Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Vera Katz Park

vera katz park


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A few photos of our fair city's shiny (& tiny) new Vera Katz Park, the Pearl District's very latest high-concept amenity. It's an odd sort of park (or will be -- the official dedication won't be until May 29th.) It's basically just a wide sidewalk on SW Davis St. between 10th & 11th, next to the Gerding Theater (the old Armory building). There's a water feature running the length of the block, and a sort of bioswale-like arrangement with a few native(?) plants, grasses and horsetails, mostly. In short, if you go, don't bring the softball team along. Unless you're headed to the new Deschutes Brewpub across the street, I mean -- but that's a topic for another post, as soon as I get around to visiting the thing. There's also nothing here to satisfy the off-leash dog mafia. As much as your darling little pug might want to take a crap in the bioswale, it's a safe bet it's Not Allowed. Violate the rule, and the Proper Authorities will either taser you, or buy you $30 fruity drinks at Bluehour at taxpayer expense, depending entirely on who you are and who you know at city hall.

Ok, that's not entirely fair. There's something about the place that brings out my snarky and irritable side. Or more to the point, it's something about the idea of the place, not so much the place itself.

Case in point: I mentioned the park in an earlier post, where I described it as:

The future site of "Vera Katz Park", a fancy name for the little strip of land on the north side of the Armory Theater. It's a fitting name in many ways. It's a minor adjunct to the grand dreams of a well-connected developer, and it's been delayed greatly due to cost overruns and general mismanagement.


Yikes! That wasn't very nice at all. I must've been in a bad mood, even so more than normal. This time around I'll try to just talk about the park itself, and I'll strive to be fair and balanced about it. No, really, I will.

I took a few photos of the park. A few are in this post, and more are in my inevitable Flickr photoset. At least those are fair and balanced, I think, probably.

rain, vera katz park

Ok, so a few links about the place:

  • A piece on the design of the park. Same people who were behind Collins Circle -- which I'm very much not a fan of. Vera Katz Park is an improvement; it's fine, I guess, but I'm still not entirely sold on it. I do like the idea of turning awkward little bits into parks, but I'm ambivalent about the execution on this one. The black stone echoes the basalt of the armory building -- I think that works for the most part. It might've fit even better if they'd used actual local basalt for the job. Perhaps there's some technical reason that wouldn't work, I dunno. The overall effect is excessively austere, to my taste. All that polished black stone makes it look a bit like a war memorial. A few strategically placed flowers might cheer it up a bit... or it might look even more like a war memorial that way. I'm not saying there's anything inherently wrong with war memorials (other than war, obviously) -- it's just that there's nothing about it that seems very Vera-like at all. Jamison Square would fit the bill a lot better, if it wasn't already named in honor of someone else.

    William Morris advocated the notion that if you're going to have something around, it ought to be either beautiful or useful. So I'm trying to figure out which it's supposed to be here. It's a little of each, but not really either. I suppose the bioswale is useful. It had better be, because I wouldn't call it beautiful. Unless we're making a fetish of austerity, I mean.

  • The park cost us $250,000 (see here). So to give the whole city the Vera Katz Park treatment, it'd be $1M per block times a jaw-dropping number of blocks. Hmm. This doesn't sound like a concept we can easily put into practice citywide. If you can get away with not making each sidewalk an art installation, just a strictly utilitarian water-quality feature, I'm sure it'd knock the price down a bit. Suppose you can do the basic bioswale part for $50k (a figure I just dreamed up), that's still $200k per block times the same jaw-dropping number of city blocks. And if you use the same design as here, you lose on-street parking for the length of the block. While that may please bike and streetcar activists and the city's parking garage operators, I'm not so sure the general public or retailers would be quite as enthusiastic. So I think it's safe to say that if we do build more of these, we won't build a huge number of them. Therefore -- assuming these really do work to protect water quality and keep icky stuff out of the river -- naturally we'd want to target them to problem areas around town. Is the Pearl District really a problem area? I don't know. I suppose it might be.

    Speaking of parking, it's probably worth pointing out that the Brewery Blocks development, of which the park is a very small component, includes a vast multistory, multiblock underground parking garage. I imagine we'll be told that taking out the parking spots on one side of the street is a step toward the coming Glorious Car-Free Future. That may be true of the park itself, but the project taken as a whole sends a very different message. The message, as far as I can tell, is that it's ok to drive a monstrous earth-crushing SUV and not feel guilty, so long as you hide it underground when you aren't using it. Out of sight, out of mind, and all that.


  • Some architectural blathering about the park, on the Portland Center Stage website, PCS being the new tenant next door in the theater. So of course they like the thing. I don't know if it technically belongs to them, but they seem to have been the driving force behind it. The post tries to explain why the park is great, for those of us who don't grok it immediately.

    I've become convinced that contemporary architecture is roughly 98% marketing, 1% marketing, and 1% engineering. The latest buzzwords just so happen to be "green" and "sustainable". Not, I think, because the industry actually cares about these things, but simply because they sell. It's the usual handwaving, with a double helping of guilt. The results are much more expensive than "normal" buildings, and ugly too, but anyone who questions the dogma is accused of being a earth-destroying, kitten-eating, Bush-voting philistine. I just want to know how on earth we're going to save the world when the only things we're creating are by and for the richest 0.001 percent of the world's population, and nobody else. And at what point do we move past the endless "awareness-raising" symbolic acts and do something that actually matters? Have we just given up on that? Are we just going to build a sort of hermetically sealed bio-dome over the Pearl District so the wealthy can survive the coming apocalypse, and to hell with everyone else? Is that how this goes down?

    The apocalyptic form of environmentalism has always made me uncomfortable. It's always struck me as a sort of quasi-religious mindset, and as a happily non-religious person, even quasi-religions and their believers make me nervous. Even when the facts indicate that something bad lies ahead (as is the case with climate change, and the ozone layer before that), I always get the impression that certain people are enjoying the idea of a coming apocalypse rather too much. In the coming apocalypse, the unbelievers will be laid low, and somehow the faithful will be spared the worst of it, sort of a New Age version of the fundies' "Rapture". As a member of the faithful, one must constantly engage in extravagant and highly visible displays of personal virtue -- driving a Prius, wringing one's hands endlessly about paper vs. plastic, buying a 5000 square foot LEED-certified vacation home, and so forth. This way, whoever or whatever unspecified entity that's doing the sparing during the apocalypse will take notice, I guess.

    Sometimes I wonder how many of these people had a strict religious upbringing, and ended up rebelling against it in substance but not in style. In a way, I do kind of see what makes the religious right so angry about the environmental movement as a whole: They see it as a competitor, an alternate end of the world. They're wrong, of course, like they are about everything else, but I can see how the notion would occur to them.


  • Anyway, here's a post at Portland Architecture while the park was under construction. Which process took freakin' forever due to interminable delays in materials and whatnot. One commenter mentions the stone came from China. How's that for sustainable, eh?

    The post mentions that the rough edges to the stone help ward off skateboarders. I guess that fits. I seem to recall that Vera never liked skateboarders very much.


  • There's a bit about the upcoming dedication party here.

    On May 29th Portland Center Stage will host a community dedication to celebrate the completion of the Vera Katz Park, truly the final crown jewel of the Brewery Blocks rehabilitation. Festivities will include a tribal blessing, theater, dance, conversation, food, beverage, bioswales and Vera. The event is from 5:00 pm until 7:00 pm and is open to the public


    A "tribal blessing"? WTF?! Am I the only person who sees church & state issues with this? Why is it that tribal blessings are OK, and it's not OK to also invite a pastor from some warmongering, Bush-worshiping suburban megachurch? People will probably argue it's not the same thing. And that's precisely what the whole Establishment Clause thing is all about: If the government starts drawing distinctions between "religions we like" and "religions we don't", and granting the former a bunch of privileges unavailable to the latter, well, how can you really criticize Texas or Alabama when they do the same thing, reversing who's in the two categories?

    Oh, and what's with listing Vera after the bioswales?


  • A bit about the stone used in the park. Interesting note, the armory itself seems to be a brick and basalt structure. Basalt being the local volcanic rock that doesn't need to be trucked in from afar, burning a ton of fossil fuels in the process. Just sayin'.


  • The armory project was financed in part with something called a "New Markets Tax Credit", a federal program intended to spur "community development". Organizations wanting to qualify for the program must do a variety of things, including (allegedly):

    # demonstrate a primary a mission of serving, or providing investment capital for, low-income communities or low-income persons; and
    # maintain accountability to residents of low-income communities through representation on a governing board of or advisory board to the entity.


    If I recall correctly, the armory project qualified because, technically speaking, it's geographically close to Old Town, which unlike the Pearl is a bona-fide low income area. So next time you drive down Burnside and see people sleeping in doorways or waiting in line at one of the soup kitchens, remember that the Gerding Theater exists for their benefit. At least on paper. In reality, not so much.

    In any case, program participants are required to produce a "Community Impacts Report", spinning, er, explaining how the world is a better place because they got a juicy tax break. The armory's report describes the park thusly:

    A New Park In an effort to provide community benefit outside the Armory
    walls, Vera Katz Park “greens” the existing sidewalk and eliminates the parking
    spaces. The park will serve as a water filter for rainfall, and as the only
    green park in the immediate area (except for numerous green roofs), a shady
    resting place.


    There's a bit more about the tax credit here. Now, I realize that arts funding is an unending struggle, and sometimes you have to be extremely creative and take a "the end justifies the means" attitude to get anything accomplished, and the New Markets program requirements were so written vaguely and broadly that the armory managed to qualify. I realize all that. But I can't help but think about all the real low-income projects that weren't funded because the tax credits went to the armory instead. It's probably pointless to wish the city would stop ripping off the poor so the richest 1% of the population can have more goodies. But I kind of wish they'd at least not flaunt it quite so much.


  • All of that said, it seems the grand opening bash will feature free beer. Free beer! Yay! I'll forgive nearly anything if there's free beer involved. I mean, sure, I expect the offer of free beer doesn't extend to the aforementioned denizens of Old Town, but really, who can quibble and complain and carp when there's free beer to be had? Not I! Yay, free beer!

horsetails, vera katz park

There was a strange incident while I was taking the last few photos of the place. Some random guy wandered by while I was busy focusing, and said something to the effect that I wasn't allowed to take photos of the park because it was copyrighted or something. Which isn't entirely absurd -- ok, it is absurd, but it's not unusual. Consider the case of "the Bean" in Chicago, for example. Although I think even that only refers to for-profit photography, and this humble blog remains proudly noncommercial. (Although if the price was right, and there were no provisions involving my "immortal soul", and the proposer wasn't evil, and the proposal was at least somewhat interesting, I just might consider selling out to The Man.) Anyway, I wasn't entirely sure how to take that. I looked up and scowled at the guy because he was interrupting my concentration and artistic vibe and whatever, but I didn't say anything. It was pretty clear he wasn't a security guard or anything, so I went back to what I was doing. He kept walking, swearing at me a few times and then flipping me off. For the life of me, I can't imagine what he was on about. Was it economic resentment, maybe? Was I on the receiving end of the age-old class struggle? Or was it just National Hassle-The-Nerd-With-The-Expensive-Camera Day? Or maybe he'd just gone off his meds. I suppose that's possible -- I imagine your average crazy person doesn't know about the whole public art vs. copyright issue, but then the Pearl probably attracts a better class of crazy person. Or maybe he's just one of those people who wander around angry all the time, looking for targets to take it out on. I dunno. It was awfully peculiar, whatever the reason was.

rain, vera katz park

I do object to naming things after living people, whoever they happen to be. It seems to be a relatively recent practice in Oregon, as far as I can tell only going back to the late 1980's. We started naming things after Sen. Mark Hatfield in gratitude for his bringing home piles of congressional pork. It's fortunate we never got around to naming anything after Neil Goldschmidt or Bob Packwood, or we'd have had to chisel their names off and pretend it never happened. I don't mean to go off on a huge tangent, but here's a short list of things I came up with of various things around town named after Portland mayors, living and otherwise.

  • Vera Katz Park
  • O'Bryant Square, named for Hugh O'Bryant, Portland's first mayor, who by all accounts was a complete failure in office. The park itself has no historical links to the guy, that I'm aware of. The Park Blocks were probably still howling wilderness at that point.
  • Terry Schrunk Plaza, plus a housing project named for Mayor Schrunk somewhere up in St. Johns.
  • Pennoyer St., and indirectly Governors Park
  • A small and unobtrusive plaque of Bud Clark at Saturday Market location
  • Failing St., pedestrian bridge, and school (now home to the Natural Medicine college)
  • Ladd's Addition, and Ladd Acres school out in Aloha
  • David Thompson fountain (the elk)
  • Chapman Square (and old Chapman Ave., now 18th or 19th)
I don't suppose they'll be naming any parks after Tom Potter anytime soon -- unless it's a sort of sunny veranda where you can rent a rocking chair for an hour or two and take a nap, or daydream, or have a "visioning process", whatever the hell that is.

reflection, vera katz park

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