January 26, 2005

Notes From Pioneer Courthouse Square Board Meeting

Rink, Flicks, Starbucks, Powell's, Mall

As usually happens when we sit in on the quarterly meeting of the Board of Trustees responsible for Pioneer Courthouse Square, the stuff we consider the juicy bits were saved for the very last portion of the agenda.

This time around, that means the Facility Report, including updates on the Starbucks proposal for renovation of their Square location, an update on the space once inhabited by Powell's Travel Store (currently vacant), and a presentation on the Transit Mall Revitalization Project.

Also according to the usual pattern, we needlessly arrived just prior to the Tuesday meeting's 11:30 AM start time. We say "needlessly" because the Board members sit around eating for half an hour before anything actually gets underway. This is especially distracting on days when we combine having forgotten about this meal-based portion of the meeting with not bothering to eat anything before leaving the house.

There's nothing quite like watching a room full of people in suits eating a nice lunch while one's own stomach is full of nothing more than a double rice mocha.

Amongst those in attendance was Elizabeth Kennedy-Wong, presumably there on behalf of the Mayor's office. (Normally, the City Commissioner in charge of Portland Parks & Recreation automatically serves on the Board. With all City bureaus being operated out of the Mayor's office, Tom Potter technically would be that commissioner in charge.)

"I'm not used to being in rooms like this," she said, presumably referring to the movers-and-shakers of the PCS Board. Until recently brought onto the Mayor's staff, Kennedy-Wong was the head of Southeast Uplift, and more accustomed to a neighborhood sensibility. "It's like they sent me here as a joke."

Chet Orloff, a PCS Board member (and president of Museum of the City), asked us if we were staying out of trouble. Then again, he suggested that staying in trouble is both more productive and more fun.

On the whole, sitting through PCS Board meetings isn't necessarily what we'd refer to us fun, but it tends to be the only way to keep up to date on various bits and pieces of certain developments regarding the Square.

The Ice Rink

Readers know that at the end of last year, one of the final actions of the previous City Council was to refund money that had been collected from downtown business owners which had been earmarked for the once-planned seasonal ice rink for Pioneer Courthouse Square, effectively putting an end to that ill-conceived idea.

That rink proposal was what originally prompted us to start attending PCS Board meetings, continuing into the post-rink period where the Board instead discussed more broadly ways to increase the identity of the Square and the amount of activity in it.

While that conversation wasn't really taken up this time, there was a brief reference to the ice rink itself. Thomas Corry, the Board's treasurer, mentioned that the organization's cash reserves at the end of the year were around $40,000 less than those at the end of the previous year because Wells Fargo had contributed that amount towards the ice rink.

In line with the Council's action, that money had been returned. In what we hope merely was a poor choice of words rather than an indication that the Board privately intends to resurrect the rink proposal at a later date, Corry referred to it as an idea "which we have decided to defer at this time".

Flicks On The Bricks

Last year, the Square hosted a trial Flicks On The Bricks event, showing The Goonies on a giant infalatable movie screen. In her executive director's report, Jennifer Polver confirmed that Flicks on the Bricks will be returning, with her Powerpoint presentation indicating, if we read it correctly, that the Square will offer four movies during the year.

For what it's worth, and intentionally or not, the official return of the Flicks on the Bricks series marks the fulfillment of one of the Mayoral campaign pledges made by Phil Busse.


It's long been known that there likely would be some serious renovations done to the Starbucks located on the Square's northwest corner. This appears to now be on track.

These changes will include adding exterior and interior seating, removing the window tinting, enhancing pedestrian movement through the northwest corner of the Square, improving compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, various interior renovations, and bringing the outside patio along the back edge of Starbucks to a single level instead of the split-level layout it has today.

All the renovations reportedly will be at Starbucks' expense and not that of the City of Portland, with the company submitting its proposal to the City for design review and permitting in February, with the work itself targeted to begin in April and end in May.

Former Powell's Travel Store Location

At the end of this month, Powell's lease at the retail space in the Squre's southeast corner officially expires, although the windows there indicate that their Travel Store already has moved to Powell's main location on West Burnside.

The PCS Board received mre than twelve "meaningful" inquiries about leasing that space, which the Board wants to use to enhance the Square, how it functions, and people's experiences. Amongst the uses in which the Board was not interested were a clothing store and (yes) a paycheck cashing operation.

(Someone, we unfortunately didn't manage to catch who, suggested to Commander Dave Bensen of the Portland Police Bureau, the following in response to the latter: "You could just get the cuffs out whenever the customers came out.")

They have received two "serious" proposals from restaurants, and PCS now is performing due diligence and checking credit and references. Work would need to be done to the space to make them restaurant-ready, and the Board is looking into funding from the Portland Development Commissioner for some of the infrastructure improvements.

One of the restaurants in question has some sort of emphasis on baking, and it was suggested that the venting for such an operation could simply be right out onto the Square -- thereby enticing customers with the wafting aroma of cookies. As for the other restaurant, it's smells were descibed as "not as appealing".

There was also some discussion of the possibility of making some structural and design changes to the area immediately surrounding that retail location, including a "proposal to increase amount of glass space by modifying those stairs".

Oddly, we've suggested precisely that thing in the past, and have further suggested the possibility of conforming the design of that particular change to the visual elements of the Starbucks at the opposte corner of the Square. We'll have to wait several months to see if that concept mysteriously percolates through into reality as well.

Both restaurants are asking for associated seating above that retail spot -- which would therefore preclude the presence of the vendors who currently operate food carts in that location. "A lot of us think thats the good thing," said the Board's president (whose name, we confess, we were dumb enough not to notice). He went on to say that the carts are "not as aesthetically pleasing" and that he expected that the vendors will push back against the idea.

Personally, while we see the usefulness of having restaurant seating above that retail spot, we take issue with the notion that the food carts are some sort of blight upon the Square. To us, this reflects a belief that a public space such as the Square is meant somehow to be sterile, rather than reflect the gritty diversity of urban life. And we think that's the wrong belief system. In short: Whatever needs to be worked out with the potential restaurant, keep the food carts.

Transit Mall Revitaliation Project

At one point, there was supposed to be a "station as place" public workshop for the light rail stops planned at Pioneer Courthouse Square, which had been delayed until a time could be found which would allow the PCS Board to attend.

As far as we know, that workshop never happened. While certainly no substitute, the presentation by Doug Obletz of Shiels Obletz Johnsen and Anne Becklund of TriMet is the closest we've come to being able to see what the PCS Board thinks of the Transit Mall Rebitalization Project. Strangely, however, Obletz seemed to indicate that a couple of design workshops had taken place. If so, they were never posted to the TriMet website, and never mentioned via the email list they had set up for announcements of such meetings.

Which is disappointing, because there wasn't anything in the presentation Obletz and Becklund made to the PCS Board that we hadn't heard before. Nor was there any particularly new or insightful discussion from Board members in response to the presentation.

In essence, then, what we thought might turn out to be one of the more interesting portions of this Board meeting ended up being almost entirely irrelevant from a "newness" perspective.

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Comments (1)

  1. Trudy on 20 Feb 2005

    Yes, Pioneer Courthouse Square needs to retain "the gritty diversity of urban life." (well said). The carts have for many years been part of the feel of the downtown. Both visitors and downtown workers like the low cost, the fast service, and the portable lunch that can be eaten in Portland's variable weather, or carried to shelter. The suits on the Square Board who favor a lack of diversity might prefer a single, upscale restaurent, attacting upscale sorts. Perhaps they have not considered two things: first, current strollers on the square are not likely to stroll elsewhere, which might bother the new, less diverse customers of the new restaurant, seated where the booths used to be; second, it rains for about 9 months of the year! Why would we want to oust the booths, when for the majority of the year, the new customers of the ONE restaurant would not be able to eat outside anyway??