With eight-months to respond to vehement opposition, the Portland Art Museum’s plans for their $50 million Rothko Pavillion didn’t change much, so the response from its many critics hasn’t changed either.
That’s where we find ourselves today as museum leaders head to City Council to try and pass an ordinance (PDF) that will ultimately allow them to enclose what is currently an open plaza on SW Madison between 10th Avenue and the Park Blocks. (Note: PAM already effectively owns the plaza, but only under conditions of an easement controlled by the City of Portland.)
As we reported last month, PAM’s Executive Director Brian Ferriso came to a joint meeting of the City’s Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) and Pedestrian Advisory Committee to ask for support for the plans. Committee members hoped to see a proposal with more details about how the museum’s plans would impact the free movement of walkers and rollers through the plaza. But Ferriso didn’t share any new design details. His new pitch was an expansion of museum access hours and a reversal of their previous ban on bikes and pets altogether.
“Public access to this block has been incrementally eroded over the years, the proposal is an unacceptable further limitation of public access.”
— Letter signed by chairs and co-chairs of City of Portland bicycle and pedestrian advisory committees
The BAC/PAC didn’t like the old proposal, and they don’t like the new one either. In a letter (PDF) dated December 6th, the leaders of those committees wrote, “The reasons for our opposition remain unchanged.” They feel giving up the relatively unfettered access through the plaza that exists today would hurt neighborhood connectivity and that doing so, “fails to live up to the City’s adopted goals of a walkable city.” “Public access to this block has been incrementally eroded over the years,” the letter continues, “the proposal is an unacceptable further limitation of public access.”
Portland author and walking tour leader Laura O. Foster agrees. She’s literally written the book(s) on exploring Portland by foot. Her books include Portland Hill Walks, The Portland Stairs Book, Portland City Walks, and the handy Walk There! guidebook. In her testimony at Council today (which she just shared in a BikePortland comment), Foster says that PAM is, “A beloved institution, but it is just one of many places that make Portland a creative mecca, and a destination for urban explorers.” Here’s more from Foster’s testimony:
“Our urban streets are one of our city’s greatest treasures: on them, the city and its citizens display our creativity. These common spaces—our streets—bind us. Whether we’re liberal or conservative, they are, like the Benson bubblers or our many neighborhood parks, part of our beloved civic heritage. We, the citizens of this generation, are stewards of these spaces for the generations that follow.
Our beloved streets, in short, are not up for grabs by the nearest cultural institution.
The PAM’s stated intention to seize this common space seems unthinkable to me. The glass walls do not invite passage; they convey privilege. They are not open 24/7, as any city street is; they have walls and doors, two things which, by definition, denote exclusivity…
Can you imagine a visitor to Portland, or a person with a handicap, or a parent pushing a stroller laden with kid and gear, seeing this glass wall, from Park or 10th? Rather than go investigate to see if the passage is free and flows through, they would just walk around. The perception that walls and doors give is private property—the very opposite of a public space.
I urge you to hear Portlanders in our opposition to this taking of a public right-of-way.”
“Our beloved streets, in short, are not up for grabs by the nearest cultural institution.”
— Laura O. Foster, local author of walking guidebooks
While many remain concerned, PAM seems poised for a victory at City Council. The Oregonian reported earlier this week that, “Commissioners Chloe Eudaly, Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman have all signaled support for the revised plan.” They’ve been swayed in part by PAM’s new and stronger statements about how their pavillion will improve accessibility to the museum.
In an email sent out this week urging members to attend the hearing today, PAM wrote that they’ve responded to public feedback and that, “People with bicycles and pets would also be able to pass through, just as they do today.” Today there are no doors or impediments on the plaza and it’s clear PAM plans to change that with the new pavillion. Asked to explain why they used the phrase, “Just as they do today,” PAM Director of Communications Laura Bartroff replied to us via email that, “We intend for the Rothko Pavilion to be a great public space similar to many other great museums around the world. Part of that will be the ability to enter the pavilion and travel through the pavilion with by walking, walking with your bicycle or pet, or using a mobility device.”
Even if PAM gets it wish at Council today, there’s a long road ahead before any design is finalized. We have a feeling the issue will resurface once the plans hit the Historic Landmarks Commission.
Today’s hearing begins at 2:00 in City Council Chambers.
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