Writing the Portland Story: A Conversation with Doug Macy

Submitted by: Sarah Iannarone
Associate Director, First Stop Portland

On Nov 10, 2017, Portland said goodbye to renowned landscape architect, urban pioneer, and civic treasure James Douglas "Doug" Macy. Doug was an original member of First Stop Portland's Advisory Council and helped shape our program from the beginning, sharing his knowledge and wisdom with our staff, students, and visitors from around the world.

First Stop's mission includes "connecting visitors with Portland's experts, leaders, and innovators-- the people who can share 'The Portland Story' best because they're writing it." Few people have written Portland's story with more passion or influence than Doug. In 2010, we sat down at the offices of Walker | Macy to talk with Doug about Portland-- past, present and future.

Doug Macy shares the story of Pioneer Courthouse Square with a reporter from Geo France Magazine,2011

How did your Portland story begin, Doug?

I came to Portland in the 70s to work with Robert Perron and learned the city. I bought an old Victorian row house in Northwest and became active in the neighborhood back when the Mt. Hood Freeway was planned, right at the  beginning of the [1972] Downtown Plan. Ernie Bonner had been hired out of Cleveland-- he came here and really started to understand the city, the core especially,  and how to plan for the future. I was on the periphery of all that...

Then I started my own firm in 1976, teamed up with Will Martin to go after the Pioneer Courthouse Square design competition-- all this is coming out of the Downtown Plan. Pioneer Square was about creating a great place in the core of the city, but it was also a strategy to keep Meier and Frank here, to bring Nordstrom into the downtown, and to solidify the health and the vitality of the downtown.

This was following the first urban renewal effort, the South Auditorium district, that brought the first wave of high-density residential into the city. I worked on those projects with the office of Lawrence Halprin while I was still with Bob Perron and we helped develop some of those open spaces there. They are kind of "Garden City" style, not the way we do urban design today. These [Halprin] fountains... were the first new parks in the downtown core and I was able to experience the onset of a movement to establish new public open spaces in our downtown, so it was very much a part of my learning experience here. Later, working with Bob, we did Terry Schrunk Plaza (across from City Hall) and that was in addition to the Lownsdale Square blocks (SW 4th and Main, also courthouse squares) and I was very interested in what was happening with how urban parks, plazas, and open spaces became an important part of the mix of a really rich downtown.

Pioneer Courthouse Square came along after I had started my own practice and I was very interested in getting that work, so I teamed up with [Will Martin, Marcus Bevins, Cameron G. Hyde, Robert Reynolds, Terence O'Donnell,  Lee Kelly, and Spencer Gill]. The idea was to have a group of hometown guys, because this was an international design competition; our point was, you need to have at least one team that has a Portland sensibility, to think about what should be our living room, what would become the core of our city... We were successful in making the short list on that competition then we were ultimately successful in being selected... and today Pioneer Courthouse Square is considered one of the best and most active public open spaces in the world ... listed by various people as the top five or top ten and has been recognized as a great open space. It was a point of great pride to have been part of that team and a very powerful learning experience, to see it designed and built and flourish as a really vital public space for the City of Portland.

Pioneer Courthouse Square is a world-class achievement. Where do you go from there?

A lot of things happened along the way to downtown revitalization. The South Park Blocks were a very, very dismal place and now it’s one of the city’s great open spaces, along with the North Park Blocks, that were platted by the founders of our city;  however, both had fallen into disrepair. The PDC had a strategy to make them safer, more night friendly, less of a refuge for vagrants and drug deals, which at the time it was a terrible mess. At the same time, there was also the idea of connecting Portland State University with the downtown core, and part of that strategy was development of the performing arts center, the Schnitzer Auditorium. So there are all these initiatives going on in parks and open space and urban design (which is what I do)-- it was all part of transforming Portland from a city where all the major businesses were moving to the suburbs, to bring back the vitality to the core.  South Park Blocks, North Waterfront, South Waterfront, Ankeny Plaza, the Bill Naito Legacy Fountain-- these projects are all part of a strategy that the city created to keep the downtown a healthy, vital place.

Why do so may people come to Portland today, do you think? 

They come because we’ve been successful. We’ve worked very hard the last thirty years to maintain the strength of character and economic vitality... Thirty years ago there were no street trees downtown, except for the Park Blocks. The whole street tree program is another initiative that came out of the planning in the 1970s to establish a rich canopy of trees throughout the city, which has a major effect on temperature and the health of the city. Go down Burnside today and it’s a major vegetated boulevard.

People who come here today don’t realize that back in 1970, this place looked a lot different. The mayor empowered Ernie Bonner to really make things happen. A bunch of us came out of the university system, through the Vietnam War, the Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the protests and activism, that’s how we were raised. And we were the first generation to say, "We’re not gonna take this." So you had a huge number of people in the parks department, in the Portland Development Commission, in the private sector, community leaders, politicians that were raised in the social movements....

We had major developments coming into downtown. I remember the Cadillac Fairview Development Company was going to do the Pioneer Place project and they proposed these gigantic skybridges --skybuildings, really-- going across the street with blank walls, and that led to the design standards we have in the downtown that don’t allow you build blank walls at the ground floor or have parking garages without first floor retail or an activated base. All of those things we fought against and it was serious. We would go out --the design community, the activist community, people who cared about the place-- and we would go to City Hall. Today we don’t have nearly that kind of attitude that’s coming from as many people as we had then.

How is urban livability related to urban form?

The scale of Portland is that of a relatively small, big city--it has this 200’ block grid, it has Lownsdale Square, and the waterfront, and the West Hills and the Park Blocks slicing through it...  and it has just enough tradition so when Halprin came here during the urban renewal era and when Skidmore Owings and Merrill did the first transit mall, that scale was respected. Ever since, even the planners for light rail and the the richness of the materials that have come into our streets have all been in respect of the scale of this community. There are very few cities of this size that have such an intimate grain: you walk 200 feet and you’re at a corner and you have another vista, another direction. Those of us involved in the early planning saw that was special.... so a ordinance came that you couldn’t create superblocks. A lot of it was a response to the South Auditorium urban renewal, where they superblocked the whole end of town and wiped out the entire Polish and Jewish community that was there, ran roughshod over the place. Today we wouldn’t do that. It would be a different strategy, more building on what’s there...

It goes back to Ernie Bonner and the downtown plan recognizing those elements of our city that we have to protect and what kind of design guidelines can come out of that to ensure we don’t mess up what we have as a basic fabric for our city. It was a major movement to NOT lose the goodness that we had. It goes back to the planned neighborhoods that the Olmstead brothers laid out and to the Parks commission of the 1900s that was smart enough to bring the brothers to town. When you go to Mt. Tabor and see the water system, it’s not just a water system, it’s a beautiful piece of engineering and that was all prescribed by the Olmstead Brothers to make the waterworks coming in from Bull Run a beautiful thing. And to this day it’s a precious thing that neighborhoods continue to fight to save.... A lot of it had to do with our forefathers who came here, they were smart people who came from Boston and New York and eastern cities who wanted to bring some of those qualities here. That’s why you see the Lownsdale Square blocks and the Park Blocks as organizing ideas for the community. It was our job in the 70s, essentially, just not to wreck that....

What does it mean to "not wreck" a place? How do you protect and preserve a city, even as it changes and grows?

When we did Pioneer Square, that’s why we brought non-designers in to be on the team, people who were not looking at it from a design point of view, they were looking at it from a cultural point of view. They were influential to how we shaped the square... People today recognize the architects’ influence, but the story that is seldom told is that we were influenced by some folks who were coming at it from a purely Portland values point of view. A lot of things that you see in Portland, the way that they turn out... is because there are so many eyes on every project, that why these projects are better. There’s an active community here and people care about how things turn out. The debate with Memorial Coliseum-- that building isn’t just getting knocked down, there’s a debate about it.

What's next for Portland? 

In Portland we talk about our values--you’ve got the politics, geography, history of conservation and connection to the environment... does it continue to work? what’s happening? what’s changing?  The next layer is re-establishing the transit system... We’re essentially rebuilding the streetcar system that was dismantled during the automobile movement. That is going toward strengthening our neighborhoods and making them more efficient, increasing our ability to live relatively close to downtown and to be able to get in and out without automobiles. The reason people come from all over the world to see our transit system is that we were successful. We love trains here. And they are creating new opportunities for urban infill and strengthening some of our neighborhoods and reestablishing the vitality of places like Belmont and Hawthorne and Division.

The Pearl District rail yards [were] transformed based on lessons that were learned prior: that’s why it's is so successful. You organize a community around a series of parks, set aside land that adds greater value to the land around it. It’s a public private partnership that proves to be an excellent move. It makes for a good structure and that’s similar to what the founding fathers did with the Park Blocks and Lownsdale Square, which was a place to organize the public buildings around.... The vision that was carved out in the 1800s worked again in the Pearl to build a new neighborhood, to transform an industrial area that’s no longer needed... Those lessons were reinforced by what we had done right in the 70s and 80s.

New ideas are sometimes just good old ideas that get recycled. We’re fortunate that the marketplace is allowing us to design those kinds of communities today. Even our “suburban” developments are patterned after Ladd’s Addition, Laurelhurst... Not new ideas at all, they just have to be applied in today’s marketplace, with today’s values, and according to people’s needs, which have changed some; but people still want a simple, safe, reliable place to live. And Portland’s not a big gnarly place, it’s kind of a “tiny town,” -- it’s manageable.

Why does telling "The Portland Story" matter?

If we tell our story correctly to our visitors, we're connecting what they’re seeing with why it is the way it is. Start with the physical, the raw materials we have-- climate, geography, etc-- this Ecotopia for living things. The lesson that we can tell other people is, first of all, look at what you have as a physical resource and really cherish what it is and understand what it is about your climate and topography and seasons and understand your parameters. Then, you look at your historic patterns of development and find the best of those in terms of scale and connectivity and hang onto your best elements. That’s what we’ve done here and we’ve replicated some of the moves that were made when the town was platted and we’ve improved our community.

The other lesson we need to share has to do with transit: transit works. It’s an old idea getting us back to what once we once did. The thing we have done well here as a community (and there are a lot of people who have contributed to this), is to really pay attention to the goodness in what you have and what you’ve done in the past and then replicate that.

As we look to the future, what could Portland do better? 

When it comes to design and green design, Portland is a little stodgy and a little conservative in terms of risk-taking-- that’s the downside. There are some really missed opportunities in terms of architecture... We do some experimentation, but we’re pretty practical and we could afford to take a little more risk. Sometimes we're lacking innovation: innovation generally comes from adversity and we don’t face it here... Our developers don’t tend to be risk-takers: they want something that’s going to work. We lack big money, so things aren't as big and not as many people willing to take risks. And design review, well... sometimes it impedes some really remarkable things from happening.

A final thought on what matters most in urban design?

The evolution of open space and the contribution of open space to the city-- I don’t mean just parks and gardens, I mean the street. If you look at the amount of land tied up in your street system and the power of that street system, it is the most important public open space in the city because there’s more of it than anything else, maybe with the exception of the river, but you don’t walk around on the river... Think about the street system. Whether it’s a 60’ right of way, an 80’ right of way--those street systems occupy a huge amount of space that we travel up and down in our automobiles, we ride transit in them, takes cabs in them, we walk alongside them, and ride bikes in them. You spend more time in a street environment as an open space framed by buildings or framed by vistas that look over Mt. Hood or up to the West Hills, that, to me, is the most important urban space. The spaces we set aside are important, too, they’re precious, but they are a small percentage of our open space. If we don’t take care of our open streets, we don’t treat them properly, well, that’s another lesson for cities to learn. In a city, your streets are your greatest asset.

[Doug's Obituary]

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