October 2010

Easy to Build, Hard to Reuse

by Michele Reeves on October 28, 2010

Bridgeport Village

This faux downtown lifestyle center in Tigard, Oregon, called Bridgeport Village, has created a riotous cacophony of demand from various suburban communities throughout the Portland Metro region: “Hey, we want one of those malls in our town!!”

Aside from the fact that we are not going to see US consumer buying power expand any time soon, and aside from the fact that many of these places have real historic downtowns that are languishing and could use some love, the reality is that the proliferation of structures that cannot be adaptively reused easily is creating future headaches for property owners, city government, and the neighborhoods that surround them.

For the life of me, I cannot imagine why, in this economic climate, a city would pursue the construction of a large lifestyle center, since it would merely shift existing retailers from older malls or big box locations into these sexy new buildings, leaving difficult-to fill space behind. So, what do you do with dying malls and empty big box locations?

Below, Ellen Dunham-Jones shares a host of interesting suburban adaptive reuse projects based on her book: Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs. She has uncovered some very innovate approaches throughout the country, but I fear our supply of dying malls is going to far outstrip our ability to fill them.


Tacoma, I Hardly Knew Ya

by Michele Reeves on October 13, 2010

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“Yowza, at some point in the past, this city was giving Seattle a run for its money,” I thought to myself on a recent visit to Tacoma, a city I’ve been to, or through, a zillion times, but have never experienced as a tourist.

This impression arose after perusing the historic industrial district that has been renovated into the University of Washington, Tacoma. All you have to do is look at the 90 foot rotunda (pictured to the left) of the historic Union Station (originally a railroad station, now a Federal courthouse) to realize that this was a very important city on the West coast at the end of the 19th century.

After wandering around the city, I felt the need to do some historical digging when I returned to my hotel room. During said perusal, I learned that Tacoma was the envy of Seattle and Portland in 1873, when it won the race to become the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad (NP), which was chartered by Congress in 1864, and broke ground in Minnesota in 1870.

It wouldn’t be until the summer of 1888 though, before the NP’s lines were uninterrupted from the shores of Lake Superior to the Puget Sound, all thanks to the completion of the Stampede Tunnel through the Cascades.

The latter half of the 19th and early 20th century were times of intense political jockeying in Portland and Seattle, with both cities laboring to ensure that they were not left out in the race to be connected to the railroad. For Portland, this was especially problematic due to the plethora of nearby rivers. In 1883, a gigantic rail ferry was put into service, over 300 feet long and 42 feet wide, that could carry the trains across the Columbia River and connect the rail lines here with the service to the north. The ferry was the second largest in the world and had three parallel tracks that could carry all types of train cars, including engines. Rail service between Oregon and the Puget Sound continued in this manner until a permanent bridge was erected across the wild Columbia. The NP Columbia River Bridge, like the Stampede Tunnel, was finished in the summer of 1888.

The gorgeous train depot in Tacoma, Union Station, opened its doors in 1911 and was designed by Reed and Stem, the architects of Grand Central Station. In my opinion, it is far grander than either Portland’s or Seattle’s train stations.

More happy discoveries about Tacoma:

  • There is some real drama borne from the mix of older and newer architectural form.
  • They have a 1.6 mile streetcar/light rail system that is free and runs commuters from transportation hubs and parking to downtown.
  • Their historic buildings throughout the central core are being upgraded and renovated, making for some pretty compelling places.


Urbanism, Kids, and the American Dream

by Michele Reeves on October 3, 2010

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The American middle class paradigm is this: once you have children, you move to the suburbs and obtain a three bedroom house, a yard, the dog, two kids, and a commute.

I am very curious to see what happens to the younger dual-income-no-kids set that has flocked to our urban cores when … well, when they have some tykes of their own.

Will these middle class urbanites remain in high-rise/mid-rise living units? Will smaller spaces encourage fewer children per household? Will American middle class children return to sharing rooms with their siblings.

What I see now in Portland’s urban core is a few more families than I did before the recession. In my anecdotal observations, I have noted two trends: 1) apartments with younger partners and a single baby; and, 2) slightly older, divorced single-parent households with multiple children that have a wider age range.

I notice these things now because my family of four has gone from living in a residential neighborhood to an urban center, and it has been an interesting journey.

Beginning in 2007, we spent a year divesting ourselves of our yard maintenance implements, cars, a business, a house, and an embarrassingly big garage sale full of prized personal possessions.

Then we moved to Buenos Aires for 14 months, during which time we lived in four high-rise apartments. In an attempt to get closer to our daughters’ school, we stepped down from living quarters with about 1,600 square feet, to an apartment of roughly 950 square feet. I have to say, before we left on this trip, if you had told me that my little family of four could live, happily and relatively easily, in 950 SF without us killing each other — well, I would have been skeptical.

It turned out that my husband and I adored not owning a car and we enjoyed dense urban living with our kids. And, as our return to the US approached, the thought of living in a 3 bedroom house and filling it with stuff once again was very unappealing. Not to mention our distaste for living somewhere that required we have a vehicle.

So, we returned to Portland and started a grand experiment. We chose to rent a unit in a high-rise building with two bedrooms, so yes, my daughters are sharing a room. We chose our location so they could attend neighborhood schools on public transportation and/or the school bus. And, we use the plentiful selection of nearby Zipcars as our ancillary vehicle when public transportation, or our feet, don’t get us where we need to go.

Now, I can tell you that living without a car and not owning a house earn us a lot of strange looks on the soccer parent circuit. But, we don’t have to fix a dang thing when something in the apartment breaks, we don’t have to change the oil in our car, and it takes no time to straighten the place.

So far, so good.


The Intangible Allure of the Streetcar

by Michele Reeves on October 1, 2010

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The closest mode of public transportation to my place of residence is the Portland Streetcar.

The city, happily, is expanding the streetcar line across the Willamette River to the east side of the city, and due to this expansion, the existing line was shut down for a few weeks as they laid new track.

In lieu of my beloved streetcar, they pressed a city bus into service that followed almost the same route. I ride the bus frequently, and thought nothing of it…musing, “Bus, streetcar, what’s the difference?”

Boy, was I wrong!

The same people. The same stops. Nearly the same route. But, on a bus, it was a completely different experience. And, in an informal survey of the three other members of my family, they all felt the same way. The question was, “Why?” Was it the smoother ride of the streetcar? Was it the romance of riding the rails? None of us could really put our finger on it, but the question remained in the back of my mind.

When the the electric trolley resumed its laps around the west side of our fair city, I was still asking myself, why is this more special? More enjoyable? Just more!!

As an answer, I began circling around the concept of street activation and the dialog that exists in functioning places between the denizens of the streets, the sidewalks, and the surrounding buildings. The exchanges that make a place sing. And, I realized, that the streetcar travels slowly and has large windows, and somehow is able to become a part of that dialog, a piece of the conversation. While riding, you feel that you are IN the city, participating in that exchange.

In contrast, a bus really puts you ABOVE the city. It is a paradigm of the automobile culture. You are traveling more quickly. There is no interaction. You are not a part of a dialog. You are traveling through, or moving toward somewhere else…you are not, in the moment, a member of the community through which you are progressing.

(For an interesting read on streetcars and their history, check out this excerpt from Patrick Condon’s new book “Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post Carbon World.”)