same from someone or something on wheels running into them.
You mean like the hundreds of miles of sidewalks that are all over downtown?
Not the same as no cars. And I’m getting to the point where I don’t really trust Portland drivers not to run up on the sidewalk.
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!
I understand that point, but this art area is located much closer to where people live, work, and take public transit. Portland Parks owns the Red Tail Golf Course yet they refuse to add trails around the perimeter of the course to avoid nearby deadly roads.
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?
If not this hill, then which one? The line needs to be drawn.
I think I explained in my comment why I don’t think the line needs to be drawn this side this issue. There are thousands of other hypothetical street vacations that I would oppose.
Mr Maus, that panning photo of passing cyclists is quite well-done. Nice camerawork.
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.
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.
Yes ! That neighborhood of SW 45th and Vermont Street has just one TriMet bus and it only runs during rush hour.
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).
There are connecting “streets” for pedestrians on either side of the museum. The westward connection continues past the 10th Ave Streetcar stop, across 10th at a crosswalk, and (with a slight jog around a Heritage Tre), through the next block to 11th. There are a lot of residents in this vicinity that could and do take advantage of these connections. Admittedly they are not set up well for cycling. But the useful connections for walkers should not be further restricted. In fact, I’d argue that any construction at the museum should widen the pathway and increase it’s safety use to 24 hours, not further restrict it.
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.
It isn’t easy when using crutches and wheelchairs day after day.
So Museum expansion should not happen because someone on crutches would have to walk a little further?
The museum can expand above grade across this plaza and connect both sides of the building just fine. They can have two floors above grade. They already have one floor below grade, under the plaza. All that is required is that they leave the ground level free for everyone to pass through. No walls, no doors. Open 24 hours. And hopefully a wide, inviting area to walk through, not a “tunnel” that would be unsafe. Closing the plaza is not their only option, but they’d like to portray it that way.
I imagine cost is a large consideration. Any idea how much more expensive that would be? I know museums are just flush with cash and everything, but perhaps your suggestion is not feasible financially?
It sounds like the museum has already brainwashed you into thinking exactly what they want everyone to think–that the expansion can’t happen unless the museum gets its way with enclosing/restricting the access.
And it’s not “walk a little further”. It could be a few hundred feet. Plus that’s not the only reason for disliking the proposal, anyway.
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.
If you get there right when that van is leaving, you can tell people you went to the art museum and saw the van go.
This is what we need. A bigger museum. Not.
As a Drumpf voter, you and the other 35% (and dropping) opinions don’t really matter…
And it is exactly this mentality that got Trump into the White House.
I hear you… museums suck. Who the hell wants to be exposed to new ideas or difficult thoughts?
…yee-hah! I have to admit I don’t go there often, but I’m very glad the Portland Art Museum is there. Because of that museum being there, over the years, I’ve learned some about architecture as well as art. One of the exhibitions I most of all, was when they brought some of alexander calder’s work for display. Huge interactive mobile, lots of smaller works, a bmw sports sedan he’d custom painted, and which was on display, outside the museum.
Introduction and accessibility to new ideas is important. It’s not like Portland has anything close to the huge number of museums NYC has. I hope people support the museum, or appreciate it being there and what it’s trying to do, even if they don’t regularly visit.
This idea it has about blocking Madison to expand, is a comparatively minor one in the overall scheme of things…but one I hope everyone in addition to the bikeportland audience, will carefully consider before proceeding. I’d like to know that the museum staff truly has considered all other architectural and curatorial design considerations for the benefits they can provide the museum for the future, before having resolved upon the Madison St, closing as the best choice.
I think the museum could come up with something better, that’s more exciting and allows continued public throughway on the Madison easement.. The architect has a good reputation (google his name: Vinci Hamp), good list of projects on his resume, but personally, to what extent the illustrates the design, I don’t find it particularly inspiring. Doesn’t seem bold or daring in any way, really. Check out Mark Rothko too. I’d known the name, but not really been familiar with his work. Highly celebrated, definitely worth some study, but not really my preference. I wonder if he would think of Hamp’s architectural design. Studying his work today, I kind of think he’d thumb his nose at it. But that’s beside the point of this bikeportland story, of course.
Longer blocks should make walking easier and faster. Fewer lights to negotiate.
It doesn’t work well for many American cities.
Exactly. That’s why I like to shop at stores with 400′-long aisles. No interference from cross-traffic.
Granted there are twice as many carts to deal with when you do get to a break. I like to ignore that.
Longer blocks north/south are what are there. We’re talking about east/west travel.
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.
On the other other hand, it’s not an either/or. There are so many variables available that could be adjusted to achieve an expansion that would allow major through-access at ground level. The museum is setting this up as “cut the access or we have a horribly compromised expansion” because, well…why shouldn’t they? That doesn’t mean the City should believe it, because it’s not true.
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?
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?)
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.
This is such a shame. This little public pedestrian pathway and refuge is one of the most delightful and magical places in downtown.
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! 🙂
Worth noting that like many cultural institutions in the city they offer discounts for those with an oregon trail card.
However admission to the art museum is not included in the Oregon Fun Card
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.
Right of way/easement is right of way/easement. To remove that takes an act of council, public comment and resolution/and or ordinance.
I’m not sure if you’re saying that the museum already has the right to continue allowing only the current, compromised access, or that the City has the right to deny further restricting it, or both.
Both are true, but the museum and City should be working together to do what’s best, which is a museum expansion that includes through-access that’s far better than what exists now. The City has all kinds of leverage to get the museum to agree to work with it to achieve that, not that the museum should be forcing the City to use that leverage.
And that is exactly what is planned, on April 20, at Council.
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:
Good Luck, Portland!
That’s one of the world’s most respected architectural firms, and a great example. I love what you wrote:
“The museum expanded it’s surface contact with the public by designing to the pedestrian mall rather than limiting it.”
Obviously that museum’s board had more civic sense than the museum here (I was going to write “…Portland’s museum” but not sure that’s really very accurate any more.
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.
Excellent response by people speaking out in support of continuation of the Wildwood Trail in Washington Park. I knew about the Japanese Garden expansion, and a little about modifications it would require to surrounding woodland, but wasn’t quite aware about closure of the trail that had been planned to provide for the expansion.
“…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. …” q
Parks said take the sidewalk? That’s just too much. Amazingly short sighted viewpoint.
I really hope the museum and the city, slows down on approving this design that will close Madison past the museum. It’s a museum after all, a showplace for demonstrating high levels of creativity and imagination. That given, it’s very difficult to not imagine the museum couldn’t come up with a better, more inspiring architectural and functional design that would continue public access on Madison.
I’d say Europeans, especially from places like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, but not Colorado.
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?
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.
I hadn’t realized that. I wonder why PBOT never got back to me with that information.
I see you worked a European city (Greece) into your answer, too, so I gave you a “recommended”.
Thanks. Everyone knows that one of the safest cities for driving is Greece.
Not surprising. They invented rhodes. And they don’t have a lot of irresponsible young drivers, because of their aegean population.