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Portland Art Museum changes design to include ‘public arcade’ through Madison Plaza


View of the proposed arcade through the Rothko Pavilion between SW 10th and Park.
(Drawings: Vinci Hamp Architects)

The Portland Art Museum has proposed a new design for their forthcoming Rothko Pavilion project that includes an open walkway through Madison Plaza on the South Park Blocks. The move comes after the museum fielded widespread opposition to previous plans that would have would have closed off the 24/7 public access through the plaza that people enjoy today.

“The original design has evolved in a way that… complements the urban landscape.”
— Portland Art Museum

For months, PAM insisted that losing public access through the plaza was a worthy tradeoff for improved access to their exhibits. Many Portlanders strongly disagreed and they worried the project would reduce connectivity for walking and rolling in the central city — something that goes against all of Portland’s urban planning goals. In addition to major concerns voiced by adjacent residents who use the plaza to access the South Park Blocks and other destinations, PAM’s initial design drew strong opposition from the City of Portland’s Bicycle Advisory Committee and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

Now the museum has changed their tune.

In a statement posted to their website on August 10th, PAM said,

“The Museum has spent the past several months revisiting the initial 2015 concept with the staff, board, and the Museum’s Accessibility Advisory Task Force, as well as listening to a number of community members and Portland city officials. As a result, the original design has evolved in a way that not only offers enhanced circulation, improved art and public spaces, and amenities within and around the Museum, but also one that complements the urban landscape.”

Instead of resisting an open passageway and insisting that it wasn’t feasible, PAM now says, “an open passageway and a new entry structure between the Museum’s two buildings will further integrate the Museum campus into the fabric of the neighborhood and the city.”

Design drawing with the new arcade labeled via blue arrow.
Cutaway of the arcade looking south.

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View through arcade from SW 10th.
View from SW Park Ave.

PAM Executive Director Brian Ferriso added that, “The design will continue to be refined and articulated, but we are inspired by the latest iteration, which we believe better invites the public to engage in art and creates a campus that is assimilated more fully within our downtown neighborhood.”

In design drawings submitted to the City of Portland, PAM refers to the passageway as a “public passage arcade.”

Walking, biking, and central city livability advocates who pushed PAM to come up with a better design deserve a lot of credit for the design changes.

Wendy Rahm, a former PAM board member and nearby resident, spearheaded one of the opposition efforts. At a city council hearing on the project in April 2017 she testified that earlier designs that would have closed the plaza to free, unfettered public access, “Would create a superblock and a physical and psychological barrier.” She also said PAM’s approach had, “A ring of elitism to it.”

In an email last week meant to rally advocates to a Historic Landmarks Commission meeting on Monday, Rahm said, “From my perspective, this change [in the project design] deserves our whole-hearted support and thanks.”

UPDATE, 2:34 pm: Rahm just emailed her supporters with an update on the HLC meeting. Seems as though commissioners were not impressed with the latest design:

Hi all,

The August 27 Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC) second design advice request (DAR) meeting on the Rothko Pavilion concept plan, scheduled to last 1.5 hours, ran just under 4 hours. It included a staff presentation, PAM presentation, a presentation by PDOT (on Jefferson St loading dock), public testimony (not a lot, but a few supporting the passage concept and some opposing other aspects) and wound up with the comments by the commissioners (HLC and 2 from the Design Commission). The audio is up on the web. You can find it here: https://efiles.portlandoregon.gov/Record/11695733/

The Commissioners comments (probably the last hour or so of the hearing) were largely very critical of the Rothko Pavilion concept plan, the Jefferson Street loading dock, and the treatment of the historic Park Avenue entrance to the Belluschi building. It is hard to summarize all the points made, but one commissioner’s comments summed it up well enough (my version!):

The concept plan began inside, first addressing the museum’s needs and then moving on to the outside with what area was left, which left the public realm short-changed. PAM’s architects need to start over, this time beginning with the needs of the public realm in terms of a passage way combined with much more open space/plazas (not a “tunnel”) and then moving inside to meet the museum’s needs. Since PAM is downtown’s primary cultural institution, the public realm around it is what will be a draw both for the city and for the museum. And the pavilion’s architecture should be more dramatic. (I hope I got everything right).

*Other comments during the commissioner comment period included the following:

Plaza/passage/pavilion. “least amount of give back,” “feels inhospitable and ungenerous,” “not gracious,” “is not just an infill project,” “arcade is an important part of the pavilion and not auxiliary,” “more care to public realm,” “is not fitting into the city,” “view corridors,” “festival street”

Jefferson Street. “significant risk to the public realm,” “active use street,” ”on ramp for 26”

During the proceeding, for policy lovers, some of the citations of guidelines, code, and policies not being met by the concept are A-3, A-8, B-1, B-2, B-3, B-5, C-4, C-6. One other commissioner commented: “The guidelines are not being met….any modification requires a betterment and this is not.”*

My guess is there will be another DAR in the museum’s future, but that is only a guess. I really have no idea how they will proceed after this difficult hearing.

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

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