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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.

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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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bikeninja
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bikeninja

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.

Buzz
Guest
Buzz

Rich. White. Privileged.

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

mark
Guest
mark

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

Kittens
Subscriber
Kittens

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.

Jeff
Guest
Jeff

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.

rick
Guest
rick

Live free !

maxD
Guest
maxD

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.

maxD
Guest
maxD

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

Matti
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Matti

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.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

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…

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

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.”

Shannon
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Shannon

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.

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

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

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

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

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

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…

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

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

Fred
Guest
Fred

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.

John Liu
Subscriber

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.

mark smith
Guest
mark smith

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

kyle
Guest
kyle

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.

Tim
Guest
Tim