THE NEXT TIME you feel like whining about how long it takes the City of Portland to get anything done, consider the new plaza being built at the corner of SW Park and Yamhill for some calendar recalibration. Most city decisions take months or years to implement. Park Block 5 has taken decades—16, to be exact.
Landowner Daniel Lownsdale first platted the property in 1848 as one of 11 narrow park blocks, hoping to create a ribbon of green through the future metropolis. Lownsdale’s heirs, however, had different plans for the land and challenged his gift in court. They won six of the blocks back from the city, including the soon-to-be-fabled Park Block 5.
City plans in both 1903 and 1912 proposed reclaiming all 11 of Lownsdale’s blocks ?as open space, but developers built six hotels and two office buildings on them instead. Park Block 5 remained empty until the automobile arrived and “park” became a verb. Portland’s 1972 Downtown Plan reaffirmed civic hopes for a return to the green and grassy kind of “park,” but soon after, an International House of Pancakes rose at one corner of the block. It wasn’t until 1995 that the land began its unlikely journey to true parkdom; ironically, the process was set in motion when Park Block 5’s longtime owners, the Goodman family, decided it would be a fine spot for a 12-story parking garage.
The Goodmans’ proposal met with such a frenzy of public and political blowback that nearly all six of the missing park blocks were reclaimed—only with the hope of turning them into a giant downtown shopping mall (go to the next page “Seed of a New Park” for a quick tour of that controversy). But all’s well that ends well. What’s now taking shape blends elements of all the historic ideas for Park Block 5: The new park sits atop 678 parking spaces. The streets bordering the missing park blocks are slated to become curbless expanses of granite, which will create a unique retail district. Dotted with rainwater-cleansing planters, the revamped streets also can be easily blocked off from cars for downtown festivals.
The park was designed by an all-star cast that includes landscape architects Laurie Olin, based in Philadelphia, and Portland’s Carol Mayer-Reed; Robert Thompson of TVA Architects; ZGF Architects; and local artist Tad Savinar. It will feature a small restaurant, downtown’s 16th fountain, and its first large-scale outdoor canopy. Perhaps most important, Park Block 5 (likely to be named for a still-unrevealed donor) will create new open space in what will soon be the city’s most densely developed district. All in all, a perfect subject for Take 3, Spaces’ quick ?critique of architecture.