Architecture notes: Doyle’s demise, Sam’s folly

At the risk of making Art Scatter look like an architecture and planning blog (we’re deeply interested, but others cover the territory fare more systematically) a couple of things are sticking in our craw. Well, my craw, at any rate.

First, the Riverdale School District’s decision to tear down an A.E. Doyle-designed elementary school in Dunthorpe, a move that’s far from surprising but depressing and exasperating, nevertheless: You get the feeling that the board never took the preservation case seriously; it just bulled ahead and did what it wanted to do. Noblesse, you might say, without the oblige. We wrote about this a while back. Now, we can’t think of any response better than those from Scatter friends Tim DuRoche, on his Portland Spaces blog, and Brian Libby, on his Portland Architecture blog. Read ’em and weep. Or get angry. Or both. This 1920 school building isn’t major Doyle, but it’s a model of how to do a modest building the right way — and after all, aren’t most buildings in most places modest? If you get the modest buildings right, the major buildings will follow suit.

Second — and not wanting to pick on Mayor-elect Sam Adams, who has a lot of energy and a lot of ideas — but what in the pluperfect hell is with his insistence on building that white elephant of a convention center hotel?
I thought Metro had finally stuck a silver spike in this 600-room monster’s heart, but no: Sam just won’t let it die the death it deserves. This truly seems to be a case where money interests are overruling common sense and good public policy, which really ought to go together.

Let’s be clear about a few things.

— First, the chances of this $227 million project ever paying for itself are about as good as Bill O’Reilly’s shot at acing out Hillary and becoming Obama’s secretary of state. And let’s not even get into how much that estimated $227 million would actually end up being.

— Second, have you ever been in one of these mega-hotels? They’re horrific places, gigantic waves of gaudy blandness designed to keep their guests from ever having to actually experience the cities they’re supposedly visiting. Why not just hold your convention at the airport?

— Third, is the answer to the problems of a district of the city overwhelmed with big boxes to put up another big box? I happen to love those twin glass towers that signal the convention center from afar: They’re delicate and inspiring and superfluous, in a way that reminds us that superfluity in architecture can be a vastly underrated virtue. But they sit atop a glorified warehouse, which is near another warehouse, the Trail Blazers’ Rose Garden, which supplanted yet another warehouse, the now mostly dormant Memorial Coliseum, which from a design viewpoint is by far the best of the three — an elegant curve floating in a glass box.

— Fourth, it won’t work. If the idea of the convention center hotel is to lure giant conventions away from other cities, somebody’s been drinking Kool-Aid. Groups aren’t going to give up Las Vegas because Portland built a 600-room hotel across from a cowgirl bar. Portland won’t get the exciting-city convention business that New York and Chicago draw, or the exotic-locale business that New Orleans and Honolulu get, or the sunny-weather business that San Diego and Miami get. And even if the center manages to nab a rare mega-convention, who’s going to rent all those rooms between the big blowouts? Portland is a modest-sized city with particular and peculiar charms, and its job in the convention business is to nab those gatherings looking for something different and something on a human scale. Which leads to:

— Fifth, a mega-hotel is about as un-Portland as you can get. Where Portland does make its mark nationally is in its rational size, its street-level livability, its attention to making things work on a small scale, its belief that you get more oomph from a hundred little things working together than from one big thing throwing around its weight. It’s the job of the convention center to sell the city — this city, not Houston — and a mega-hotel works against everything Portland stands for in the national mind. That’s bad marketing.

What the city should be aiming for is to help make the Rose Quarter/Convention Center/Lloyd District triangle feel less like a desert and more like the vibrant section of the inner city it ought to be. I’ve lived in Portland since 1974 and for all that time this has been a dead zone, held back by decades of nondevelopment on Lloyd land, Paul Allen’s miscalculations in the Rose Quarter, and government’s simultaneous determination to do big things in the area and inability to pull the trigger on most of them.

How could an area so close to downtown, with killer potential views of the skyline, and near some of the city’s most prosperous neighborhoods, be such a flop? A little to the south, in the Burnside area and the small-manufacturing district on inner Southeast, lots of small investors are proving that an interesting urban culture can grow from a place with a gritty past. And except for OMSI, nothing’s big.

The greater convention center area doesn’t need a giant hotel. It needs housing, so people will be on the streets. It needs Paul Allen to rethink his corner of the city, get a grid back in the Rose Quarter, get people and traffic and coffee shops and all the little things that make a city vibrant into the place: It’s the kind of project, if he sets his mind to it, that he could have a lot of fun with. It needs a couple of good boutique hotels to help handle the convention business, maybe with restaurants good enough to pull in the locals when the convention business is slack. It could even have a big-league baseball park where Memorial Coliseum sits now, or slightly to the north where the school district headquarters sit. Imagine a ballpark, like Chicago’s, with apartments and an actual neighborhood surrounding it.

All of this is like making a quilt, and government could and should have a seat at the table. Instead of one giant hotel, let’s have a handful of good smaller buildings designed to bring activity to the dead zone. Help private developers fill in the gaps. Provide housing for some of those hundreds of thousands of people who are supposed to swell the Portland area’s population in the next few decades. Build a district designed for everyday living, not an occasional visit. The wealth will flow from that.