Downtown Portland’s O’Bryant Square poised for demolition, rebirth

The derelict O’Bryant Square as it is today. (Photo: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

It might be hard to believe now, but downtown Portland’s O’Bryant Square was seen as a feat of urban design when it was built in the early 1970s. The currently-defunct plaza, which was constructed with a fountain and an underground parking garage, even won a national design award from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1976.

But that was the high point for the plaza, which has been on a downward spiral ever since. Now, thanks in part to an ambitious vision from the nonprofit Portland Parks Foundation, O’Bryant Square may soon get a second life. It might even be as cool as some of the plazas I saw on my recent trip to The Netherlands. Before that happens however, the demolition crews have to come in.

O’Bryant Square has been closed since 2018 due to structural issues with the underground parking garage and the city spent years trying to decide what to do about it. They finally made a firm decision at the end of last year to demolish the parking structure and fill it with dirt to bring it to surface level: the first phase in O’Bryant Square’s new life.

A slide from a PPF presentation about the O’Bryant Square initiative. (Source: PPF)

The demolition process is set to begin this summer, and will cost $4.5 million. The project is under the purview of both the Portland Bureau of Transportation and Parks & Recreation bureau (PP&R) and will be funded through parking revenue and parks bureau fees. But neither PBOT nor PP&R have the funding to implement a long-term strategy for what the park will look like. That’s where the Portland Parks Foundation (PPF) comes in.

O’Bryant Square is located on a small lot at the corner of Southwest Park Avenue and Southwest Harvey Milk Street, in close proximity to several organizations that provide resources for people experiencing mental health and addiction crises, including Multnomah County’s Behavioral Health Resource Center. People who utilize these services have long frequented this park, earning it the rather mean-spirited nickname “Paranoid Park.”

But the neighborhood is changing: later this year, Portland’s Ritz-Carlton will open just catty-corner from the plaza, bringing other new developments with it. PPF Executive Director Randy Gragg said he thinks the diverse conglomeration of people who mingle near O’Bryant Square will create a unique opportunity to create a new public space that works for everybody.

“This is a really fascinating and complicated space to try to create programming for, because everybody has to be in the public space,” Gragg told BikePortland. “Basically what we’re assembling is a community vision for what could happen in the square the day the fences come down.”

PPF is putting together an initiative called “Back to Square One: Rethinking O’Bryant Square”: a collaborative effort between the foundation, Portland State University’s Center for Public Interest Design, Harvard University’s Loeb Fellows and PP&R to brainstorm about what this space should look like — and theorize about the value of public spaces like this in general.

Public plazas and parks have been a very hot topic recently, branching out beyond the traditional urbanist discourse sphere. Here in Portland, this discussion has been multifaceted and sometimes contentious. Carfree spaces popped up all over the city during the pandemic to encourage people to get outside safely, and former PBOT Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty boosted carfree plazas as an effective way to prevent gun violence. But others are fearful of these spaces being overtaken by drug paraphernalia and camps, which has led to stagnated planning efforts.

However, the benefits of these public spaces are clear — it’s just a question of how the city will go about developing and maintaining more of them. What unfolds at O’Bryant Square over the next few months will be a good case study in hot-button urban planning issues and could inform future plans.

PPF will host two events next week where the public can help come up with ideas for what they want to see in the future O’Bryant Square: an open house from 8:00 am to 7:30 pm on March 8th, and a public forum from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm on March 11th, both at 820 SW Washington St. These will be opportunities to hear from urban planning experts and imagine the best future for downtown Portland. PPF has also created a survey asking for input about what people want to see at O’Bryant, which you can find here.

“There’s a potluck element to it,” Gragg said. “We’re thinking of O’Bryant as a table, and we’re inviting people to bring their best dishes.”

You can find out more about PPF’s initiative at their website.

Taylor Griggs

Taylor Griggs

Taylor was BikePortland's staff writer from 2021 to 2023. She currently writes for the Portland Mercury. Contact her at taylorgriggswriter@gmail.com

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PTB
PTB
1 year ago

This has long been a favorite little park of mine. Jim and I would skip high school in the early 90s and take the 5 down from Vancouver and get fries at the McDonalds at like Park and Alder?, and sit on the bricks. Years later I’d get coffee and a muffin at Coffee Plant and sit on the bricks here. Later still in my PSU days I’d get lunch at the food carts and again, sit on the bricks. I like it just as it is. Was.

maxD
maxD
1 year ago
Reply to  PTB

right on! I agree with this- they should fill in the parking and keep the park. It is pretty well-designed, has a lot of mature trees and cool water feature. Portland should stop wiping out history- keep the plaza!

PTB
PTB
1 year ago
Reply to  maxD

I think what I was thinking, and am still thinking, is what is wrong with this the way it’s configured? What more does it need to be? Can you not still take a coffee here and sit here watching people walk by? Maybe duck out of work on your break and make a call? I’m pretty sure you could still do exactly that sort of thing here. It’s too basic and not extra? Ok. Is this just because of the f’ing Ritz there?? If so, that’s weak. It’s not something enough for the prospective future tenants of that building? Those people are keeping public space mingling to a minimum, I guarantee that. Why is this happening?

Also, what Laura Shirozako says below this, I agree. And that is ok, too. When I was downtown for work and school, lots of people were totally capable of sharing this space. In my youth we called it Paranoia Park, not Paranoid Park. I was always under the impression it was us ne’er do well youth that called it this, not some widespread disparagement used by the community at large.

cp_1969
cp_1969
1 year ago
Reply to  PTB

Yep. I remember calling it and hearing it referred to as “Paranoia Park” in the 80s.
Calling it Paranoia Park with the way it looked back then (it wasn’t anywhere near the garbage pit it is now. It actually WAS a park) compared to now seems quaint. It is a fitting moniker today.

Laura Shirozako
Laura Shirozako
1 year ago

“…earning it the rather mean-spirited nickname “Paranoid Park.””

If you spent much time near the park you would agree it’s a fitting moniker. I don’t think it’s mean spirited rather realistic.

Doug
Doug
1 year ago

Great article! I’d add PPF is open to the idea of closing streets around the park and that the Green Loop will pass on two sides.

I think a well-lit dog park would be the best use to keep this challenging location activated most of the day.

Will
Will
1 year ago
Reply to  Doug

Where did you hear PPF is open to closing the streets? Would it just be 9th and Park, or also Washington and Harvey Milk? Is PBOT on board with that?

Fred
Fred
1 year ago

Any public space downtown is currently overwhelmed by “people experiencing mental health and addiction crises,” as Taylor so delicately puts it. That’s the pressing problem we need to solve – starting with the repeal of Measure 110, which has made Oregon an addict destination.

soren
soren
1 year ago
Reply to  Fred

Millionaire real estate owner-investors can’t wrap their head around the fact that a chronic housing crisis that forces people to live on our streets might be linked to an increase in people with untreated mental health issues. If Oregon and Portland eliminated the gravy-train of tax-payer-funded gifts/credits going to wealthy real estate owners, housing prices would drop and/or stabilize and we might actually see some progress towards creating a more humane society.

Adam
Adam
1 year ago

O’Bryant Square was always an odd spot for a public square. It is in a corner of downtown that is kind of out of the way, with more prominent nearby public spaces attracting most of the foot traffic. I’m sure there are many Portlanders who have never heard about it or could not easily locate it. It’s hard to imagine it as a destination spot. It’s more of a place you happen upon, which could be very cool.

When I worked downtown in the early 2000s there were still moments when you could go there and expect to find a decent spot to eat lunch and do some people watching. There were many times though when you would go by the park and look in to find people strung out on the Brutalist hardscape. Paranoid Park was one of its more quaint and euphemistic nicknames.

The location is still going to be the main challenge for it. It needs to be well-lit at night for anyone to feel safe in that area, which apparently is not a strong suit for PP&R anymore. There needs to be something else near there to attract people other than service providers and empty office buildings. For a long stretch in the late-2000s to early 2010s it was allowed to be overly vandalized and left unkempt. It’s relative proximity to outreach programs and that stretch of lower West Burnside means its going to be tough to make sure it does not become another public space dominated by vagrants, drug users, and the mentally ill. Most people don’t like sharing a space with these folks on their lunch break or at night after a concert.

The survey asks people how they would like to activate the square. Perhaps it could be an all-day/late-night food court to replace what was lost when the 5-star evicted the Alder food cart pod. To be successful this go around it will have to rise above its surroundings and somehow hopefully elevate those surroundings.

Will
Will
1 year ago
Reply to  Adam

One of the things I mentioned when I took the survey was that it would be a good place for a coffee kiosk or a couple of food carts. I think something like that would add liveliness.

maxD
maxD
1 year ago
Reply to  Adam

West Burnside was widened and overbuilt, I think in the 1950’s. This made the street a barrier, and removed or reduced buildings. Since then, it has been the location of a lot of SRo’s and homeless service providers compounding the issues for a more diverse streetscape. I thin there are some tangible steps that could be taken to activate the square:

  • reconfigure burnside to reduce lanes and lane widths and widen sidewalks. There were a few studies back in 2008/2009 that looked at enhancing Burnside. Bike lanes need to extend from the bridge to at least the Park Blocks.
  • disperse services: concentrating all social services in one neighborhood is not great
  • maintain the transit mall- this should be walking corridor- no camping/graffiti and no brazen drug-selling.
  • support redevelopment in Old Town China Town- there have been a few great proposals for redevelopment- one was a new building on a surface parking lot. I think it was 8 stories- and it was deemed too tall for the historic character of the neighborhood. I strongly support historic preservation, but if we allow perfect to be the enemy of good, this neighborhood will continue to languish and we will end up losing some historic gems. We should allow this to become a thriving part of Portland, not treat it like a museum or a destination.

I disagree with the characterization “brutalist hellscape”. This is thoughtfully designed plaza with lots of flexible openspace, flexible seating, an attractive restroom, a cool fountain and a good amount of planting and green space. The park suffered from neglect, and a lack of support from good urban planning. The park, and even the surrounding streets, are not enough to design, the whole burnside bridge head to the park blocks and 5 blocks on either side needs a masterplan. Once the park is built, it will need programming and maintenance. O’bryant Park would have been a very different place if the restrooms were maintained, the water feature worked, the plants were well tended and there was some regular programming.

maxD
maxD
1 year ago
Reply to  maxD

Also, the ATT building taking up the block of Burnside/Park/Oak/9th is an absolute black hole of urban design- sucking the life out of everything within a couple of blocks. I am pretty sure the building is just a façade and it is full of mechanical equipment. I don’t know that the City can do anything about this, but redevelopment and street activation here would be super helpful for this neighborhood
https://www.google.com/maps/@45.5229965,-122.6790842,3a,75y,227.86h,102.65t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s4KQrE-iOxnBvM53oLlWFYw!2e0!7i16384!8i8192

Adam
Adam
1 year ago
Reply to  maxD

I said Brutalist hardscape, not hellscape. And I think it is fair to characterize the architectural style as Brutalist. That is not a bad thing, per se, but it is an architectural style that was not always well-applied and did not always age well. Keller Fountain is another, arguably, Brutalist work, and it is beautiful, but it is a far more successful public space than O’Bryant Square ever was.

Adam
Adam
1 year ago
Reply to  Adam

RIP to idea a new O’Bryant Square will not become overrun by vagrants and drug addicts.

https://www.wweek.com/news/2023/03/01/a-familiar-fight-between-businesses-and-county-officials-over-homeless-services-plays-out-in-portlands-hotel-district/

This Behavioral Health Resource Center is on the block immediately to north of O’Bryant Square. If that is is biggest draw for people in the vicinity, you can bet no one who does not want to hang out with behavioral-challenged folks will want to hang in whatever O’Bryant Square becomes.

If you think someone staying at one of the local hotels will want mix with the crowd who frequents the BHRC, you’re a naïf.

So it goes.

Andrew Kreps
Andrew Kreps
1 year ago

I used to grab lunch from the best cart pod in the city and eat in the sun in O’Bryant sq, where a street performer would invariably entertain the crowds. RIP to all of that, I guess.

Ben
Ben
1 year ago

One challenge the city will have to overcome with a redesign of the park is that the office buildings on the east and west sides have been converted to server storage, and effectively have no one working in them. Add the pre-existing AT&T and Centurylink buildings, and you have three and a half blocks nearby blocks with no foot traffic to speak of. Hopefully the Ritz will help.

PacificSource
PacificSource
1 year ago
Reply to  Ben

ah, I was wondering why it always feels so empty around there even when the buildings appeared to be occupied

Dave
Dave
1 year ago

Make it the replacement for the Alder Food cart pods with perhaps a covered seating area. Make it similar to the super successful Beaverton food cart pod.

maxD
maxD
1 year ago
Reply to  Dave

this was intended to be the replacement for the cart blocks:
https://www.cartblocks.org/

Larry Jex
Larry Jex
1 year ago

I used to love to sit by that fountain and read books back in the ’80s and ’90s. I hate to see it go, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been there and I don’t even know what the area looks like now. Whatever they do, I hope they replace it with something unique instead of the same old, same old boring cookie cutter patios you see everywhere else.

Erik
Erik
1 year ago

It better not have light poles…