Can Portland prevent a massive failure at “Con-way Square”?

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

Is Portland heading for a disastrous failure, as the result of inadequate development plans for the new square being proposed for Northwest Portland?  If so, on May 4th you can help prevent it.

The site is the former Con-way trucking company property, so the project is variously known as “Con-way Square” or “Slabtown Square.” For many years it all looked so positive – Portland would gain a new neighborhood square that functions like a European piazza, a gathering place where children can play, people in the neighborhood go to shop or talk, sit out at cafes and restaurants, and pass through, offering the opportunity for social networks to form; a place where parents and elders relax on benches with backrests, in the sun or shade, to talk or watch children play.

Great public squares have consistent ingredients, including good shape, light, relation to private spaces and other basics.

Seeking to sell off most of their 25 acres of land in Portland’s Northwest District, the trucking and logistics firm Con-way Inc. collaborated with NW District residents and the City to develop a Master Plan that would please all, and provide a model for mixed use human scale neighborhood development across the US.  Residents’ special request was for a neighborhood square, and thousands of community volunteer hours were donated to help move the project along.

It looked as if Portland’s urban planning might once again lead American cities and create a place rare in America, a catalyst for community, bringing diverse people together and generating democratic dialogue. The master plan specified a flexible space, “to support commerce, activities, and events such as farmers/public markets, dining, fairs, art shows, and small musical performances, etc.”

A square like this provides an ideal setting for children to learn social skills. And on top of that, a sociable square is good for everyone’s health!  Research shows that when you have a rich network of friends, neighbors and familiars whom you meet daily, you do not get sick so often; if you get sick it is not so serious; and you live to a riper old age.  This is described as having a strong “social immune system”.

The block chosen for the neighborhood square, 290 West, is deliberately located at the southern end of the Con-way development to knit together the historic, primarily single family housing population with the new residents in condos and apartments. While the overall density was set at maximum 3:1 Floor Area Ratio or “FAR”, it was envisioned that the southern section, particularly around the square, would be much lower (there is no minimum FAR here), and the unused FAR would be transferred to the northern blocks to create taller buildings against the freeway. The lowered FAR around the square would enable the design of a successful, human scale piazza. With 3 and 4-story townhouses and apartments over shops, it would step down the development to the scale of the historic neighborhood.

As the master plan specifies, “massing is carefully addressed to ensure that new structures are compatible with desired neighborhood characteristics… to balance desired densities with livability and positive urban qualities, with a strong emphasis on the quality of the pedestrian realm.”

It was specified that the massing of adjacent buildings should “optimize solar exposure”; that the public realm should be expanded by “articulating the façade plane to step down to the open space”; and that “the size of the square should be approximately 135 x 135 feet”, i.e. 18,225 sq. ft. In a sociable square, surrounding buildings are low enough that when a group stands talking in the center of the square each person can see a little sky above the buildings she is facing. The square must receive morning and late afternoon sun, especially in spring and fall. These requirements call for building setbacks, and limit building heights on the East and West sides.

Guardian Real Estate Services eagerly took up the challenge. To design a successful neighborhood square would be a tremendous PR coup. The value of property adjacent to a successful square would be high. The popularity of the square for neighborhood and city residents would ensure a legacy of success for Guardian. And a successful new square would ensure press coverage in architecture, real estate, planning and business media throughout the US, if not the world.

Guardian hired a young firm, YBA architects, to design the square and the mixed use housing to frame it. For over two years they worked with the Northwest District Residents Association (NWDA) and a Square Subcommittee. But the process fell apart because Guardian insisted on using almost the maximum 3:1 FAR on the site.  At every meeting it was pointed out that they were trying to cram 8 pounds of sand into a 5 pound bag – it just would not fit. NWDA was not satisfied, and the Portland Design Review Board rejected it.

Guardian has now hired the large architectural firm LRS, which has successfully built many buildings in Portland. Their proposal, which they will take directly to the Design Review Board on May 4th, shrinks the square to a claustrophobic courtyard in a monolithic 3-sided building. The U-shaped building overhangs the square by 20 feet on East and West sides, leaving a space from building wall to building wall of only 65 feet. The size of this “courtyard” open to the sky is now 130 x 65 feet – less than half that recommended in the Master Plan. Moreover, two and a half sides of the U-shaped building are seven stories high! Sunlight will not penetrate this chasm for more than a brief period in the middle of the day. The dark, narrow, oppressive gap between the building wings is unsatisfactory even for a private courtyard. And in a ludicrous maneuver, they pretend all the space beneath the overhanging buildings, and two dark tunnel “breezeways” beneath the 65’ deep blocks are part of the “square”.

What is Guardian thinking? This is a worse solution than before, in no way fulfilling the requirements of a neighborhood square. Do they think Design Review will accept it because LRS has been successful in passing review so many times before and must be well known by members of the Committee? Or do they plan, if rejected, to sue the City, assuming the Commission will buckle under the threat?

I think Guardian has been thoroughly unrealistic throughout this process. In the beginning, they insisted on cramming almost the maximum allowable building volume (3:1 FAR) onto the site, even though it was clear in the General Plan that density on 290 West should be much lower in order to create a successful square, and the surplus FAR should be transferred to the northernmost blocks. Now, Guardian has apparently bought the adjacent two streets, and transferred the FAR from the streets onto 290 West to dramatically increase the FAR on the 200 x 200 foot building site to 4.8:1. Who benefits from this?

This rationale is intolerable. Guardian’s proposal in  no way satisfies the performance requirements of a neighborhood square. The only solution is to design the square to be a truly successful square, with mixed use, human scale buildings stepped back to maximize sunlight, and then transfer (sell back) the unused FAR for future development on the northern blocks.

I, for one, would gladly donate more time and effort to bring this about. A successful, beloved neighborhood square would be a grand contribution to the health and wellbeing of generations to come!

The rendering showing the sun at 4PM in the summer. The square is almost entirely in shadow.

One Reply to “Can Portland prevent a massive failure at “Con-way Square”?”

  1. That looks like a private courtyard for the apartments. It doesn’t strike me at all as welcoming to the public.

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