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Portland Art Museum returns to council today, seeking rights to build on Madison Plaza

Posted by on December 7th, 2017 at 11:06 am

Portland Art Museum Rendering of new Rothko Pavillion that will enclose Madison Plaza.

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.

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

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35 Comments
  • bikeninja December 7, 2017 at 11:27 am

    This process is much like the enclosure movement that began in England in the 12th century. Land that was previously held in common and used by all, was taken over for the exclusive use of the landed gentry and aristocrats.

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  • Buzz December 7, 2017 at 11:37 am

    Rich. White. Privileged.

    And I’m not talking about cyclists, I’m talking about art ‘patrons’.

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    • Jason H December 7, 2017 at 12:24 pm

      Exactly, art is created as an expression by those (frequently) without means, and valued and hoarded by those with the most. Even art “museums” are just showy public facing trophy cases where with the security and barriers the art can be gazed upon but never actually possessed by anyone other than the rich who loan them out from their collections.

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    • chris m December 7, 2017 at 1:25 pm

      It’s just not really the case that cultural amenities like art museums that target a more affluent demographic are competing for resources with social services for people who are less privileged. The amount of resources that are targeted to arts in the U.S. is a relative pittance, and countries with more robust art funding also tend to have less not more dire poverty.

      https://intranet.americansforthearts.org/sites/default/files/Comparisonsofartsfunding27Oct2005_0.pdf

      The issue of closing off a public square is separate and we can have a debate about that. But insinuating that public investment in the arts is overdone because those who enjoy it are privileged is off the mark IMO, even before you consider the tremendous spillover effects that arts investment has for the richness and overall well being of a whole city.

      I may be reading too much into this short comment though, so apologies if I am.

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      • Buzz December 7, 2017 at 4:15 pm

        Did I say anything either way about my feelings on public funding for the arts? I don’t think so, but if you had asked I would have told you that I’m all for it.

        OTOH, IMO, this attempted / proposed take over of public ROW is wrong no matter where the funding for the pavilion construction comes from; but it’s my understanding that it isn’t being done with public money, it is being done with private money, unless they are using private funding to leverage some public funding as well…

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        • chris m December 7, 2017 at 4:28 pm

          Fair enough. I guess I would say that the museum is a major public asset regardless of financing. And while you’re right to point out that it’s expensive to get in and the demographic it serves is more affluent, I still think it’s an asset that benefits the whole community. Again, whether the public good served by making this improvement at the expense of loss of public space is not clear to me. But I did feel you were speaking about the museum as though it only benefits one segment of the population and is therefore not of especially high value. I dislike this kind of framing around public assets.

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          • q December 7, 2017 at 11:13 pm

            There’s some irony in reading your caution against underestimating the value of the museum–not because there’s anything wrong with what you said, but because the real underestimating that’s going on here has so little to do with underestimating the value of the museum and so much to do with the museum’s (and possibly City Council) underestimating the value of keeping public space public.

            And while it’s debatable as to the extent that the value of the museum trickles down to segments of the population outside of its patrons (and I agree with you there is some) it’s really not debatable that the public street/space has value to everyone, affluent or not.

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    • R. Patrick Trickler December 14, 2017 at 5:26 pm

      There are some real entitled bikecyclist out there that yell at predestrians, ride on the sidewalk, go through red light and stop signs . There are entitled pedestrians that dont look up from their phones and you have to dodge them. entitled car owners usually mercedes, BMW, audi and porsche that dont use blinkers, barrel through cross walks, and stop at red lights 1/2 way into the crosswalk. Packs of peopele who travel together and take up the whole side walk and won’t make room for you. There are people in wheelchairs and rascal carts that barrel towards you and dont slow down and yell at you. Its not isolated to this piece of land that people are obsessed every socioeconomic group has a sense of entitlement. Your argument is bs. your judgemental view smacks of entitlment on some level.

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  • mark December 7, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    I’ll make sure that my bike is wet and extra muddy before I pass through.

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    • q December 7, 2017 at 10:46 pm

      And if your bike is LEGITIMATELY wet and muddy–or just wet–you’re not going to be any more welcome than if you made it that way on purpose.

      Or if you’re running in sweaty clothes (or just running) or have a boisterous dog, or a dripping umbrella, or any number of other things that would be fine on any street or sidewalk, you also won’t be welcome.

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      • mark December 8, 2017 at 9:03 am

        I wouldn’t really try to sabotage things by deliberately mucking up my bike, but it sure is tempting.

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        • q December 8, 2017 at 11:06 am

          Actually, think of how the artists whose work is displayed would have felt about this. What would Picasso do? Warhol? Famous artists became famous because they challenged the existing conventions of the art world. Many went beyond that and ended up jailed, persecuted, censored or banished by the governments they challenged.

          Walking through the lobby with intentionally muddied tires would be a tame response by any of them.

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  • Kittens December 7, 2017 at 12:19 pm

    You know, on the scale of horribleness this doesn’t really rank but it still really annoys the hell out of me that PAM thinks they can do this in a vain attempt to continue running on the hampster wheel of expansion and fundraising.

    Let’s face it, today PAM is not so much a cherished repository of cutlture as a waspsy gift shop and event venue for the rich.

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  • Jeff December 7, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    I haven’t been to the museum in years, but the fact remains that going around on either end of the block if far from some offending task.

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    • billyjo December 7, 2017 at 1:54 pm

      the problem is that the land belongs to you. Did PAM ever actually pay for the property?

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    • q December 7, 2017 at 10:29 pm

      I think it IS offensive.

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  • rick December 7, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    Live free !

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  • maxD December 7, 2017 at 1:13 pm

    I am a PAM member and I love the proposal and the goal of increased accessibility within the museum. HOWEVER, taking over public ROW is simply wrong! They could easily address accessibility by re-designing their plaza so the ramp is not hidden, then improve the basement connection and the elevators and add glassed-in connections between the buildings and over the plaza at the 2nd and 3rd levels. Their claims of addressing public access are false on their face- it is a galling claim. This reminds me a graphic I was shown in grad school of what Central Park would look like if every museum and theater that had been proposed to be built there had been built: it was FULL of buildings. They may have been great buildings with wonderful, civic and cultural missions, but they were buildings and NOT a park. This is only a fraction of the scale, of course, but it is a critical parallel. PAM claims that it is worth it to replace a free, public openspace with a building and controlled access; it is not worth it. Public space must be preserved.

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    • P December 14, 2017 at 5:30 pm

      for crying out loud this is not the last friggin piece of land… walk around for crying out loud.

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  • maxD December 7, 2017 at 1:30 pm

    For all of PAM’s high-minded talk about accessibility, I was very disappointed to review the renderings and notice they are not even proposing a universal access to their brand new entry plaza! The plaza is constructed of broad, easy-riser stairs while an accessible ramp is shoved off to the side in an inelegant, separate-but-equal design move

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  • Matti December 7, 2017 at 1:36 pm

    A glass box doesn’t have to entirely block access east-to-west. Just like the current sculpture garden allows passage at any time, day or night, a wide, well-lit open air breezeway can penetrate this proposed glass connector. Architecture is about solving problems. The design should address this.

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    • Adam December 7, 2017 at 3:39 pm

      Ditto, I had the same thoughts. It seems like a significant missed design opportunity to highlight the indoor collection overhead in the connector while engaging the passing public with some resilient outdoor sculpture in a well lit circulation space.

      I was recently in Madison and the expanded Chazen Museum of Art has a similar breezeway (albeit more solid in form)… https://goo.gl/maps/gF6nw5WFQoD2

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  • Todd Boulanger December 7, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    I was mildly shocked at listening to the biased* “reporting” that Aaron Scott of The State of Wonder/OPB did on this project last week when listening to the episode that embraced PAMs internal ADA circulation without challenging that this would impact external ADA circulation in the off hours. (I had to listen to it a couple of times.)

    [*In my opinion, that The State of Wonder program spent too much time discussing the poor state of existing accessibility** without delving deeper into PAMs false choices and self-imposed hardship with the proposed design that has seemingly not evolved much in the 1 year after public pushback.]

    The main issue still exists. Is the greater good: improved ADA internal circulation vs. degraded external ADA circulation and access…the “closure” (afterhours or mental barrier) does create an potential of greater out of direction travel and a steeper rise in grade (10 FT vs. 7 FT Per Google Maps) for a wheelchair user to detour to SW Madison. The Access Board AND Federal law is pretty clear about “improvements” not degrading existing ADA accessibility in the PROW. And a temporal closure in the PROW is still a detour.

    Perhaps this will make a great ADA lawsuit (and future study) – assuming the council approves the PAM enclosure without mandating a better design that reflects / communicates FULL public passage or managed 24/7 access. I would hope that as a community we have learned much since Big Pink was built and its public access all but “privatized” in the vacation process.

    **The accessibility comments of Joseph Lowe during the State of Wonder program were very interesting in pointing out that the existing interior conditions at PAM are problem…AND this made me wonder if the most recent renovations really met the FULL letter of the ADA at the time they were done…

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    • maxD December 7, 2017 at 3:59 pm

      Todd, I completely agree! I thought the show sounded more like a promotion than an interview. It was hearing the museum director bemoan how hidden the existing ramp in the plaza is today and then wax on about how they intend to fix it that made me check out the renderings: what a hypocrite! Not only did the museum build that hidden ramp in the first place, the proposed design is just as bad or worse. Instead of sloping the whole plaza up the front doors, they create a whole flight of broad, low steps, then shove a ramp way off to one side and wall it off!

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  • Todd Boulanger December 7, 2017 at 3:41 pm

    Approving item #11, as written, places the City in a much weaker negotiating position.

    Thus I would recommend that the Council not approve item 11*…and instead move to rescind the 1984 ordinance (#156895) change and return to the original intent of the 1968 ordinance (#127882) on SW Madison…

    …as the state of crime in Portland’s Madison Plaza is likely much less that it was in 1984 when the passageway was closed at night, thus the public’s need for full accessibility at all hours would now outweigh the residual public safety threat of keeping the plaza open.

    *#11. To enable the Museum to move forward with planning for the Pavilion, the Council is willing to amend Ordinance No. 127882, as amended by Ordinance No. 156895…”

    BikePortland wrote, “The museum currently operates with an easement on that block first granted in 1968. That easement required an eight-foot minimum path for the public 24 hours a day. In 1984 the museum requested — and was granted — permission to close the plaza at night due to security and vandalism concerns.”

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  • Shannon December 8, 2017 at 3:27 pm

    I can’t help but think of the meme regarding the recent downsizing of Bears Ears monument and how it applies here; THEY ARE STEALING YOUR LAND. Both actions are outright theft of public land.

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  • Todd Boulanger December 8, 2017 at 4:23 pm

    Here is the link to the CoP Council session discussing the PAM presentation, public comments and council comments…its a long discussion…council recommended the plaza be open during Portland Street Car service hours…there will be a future vote…

    https://youtu.be/mP3JirdXitw

    Also, the PAM Executive Director Brian Ferriso also publicly offered that he would talk to people about this project if they called him: see https://youtu.be/mP3JirdXitw?t=12627

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  • Todd Boulanger December 8, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    Here is the point near the end where the issue of the city’s control over the easement and the ordinance…two tools that this or future councils can modify this:
    https://youtu.be/mP3JirdXitw?t=12856

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  • Todd Boulanger December 8, 2017 at 4:27 pm

    The December 7th council session was the first reading of this ordinance change…it will return for a second reading (and final vote) perhaps as soon as next week…

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  • Todd Boulanger December 8, 2017 at 4:42 pm

    CoP Council – link to PAMs presentation: https://youtu.be/mP3JirdXitw?t=952

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  • Fred December 9, 2017 at 7:18 am

    I’ve been a member of PAM for several years. When I heard about PAM’s proposal to block the street, I wrote to them and asked that they alter their proposal and continue to allow public access. I received an adamant reply from PAM’s spokesperson that basically said, “We’re going ahead with our proposal.” In other words, it’s our way or nothing. I was really disappointed in PAM’s response, and while I love art I am going to end my PAM membership and consider other venues for art in Portland. I don’t understand why PAM has to take an “all or nothing” approach. Why can’t they build *over* the plaza, leaving a bike/ped passage underneath? I’ll bet they are afraid that homeless people will sleep there (a covered space), but that’s a problem they can manage. I just don’t know what their objection is, b/c they won’t talk about it – at least didn’t seem bothered to explain it to one member of the museum.

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  • John Liu
    John Liu December 9, 2017 at 8:21 am

    In 1968, Madison was vacated (i.e. no longer a public street, now owned by PAM) subject to an 8 foot wide pedestrian easement. In 1984 the easement was modified to require public access from 7 am to 11 pm, with PAM permitted to close it at night.

    So, as long as the Rothko pavilion has an 8 foot wide pedestrian passage that is open from 7 am to 11 pm, it will meet the existing terms. Sounds like PAM is going to have such a passage and such hours of access.

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    • q December 9, 2017 at 11:20 am

      Well yes (assuming that was the agreement) and the City has been honoring that agreement ever since. But now the museum wants to make a drastic change (building a building across the entire space) so the existing agreement–which didn’t give the museum the right to build across the space–becomes irrelevant.

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  • mark smith December 9, 2017 at 6:16 pm

    Portland needs to revoke the right of way and take back the area. It’s clear what PAM wants. And..it’s not access.

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  • kyle December 13, 2017 at 10:14 am

    I love going to the museum, and the basement level connection is awful. I get why they want to insert this pavilion to connect the two buildings, but to take away that unique pass thru is a mistake in my opinion. The public sculpture garden and connection from the park blocks through is a very nice and unique Portland pedestrian space. To make the connection perhaps they could pop up a few large skylight lanterns that if designed thoughtfully could contain some program space but also improve the underground connection. The plaza could work as an at grade connection, maybe even provide some cover and clever access controls…but not enclosing the connection. Then really pump up the experience at the lower level – support it with exhibits and better programming. Today it feels like a tunnel. This along with a really interesting experience made by the added skylight lanterns could meet the connectivity without causing a physical barrier to the wonderful urban connection at grade that exists today.

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