Commercial Corridors — Civilis Consultants

By: Michelereeves  09-12-2011

If an event center, or hospital, or college plunks down in your neighborhood, does it inevitably create a crater of blight and low property values? Or, is it possible to weave large institutions into the fabric of an urban community? Right here in Portland, two major in-city hospitals provide a stark contrast in success at integrating into their surroundings, giving us a great window into what works and what doesn’t.

Legacy Good Samaritan was founded in 1875 in Northwest Portland. Its roots were firmly planted in a pre-automobile era of urban planning when streetcars were king and pedestrianism was recognized as a viable form of transportation. And, luckily for the neighborhood, that history still shines through to this day.

In the modern era, the hospital has continued to adapt to its environment in two important ways. First, they have mirrored the character of the neighborhood with the choice of brick as a facade for their buildings. Second, as they have expanded into other buildings and parts of the neighborhood, the street grid structure has been maintained, with employees and patients using sky-bridges and city sidewalks to travel from place to place rather than vacating streets to build super block sites that would create a walled-off medical campus. The preservation of the grid has allowed the neighborhood to flow through the hospital structures instead of around them, which has led to this vast medical complex successfully being absorbed into the community instead of becoming a single-use crater in the center of it.

It is no accident that the successful absorption of Good Samaritan is directly linked to the fact that it is located in one of Portland’s most dense districts, which has been able to support its presence and still maintain a diversity of interests in the immediate surrounding neighborhood, including multifamily residential, retail, office, public school, religious, and medical uses.

This variety of uses coupled with the open grid also encourages this large medical institution to open up to the neighborhood. When a walled-off campus is created, the people within the campus are less likely to leave it and mingle with, and become a part of, the social fabric immediately outside their door.

However, to say that Good Samaritan has no negative impact on its surroundings would be an overstatement. Although NW 23d Ave, along which the hospital is located, is one of Portland’s strongest neighborhood commercial retail districts, it has developed more completely in the areas to the north and south of the hospital’s only super block site, shown in the photo to the left. As you can plainly see, this particular medical building was designed in such a way that it a) does not interact with the streetscape in the least, and b) it creates a two-block blank, which can be a death blow to a retail district, disturbing shopping continuity and becoming a border, beyond which visitors prefer not to venture.

Ideally, along this NW 23rd Ave frontage, Good Samaritan would have integrated active retail storefronts that could have contributed to a more intense street level experience, in character with the surrounding commercial buildings. It is no surprise that the buildings near the super block (pictured left) have been slow to renovate.

As a counterpoint to fairly successful integration, I offer you the Legacy Emanuel campus, pictured to the right, which is a prime example of an institution that has walled itself off after razing the surrounding neighborhood so that no trace of its original character remains. Founded in 1912, this medical center underwent major expansion in the 70s that dovetailed with other disastrous postwar urban renewal projects—specifically Memorial Coliseum and Interstate 5—that decimated the minority mixed-use commercial districts in the Albina neighborhood.

When driving south along N Vancouver Ave, as you near the hospital the entire feel on the one way couplet changes. You almost feel as if you could be in a suburban office park. Incredibly, the city’s largest trauma hospital is not even visible from the street. Only a sign informs you that you are in the vicinity of a medical facility. Instead of being lined with the streetcar-era mixed-use buildings and warehouses that are more typical of this area, near Legacy Emanuel, N Vancouver Ave is lined with parking structures that continue for blocks and blocks. True, they are nicely landscaped, but they act as a wall nonetheless. Pictured below are these barriers.

Behind the greened parking edifices sits the hospital. The physical impression that Legacy Emanuel is “other” is made loud and clear. It is a citadel of medicine that does not articulate or interact with the vestiges of the commercial and residential uses that still exist in the area. (Unfortunately, the stock of buildings that dotted this formerly vibrant district are long gone.)

Other problems in this area include a disconnected grid with one-way streets as well as the deep canyon that Interstate 5 creates to the west of the hospital, further reducing connectivity to other parts of the city. Additionally, Legacy Emanuel controls much of the undeveloped land surrounding the hospital, creating an even larger dead zone of surface parking and empty lots.

Essentially, they have successfully designed a single-use medical district that is, as a result, unsafe and unsightly. The hospital’s very presence impedes revitalization on its back doorstep, even though renewal is happening nearby on N Williams Ave, N Mississippi Ave and NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

The impact of this lack of diversity of use and functioning grid is keenly felt in Dawson City Park located across from the hospital, shown here. It is a public gathering place whose biggest constituents, on a per square foot basis, are a two-story low-rise office building with mirrored windows and a series of parking garages. It’s no wonder that its success as a public amenity is now mixed, at best.

This tale of two hospitals is an oft-told story that emerged from many city centers during the early days of urban renewal. The dense district with political clout staved off construction projects that would have destroyed the tight knit network of blocks, and in so doing, ultimately saved the neighborhood. The vibrant minority district, without the political clout, absorbed the full impact of nearly every large new public works project post World War II — Memorial Coliseum, Interstate 5, and the expansion of Legacy Emanuel Hospital.

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