Transportation Climbs Out of the Mud
by Randy Gragg
1883 ... leaving Portland forever a second-tier port.
1844: Some rare hardpan in the lower Willamette River's marshes offers a decent spot for a cabin and maybe a city. Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove flip a coin for the name; Portland beats Boston. Mystery shrouds their decision to plat the new town with diminutive 200-foot blocks. Some later historians speculate the budding developers hoped to maximize retail corners. Others believe it was a short-yard effort to measure human progress against the unmerciful flora. A new theory: aliens. The only other place the petite plat appears is in forest-free Fort Worth, where it is quickly dumped for properly Texan-sized blocks. Here, the 200-foot block becomes religion, sprouting a metropolis that the architect Louis Kahn will one day dub "Lilliputian."
1851: Competing to be the Willamette's supreme port, Portlanders build the Great Plank Road (present-day Canyon Road). Delinquent investors and deep mud slow progress on the 6-mile road to 1 mile per year. But, all done, it puts the port in Portland, establishing the first all-weather link from Tualatin Valley farms to the river and writing the first chapter in the city's plucky history of alternative transportation systems.
1852: The first settlement map charts Stumptown's breaks from the Jeffersonian compass-oriented grid. Westside streets are plowed perpendicular to the river for better delivery of logs to port. The axes of Sandy Boulevard and Foster Road follow the trails native tribes trod.One path through the narrow passage between the West Hills and the river lays the first capillary of what becomes the pulsing north-south arteries of Barbur, Macadam and I-5. An east-west bypass is required: the aerial tram (see 2006).
1883: A millennia-old ravine carved by the Missoula ice-dam break offers an east/west pass through Sullivan's Gulch for the first transcontinental railway to reach Portland -- and later I-84 and Eastside MAX. But in a classic bunny/tortoise race for regional rail supremacy, the more difficult-to-build route west through the Cascades to Tacoma is completed eight years later. Tacoma's deep-water sound instantly proves better at serving ships than a pair of silty inland rivers, leaving Portland forever a second-tier port.
1887: The first bridge over the Willamette is built by investors who also happen to own the first streetcar and a large tract of land at the bridge's eastern end. Land is sold for homes for future streetcar commuters and the payers of the bridge's tolls. Sunnyside becomes Portland's first transit-oriented development.
1904: The Olmsted brothers design the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition, the first in the city's bouts of boosterism to overcome its second-rate port by selling beauty and livability. It works. Their instant White City made of wood and stucco rises and disappears, but it lures a decade-long building boom, multiplying the population several-fold.
The Olmsteds do their usual, albeit remarkable, schtick, creating a system of greenspaces. In response, Portland offers its first example of a historical character trait: a willingness to make no small plans but a penny-pinching reluctance to follow them. It buys little of the recommended land and builds one park, Laurelhurst, and only one parkway, Terwilliger Boulevard.
With a privately commissioned Olmsted design for a subdivision, however, another Portland character trait blooms like a lily. Advertisements promote the new district -- the still-tony Alameda Ridge -- as a white-only neighborhood served by its own, strictly color-free streetcar.
1905-10: The first interurban into the Southwest hills seeds several small commercial centers surrounded by 4-to-5-acre "orchard tracts" in the first back-to-the-land movement. Rolling topography topples the 200-foot block, and complex land-division patterns emerge as the profits of subdividing land prove more alluring than the seasonally fickle rewards of fruit farming.
1910s: Intra- and interurban rails peak both in outward reach and monopoly ownership under a conglomerate called Portland Railway, Light & Power. Other electric railroad companies run 20 trains a day between Eugene and Portland. Fifty years after the automobile sends the streetcars to scrap heaps, the old-fashioned, mixed-use business districts left throughout Portland become trendy '90s and '00s business districts such as Belmont, Alberta, Beaumont and Mississippi.
1911: The Great Plank Road, too bumpy for autos and trucks, begins to be replaced by asphalt. Also, E.H. Bennett proposes a street plan for a future city of 2 million that has neo-Parisian grand axial boulevards lined with six-story buildings. But that ol' ambivalence to big plans sets in again. The city adopts Bennett's plan but only implements two parts: creating a planning commission and passing zoning laws to protect existing neighborhoods from bigger buildings.
1913-22: City and county and private entrepreneurs join to form the city's earliest known (above-board, at least) public-private partnership, creating the Northwest's first modern highway and one of the nation's first scenic highways: the Columbia Gorge Highway. Within five years, however, the beautiful new artery becomes so clogged with trucks transporting goods it eventually is expanded into the decidedly less scenic I-84.
1917: Oregon Railway & Navigation buys 20 acres sight unseen off a land-division map to build a terminal. Oops, turns out it's on a train-unfriendly hilltop above Portland Heights' steepest ravine. The staff doctor, Kenneth J. Mackenzie, convinces the company to donate the land for a hospital. Dubbed "Mackenzie's Folly," the unlikely hospital location grows into the city's largest employer over the next 80 years. (See 2006.)
1943: Famed highwayman Robert Moses creates a freeway plan. Despite its usual ambivalence toward big plans, the city follows his directions (though, thankfully without his preferred elevated viaducts) to create the I-5 Loop. By the '70s, a freeway backlash ensues. The final line of his map -- the Mount Hood Freeway -- is redrawn as Portland's first light rail line.
1970s: The inmates obtain the keys to the asylum as 31-year-old Legal Aid lawyer Neil Goldschmidt becomes mayor. He fires every chief in planning and transportation, installing a regime that rewrites the textbook of American city planning with a series of what today look like magic acts. Waterfront Park replaces a riverside freeway. Rerouted federal freeway money funds a downtown bus mall and, eventually, a first spur of regional light rail. Happy accidents like regionalized taxes from garbage hauling converge with state policies mandating metropolitan growth boundaries, laying the groundwork for the nation's first regional government and the first efforts at sprawl containment.
1980s: A Parks Bureau employee puts a dusty copy of the Olmsteds' 1904 parks plan into the hands of West Hills homemaker Barbara Walker. Having turned proposed housing into a 71-acre nature reserve through relentless lobbying, she measures the Olmsteds' interlinked park system plan, and, presto, the 40-Mile Loop is born. Now composed of everything from vacated train tracks to nature trails, it totals more than 140 miles linking nearly all of the metro area's major parks.
1993: City Commissioner Earl Blumenauer supplements a small federal appropriation with city money for a new $1 million a year bicycle transportation fund, spawning, at last count, 238 miles of dedicated paths and lanes. Bicycling Magazine creates a new category for Portland in its annual "Best City for Biking" so that other cities can win.
1995: Paul Allen bestows a gift: a basketball arena for the then-beloved Trail Blazers. Politicians, so excited by the billionaire's willingness to put the sports palace on light rail, blindly accept the suburban urban design plan Allen rams down their throats. Every suggestion of better connections to the neighborhoods and a more urbane architecture is met with threats of moving the team. The result: the greatest convergence of parking and mass transportation connections between San Francisco and Seattle feeds a district that, except when a game or concert is on, stands empty.
1998: A second spur of regional light rail burrows beneath the route of the Great Wood Plank Road, over the West Hills toward Hillsboro. As planners dream of communities blossoming from the rail line's stem, a more important connection is left dangling as huge computer facilities invade from around the world to feed on state tax breaks. The promise of transit-oriented development becomes the reality of the Silicon Forest suburbia. The park-and-rides, however, work just fine. Weekend ridership surpasses weekdays with downtown mainlining on suburbanites' Visa cards.
2000: Past turns present with the completion of the nation's first new streetcar in half a century. Funded in part with parking fines, the line stretches only 2.2 miles and, with 15-minute headways, it is possible to (shhh) walk as quickly anyplace the jaunty Czech cars go. But the streetcar hypnotizes developers into building urban housing along it -- 4,000 units and rapidly counting. In other multimodal news, the City Council legalizes skateboards on streets.
2001: A new 1.13-mile floating, clinging and occasionally cantilevering path between the Willamette and I-5 -- the Eastbank Esplanade -- becomes the latest attempt to bridge the psychological divide of the river. Built for $453 per inch, many seasoned planners consider it pure boondoogle. But it instantly turns golden as numerous Westsiders jog onto Eastside soil for the first time.
2004: Fourth MAX line opens. Plans for its fifth and sixth lines are on the chalkboard. But, whoa, we got a light-rail traffic jam as Interstate MAX and Eastside MAX have to take numbers to cross the Steel Bridge. With Lovejoy and Pettygrove's petite plat limiting train lengths to 200 feet with 21/2-minute headways, MAX's finite capacity is on the horizon. The Lilliputian city has a toy transit system.
2006: A railroad's blunder 90 years before sprouts a hospital that becomes the central city's largest employer, Oregon Health & Science University. Growing to more than 2 million square feet, it hangs on the hill like a giant goiter. The closest land for expansion lies 3,000 feet eastward and below, across 20-plus lanes of traffic on 120 acres of polluted industrial lands. Necessity breeds invention: Pill Hill lobs a lifeline to Pill Beach with the nation's first commuter aerial tram.
The linchpin to $1.7 billion in development, the tram is the biggest gamble on alternative transportation since the Great Wood Plank Road. The hoped-for payoff? The jobs of a technology and science quarter. But the view-rich waterfront, only a four-minute tram ride from the latest cures for almost anything seems likely to spawn a Boomertown as an aging generation flocks to condos next to the closest thing any city has created to a fountain of youth.
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