Centering a Town: St. Johns/First Efforts

A mixture of uses, if it is to be sufficiently complex to sustain city safety, public contact and cross-use, needs an enormous diversity of ingredients. So the first question—and I think by far the most important question—about planning cities is this: How can cities generate enough mixture among uses—enough diversity—throughout enough of their territories, to sustain their own civilization?

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Site

The Central Hotel in St. Johns used to be, in fact, a three-story hotel, constructed around the end of the 1800s. A fire in the 1920s destroyed the upper floors, and the building has undergone a series of renovations and uses over the years resulting in its current form. The style grows on you.

St. Johns was once a separate city, incorporated into Portland a century ago, and the neighborhood still looks like and functions as a small town, with considerable diversity of small commercial concerns. The Central Hotel is located in its heart, on the corner of Lombard, the neighborhood’s main street, and Philadelphia, which leads a few blocks away to the St. Johns Bridge. There is a sizable plaza surrounding, and over the years the site has provided the locus of much activity. The St. Johns Parade has passed by for over half a century, and festivals and an open air market have their home there. Bobby Kennedy once spoke before one of the hotel’s incarnations to a crowd in the 1968 presidential campaign.

The intersection is a central place, and a building there could be a point of focus, of gathering, of identity and definition, one that reflects and interacts with the rest of the neighborhood. Now, however, the Central Hotel lies vacant and represents only indecision and decay.

Several buildings in St. Johns have age and character, notably the brick police station, once the city hall, and the library. Other buildings, still with some age, most one or two story, are basic—low key and functional—yet show refinement in their details and subdued colors. They present a unity of eclectic styles that complement and respect each other. Also St. Johns talks. There are several wall murals throughout the area, and store windows are alive with communication from posters announcing events in St. Johns and the rest of Portland.

The bridge, almost a century old itself, is graceful and distinctive and is a source of civic identity and pride. Images of it find their way into logos and signs throughout the neighborhood. I have written about it here.

St. Johns is about ten miles from downtown Portland. The neighborhood is serviced by buses but doesn’t have a Max Line feed. Nor is there a major freeway nearby, an absence that, though it restricts access, curbs congestion. The streets are quite walkable. All are two lanes, many shaded by trees, and traffic is generally light on Lombard, except during commute hours. Most of the bridge traffic is handled by Ivanhoe, a block away, which has become more crowded. Most housing is low density, much of it single-family homes, all close by.

A handful of blocks away, within easy walking distance, there are a dozen restaurants and bars of varying stripes, a half dozen cafes, and a variety of shops, with still more of these as you walk further out, along with several churches, the post office, a grocery store, two day care facilities for kids and another one for pets. There are two theaters that show current films, along with several venues of varying size for live music, a community center with a gym and meeting rooms, a performing arts collective, the Cathedral Park Performing Arts Collective, and a visual arts center, c3:Initiative. Not much further out, Cathedral Park Place, a former textile mill that has been converted into a vast space, 280,000 square feet, that leases studio units to a variety of artists and crafts people and others. Two parks are also close by as well, including Cathedral Park, beneath St. Johns Bridge, which hosts music festivals and other events. Drive a mile or so up Lombard and on Sunday nights you can watch Blue Collar Wrestling at the Eagles Lodge.

Click on all images to enlarge. I have a companion post, “Site: St. Johns, Portland,” that provides photos for examples of the above, which can be found here.

As for the people, once predominantly working class, they retain blue collar informality, grit, and democratic spirit. They are attached to the neighborhood and quite friendly. Walk down the sidewalks and they say hello, an odd phenomenon for newcomers.

Income is lower compared to much of Portland, and housing has been more affordable. Real estate, however, has changed substantially the last decade and many are getting priced out. As for the future, Portland is preparing for continued growth. St. Johns, I understand, has been zoned for taller buildings.

And a four-story mixed-use complex, Central Lofts, has been approved to replace the Central Hotel. It will house 30 units, studios and one-bedroom apartments, with commercial space on first floor.

There has been substantial rental construction the last years, most four stories, notably The Union at St. Johns, again mixed use with commercial space at street level, by the same developer and architects of Central Lofts. Both of these are attractive buildings.

I understand, however, the Lofts project has been put on hold, and it looks like the housing market has cooled off. Also many commercial slots are now vacant and I wonder if there is a market or need for more.

This may be a good time to pause and reflect. I wonder if St. Johns is overbuilt, at least for the present. Mixed-use has had mixed success elsewhere. The basic problem is filling the commercial space, which has proved to be a challenge. I also wonder how the small rental units, most one to two bedroom, will determine the character, continuity, and stability of the population. They are designed for singles and couples, not families, and assume a transient demographic. I fear St. Johns could become just another bedroom community for commuters.

For context, contrast St. Johns with suburban areas we see now throughout the country—spread out and divided and dislocated by major thoroughfares and freeways congested with traffic, their commercial areas standardized by the chains with their standardized architecture, those difficult to reach without a hassle, areas where people are isolated and indifferent—and you realize how special St. Johns is, its potential. I have written about one area, Cupertino in Silicon Valley, where I lived for thirty years. The larger our cities grow—and this trend won’t reverse—the more we become isolated and culturally starved. How can we maintain our identity, closeness, and vitality?

It’s an idle project, considering alternatives for the Central Hotel, when that decision has already been made. Still, as a conceptual project we might learn something about how communities work and what sustains them, what makes them vital, especially in the face of the major economic changes we’ve endured the last decades. There seem to be only two possibilities now: either stagnation that saps our resources and resolve or rapid growth that leads to overdevelopment and social congestion. What is learned here may pay off elsewhere.

Program/Proposal

The first need of any community is economic, a project that encourages people to come and settle, that provides employment and income to be returned to overall financial well being. I can’t imagine what that might be, however, unless a small company set up offices there, unlikely in the age of conglomeration. It still wouldn’t offer much. My son suggested an Apple Store, however. If the locations were economically viable it might work. I’ve never seen one that wasn’t crowded.

The next question is what else St. Johns might need, given all it has already, and here we have to scratch our heads.

It is essential that any project draws people in throughout the day and sends them back into the neighborhood. I suggest St. Johns’ greatest needs might be cultural and symbolic. A distinctive building—not mine!—would draw attention and visitors itself as well as set the tone for the rest of the area, just as the St. Johns Bridge has, through thick and thin, ever since it was built during the Great Depression.

I propose a multi-use cultural center. It would be a place of memory and gathering, of consolidation, of identity and discourse, one that promotes cultural revitalization. Not only would it serve the neighborhood, it might also encourage others from the rest of Portland to come. Instead of separating it in an isolated area surrounded by parks and parking lots, however, put it in the thick of things, in the downtown center, and let the two interact.

I’m anticipating growth in St. Johns, so propose a building with three stories, though I assume it could go four, like the Lofts. My floorpans are rough. If it looks like I’m cramming a lot in, that’s partly the goal. Get enough there and something might happen.

I stepped the dimension off myself casually. I believe the actual dimensions of the Hotel are 75 x 90.

At its core is a black box theater, which is a simple stage, basic, flexible, and functional, and relatively inexpensive, often painted black on the interior to enhance the theatrical experience. The stage is composed of moveable platforms and not much more. Seating can be moved around as well. I estimate it will seat 120 or more. A balcony might be possible. It’s about the same size as Center Stage, at Williams College ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, and its floorpan above gives an idea of the space and its use. Mine is about 20 feet high, allowing space for lighting and other stage necessities, and thus extends through the second floor.

The stage could host plays, lectures, modern dance, student performances from the Cathedral Park Performing Arts Collective, literary readings by local and visiting writers, civic meetings, and music not supported elsewhere that would benefit from this kind of space, such as chamber music and jazz combos. If the stage has a retractable screen, art films and classics could be shown there. A one-act play competition could be started, the winners presented. The St. Johns Talent Show could be held there annually, and it could be a home for the St. Johns Repertory Theater.

The rest of the first floor is open exhibition space, which also serves as a lobby for the theater. This would be a dramatic space, most of it over 30 feet high, which would be visible from the plaza—see the model below.

This floor could be the home to the St. Johns History Museum, which could present rotating exhibitions and more permanent memories from St. Johns’ past. An exhibition on the history of the bridge could be a first stop for visitors before they walk down. And there could be art exhibitions and craft fairs. An area could be devoted to communication, a bulletin board. Could the St. Johns Review, Portland’s oldest community newspaper, set up shop there? If so, they might coordinate other activities and could use the center as a hub for information sharing. If there were tables and chairs, the open space might be a gathering place.

The second floor has three classrooms, accessed by stairs and ramps in the open space—again see the model below. More stairs or an elevator are at the back.

On the third floor, eight more classrooms. The open area could be below skylights and might be another gathering or exhibition space. The classrooms are smallish, seating 15 to 20. This is my fantasy—small classes. I used to be a college instructor who endured overcrowded classes for three decades. Another floor of classrooms could be added.

One thing St. Johns does not have is close access to higher education, a gateway for personal growth and cultural enlargement, and, today, a prerequisite for entry to all manner of employment. The center could be a satellite campus for Portland State, well distant on the other side of Portland. The center could hold college prep and required lower division classes, always overloaded at any college or university. The center might help potential students, especially adults with families and those who work, make a start on a degree without having to deal with a lengthy commute. And/or it could feed the community colleges, or hold continuing education for adults. Or GED classes for those who didn’t finish high school. Others are possible—writing classes, for example, should an institution sponsor them, which would benefit from the venue of the stage and the support of such an environment.

Little of this is close by, certainly not within walking distance. The University of Portland is closest, and it’s a private school.

And all of this is ambitious and unlikely. But ponder a moment what the building might bring. People who use the center as well as those who pass by and those who attend the market and festivals will see exhibitions of St. Johns’ past, memories of where we once were, thoughts of where we might be going. If the classes succeed, they could bring 150-200 students all hours of the day, or at least at night if day classes are light. If St. Johns had a bookstore, students could buy texts there. The theater will add another 120+. These people will need to eat and want to drink, and have all St. Johns has to offer within an easy walk. Imagine what the conversations might be in the bars and cafes.

Design

I made two versions, above, both using a cube grid. This is my first attempt and I may try others. It will take some imagination to see my models. Scale and the limitations of my plastic pieces don’t allow architectural detail or refined proportions. The posts and beams structuring the cube, for example, should be slimmer. Windows would benefit from trim and multiple panes.

The building should blend in with and reflect the rest of the community architecture, yet at the same time attract attention and identify itself as a center. It should also encourage circulation and visibility, from within looking, walking out, from outside walking, looking in.

My building picks up the brick, its texture, found in many buildings in St. Johns, including the police station, the library, and the schools. If the cube’s structural elements were painted green, my intent, the same color as the bridge, they would echo and complement it. The color would also temper the presence of the cube, a bit too much in white. A timber frame might be another possibility.

The temptation is to pick up the gothic style of the bridge. I can’t do that well with my parts nor am sure it is in order. The bridge presents a structure of suspension that lifts and extends. Like a suspension bridge, a cube is a basic structure but with different elements and function, whose essential purpose is to contain and support. A cube has many associations, of unity, of solidity, of some basic truth. If you want to get philosophical, it recalls Platonic solids and the Cartesian grid. More down to earth, the cube literally and figuratively offers a building block for the community. For precedent, Peter Eisenman uses a similar grid structure in his Wexner Center for the Visual and Fine Arts Library, Bernard Tschumi in his Parc de la Villette, in Paris. The latter is a marvel that offers a host of ideas that might be considered at this site and elsewhere in St. Johns.

In the first version the cube extends beyond the essential building into the plaza, announcing its presence and partial independence. The elements of its grid are visible inside, rising all three stories. We are aware of its structure within and without. It would serve some functional support. It would also contain a series of stairs in the outside area of the cube leading to the upper floors. I’m thinking the corner but see other possibilities. Steel ramps would connect the stairs to those floors, which would be visible in the interior as they cross the exhibition space. This system would add drama to the ascent to classes. Students rising would be aware of the world outside, as well as would be seen by pedestrians outside, who might be tempted to join in, and will be doing so within the structure of a cube. The process would be reversed on their return, when classes are over. Education lifts us from the daily world and takes us back to it. Tschumi does something similar in his Lerner Student Hall.

The building should have energy, and this one gets its dynamics from the horizontal rectangle of the brick building against the squarish, taller, rising grid, suggesting both opposing and complementing movements. The brick sections between windows are progressively larger, reinforcing the lateral pull.

The cube elements aren’t in line with the brick part but are slightly off its imagined grid of construction, again to encourage tension and difference. I followed a rule that the brick building takes precedence when the two intersect, the reason a beam is missing in front of the classroom windows on the third floor. But I also wanted to add some variety to the grid, which needs some dynamics of difference itself.

Half of the rear wall has to take into account Burgerville next door, behind, which will obstruct any view, thus my window arrangement. Corner rooms and the upper floors, however, should have a good view of the bridge and river area—see the photo of the police station, catercorner from the site, and bridge above.

I go back and forth with the first version. It is bold and makes a statement and I like its ideas, but I suspect the cube is overpowering and I don’t think it can be toned down, not without losing the stairs and ramps it is supposed to contain.

The second version is much more understated and better balanced. The corner still makes a statement, asserting the cubic structure and calling attention to itself as a corner, as the entrance and focal part of the building. Here the grid is integrated into the whole design. I am quite pleased with this one.

Its rear wall would be similar to the first. The side wall on both would be solid brick, anticipating expansion next door, as I suspect has to be done.

Materials inside should be durable but distinctive as well be able to maintain their character over time and use—no carpet, no linoleum, no suspended acoustic ceilings.

One criticism of the Lofts is that it is too abstract, and that may be the case with both versions, though detailing would give them more articulation. Still, something more traditional may be called for.

A Note on Parking

Parking is a mundane problem, growing in St. Johns, yet which presents major conflicts and disruptions. I haven’t provided for parking—The Lofts doesn’t have provisions either. An underground garage would be prohibitively expensive and unsatisfactory in other ways. I’m hoping local concerns—the bank across the street and some of the restaurants—might be more disposed to help out with a civic project, from which they might benefit, than a commercial.

Why This Won’t Happen

I’m a writer and retired college English instructor, not an architect or city planner. The limitations of my knowledge, practical and technical, are too long to list. This is only a dream from an amateur. It should also be conceded I’m supporting my own interests. But I think they are valuable for all and provide what many communities lack. Also I’m at a loss as to what else might be done.

Aside from the fact that the site is already accounted for, a major problem will be money, and that is hard, if not impossible to find. Portland has many other priorities and limited funds. Such a center would also need institutional support, especially from some school, but schools have their own budget constraints to contend with, as well as other priorities. I have no idea if there is even demand for such classes in the area and am skeptical.

I’m also skeptical such a project would be self-sustaining. All of its services would have to be affordable to be effective and successful. High fees for use would bar many. If ticket prices at the theater are too high, people will not come.

It’s no slight on the area, but I’m not sure there’s even a demand or desire for the stage space. Such facilities thrive largely in more densely populated areas, and many there are still challenged. Nor do I know if there is sufficient supply of dedicated performers. College instructors, however, are a dime a dozen. There’s been an oversupply for decades, which the schools have exploited.

Still, education and culture exist on a two-way street. The schools and the arts need promotion and support; artists and teachers need to push themselves to excellence and vision. They also have a responsibility to those they serve. But people in a culture need to push themselves as well and reach beyond their normal expectations, their day-to-day realities, and give both a chance. Complacency and mediocracy lead to a slow death. There needs to be a place for this exchange to happen.

It never hurts to dream.

The picture at the top is View of an Ideal City, ca. 1490s, by an artist of the Italian Renaissance, unknown.

Resources

Central Lofts

This link, from Next Portland, provides site plans, floor plans, and renderings for the Central Lofts project, as well as a Google Maps street view. The floor plans give dimensions of the proposed building, which I assume are the dimensions that might be allowed for an alternative.

St. Johns/Lombard Plan

2004, from the City of Portland Bureau of Planning. Includes other documents, including Existing Conditions Report (2003), St. Johns Town Center/ Lombard Plan (2002), St. Johns Town Center/Lombard Plan: Existing Economic Conditions (2002), St. Johns/Lombard Plan Neighborhood Walks (2002), St. Johns/Lombard Plan Neighborhood Walks (2002), and still others. These documents provide maps, street plans, pictures and drawings, surveys, and historical and demographic information, much of this material focusing on the downtown area.

The St. Johns / Lombard Plan Neighborhood Walks document reaches this conclusion:

The street frontage is wonderfully diverse and unique, but could be more vital as a commercial area. New housing was seen as a way to enliven the area without compromising the existing frontage. Housing could be built behind the storefronts to increase the resident population living and shopping downtown. The street could be enhanced with curb extensions and lighting to improve the pedestrian experience.

Mixed-use developments, with more housing in the downtown area, is seen as a solution to local character and development. I’m skeptical. I wonder if they will give a varied demographic. I also question the desirability of living on Lombard, the Main Street. Most, the mixed-use part—commercial development on the first floor—isn’t working at the present. Again, much commercial space is vacant now throughout the area. I suspect our world has changed in the last decade or so—notably internet shopping—and that viable commercial uses need more study, here and elsewhere. And again, I argue that the area could use more cultural variety to draw people, the reason for my proposal.

I’m also curious how people spend their time now, in St. Johns and elsewhere, and what it would take to draw them out of the house and into a town area. Likely people are spending more time in their work commute and at home with their electronic devices, internet and tv.

American Time Use Survey—2017 Results

A report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on how we spend our time now.

St. Johns/Lombard Plan

Adopted 2004 by the City Council. Again many documents and much graphic and statistical information. Note especially “A Vision for the St. Johns and Lombard Street Area,” page 17, and Urban Character Area 2: Downtown St. Johns,” page 98.

To St. Johns Bridge

My literary essay on the bridge, with pictures. There must be thousands of other pictures on the Internet.

Site: St. Johns, Portland

Several pictures I took of the area. Especially read the public art display “I Am from St. Johns” for a sense of history and character.

My Other Designs (Rough)

Centering a Town: 3rd. Effort

 

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