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Conversation With Tad Savinar, the Artist/Urban Design Consultant for Transit Mall in Portland

December 1, 2006

By Alison Ryan

Tad Savinar has high mileage. The artist and urban design consultant to the downtown Transit Mall redesign project put feet to pavement in a group effort to make the new mall more than a place to get on and off a bus.

For the in-the-works block-by-block – or “BBB” – redevelopment plan, concepts by project architect Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, project manager Shiels Obletz Johnsen, and a host of other thinkers were pushed out and filled in largely by Savinar taking to the streets.

“I took this series of walks,” he says. “The Transit Mall is 112 block faces. Sixty-six on Fifth and Sixth, between the train station and PSU basically. In all our design talks, we’d always talked about, ‘Should it be everything red from one end to the other, or, should the districts have different colors or different expressions?’ But this notion of 112 blocks … I just felt like something wasn’t ringing true.”

He started exploring the area by foot – and by eye.

“I started looking at the mall in 20-foot increments – really little pieces. Because that’s how you experience it when you’re walking. You don’t walk 112 blocks. You walk three. And I recorded all the existing conditions: Where the sunlight comes from. Where you have views to the river or the West Hills. Where you might see the lights of the performing arts center at night. Where there are empty storefronts or where there are bad awnings or bad urban conditions. I put it all into this giant inventory and then stepped back and thought, OK, if one was going to improve all of those things, how would they go about it?”

DJC: By improving the mall 20-foot increment by 20-foot increment?

Tad Savinar: Yeah, kind of. I mean, it’s a good sound bite. So the first thing, after we had that inventory, we then photographed every single block face. So we have every single block face in its existing condition. Then I developed like a little tool kit, of about 20 items that could be applied, either through partnerships with PDC or design review or whatever.

DJC: What kind of tools? Like benches or actual physical things?

Savinar: Well, there are some things, like awning replacement, where there’s an overbearing awning – let’s replace it with a transparent awning. Special facade lighting. Power-washing some of the buildings. Perpendicular signage, so that as you walk down the street you can see what’s there, because most of the signs face the other side. Vertical banners on buildings that are a little oppressive – that could use some softening.

Storefront improvements – this is just an example of how a store could glow from within, because a lot of the storefronts don’t have that. There was a retail consultant we heard who said each storefront window should be like a hearth, or like a fireplace, that draws you toward its warmth. This is just really suggesting that the stores all need to operate that way.

Transit leaning rails – in my inventory of the existing conditions of all the blocks, I found that a lot of buildings had blank walls that were never going to change, adjacent to a transit stop. Or, there was a landscaping element or something. So I thought, well, if we put a rail that somebody could lean against and wait for transit, it would pull them away from the storefront windows, where you don’t want them to wait. And even some of the buildings have awnings and overhangs that allow a person to wait adjacent to the building. So it’s a way of starting to sprinkle or disperse the transit riders across the block, rather than just one location.

Then, this thing called “Tad Pads” – I wonder where we got that name – which is, if you imagine, a kind of tall, small cafe table with a round tabletop. People work on their laptops in Starbucks, and they do it in lobbies of buildings and such, so why can’t they do it on the street? With the advent of the Wi-Fi cloud and the new technology in non-reflective screens, why can’t people do their PDA or their laptop outside?

A traveling salesman, out of town, needs a place to set up when it’s nice. Do a crossword puzzle, set a coffee mug, whatever. So we looked at locations adjacent to transit stops where there would be kind of a high occupancy rate in office towers that would maybe promote that.

There is a 7-11 from Taiwan that’s actually open to the air, like a booth or a kiosk. So we started looking at different buildings that have opportunities or locations where we could put an open-to- the-air service actually on the streets. Vendor carts – there are locations where the sun comes on to a certain block at noon, and there’s an office tower or two adjacent that would produce enough population.

Different lighting – can we light the facades of buildings in a way that actually gets the building to participate at night in the city?

So we took that approach, and we have the toolkit of these 20 items, and then I went back and looked at every single block, to figure out where you could do that.

Savinar’s transformed his street time into a digital presentation – and an outsized booklet of maps – that outlines what could be for the 112-block stretch of Portland.

“This is the Red Star Block,” he says, pointing to an on-screen shot of the eatery. “They actually have two doors that come out of the restaurant and onto the street that they’re not currently using. So I said, let’s pull three of these awnings off and put some new signage here. Let’s do an outdoor cafe – maybe the project runs the propane, plumbing. You do the cafe, we’ll do the heating.

“And then by Dosha, this transit shelter comes away, and these two windows, they’re very nice windows, but behind them is a wall that has their storage behind, so they’re not active windows. So I said, let’s go in two feet, do a roll-down door, put a flower stand in. Add twinkle lights to the trees to move on. It’s really a very simple approach, that’s part from the initiative of the transit project and part from the initiative of the owner of the building.”

The series of graphic maps he’s made cover downtown’s discourse with residents and visitors, in areas from shopping to nightlight to tenant recruitment.

“It’s not an isolated entity,” he says of the mall. “Everyone walks the Transit Mall but also goes out east and west. I started creating a series of study maps, which I called trending maps. … We need to remember that it’s not just retail. People come downtown for all kinds of reasons. They come down to study, they come down to partake in culture, they come down to live, they bring their friends and show them downtown. There’s lots of things. People always talk about retail. But there’s 19 churches west of Broadway. We need to think of downtown as a full-service space.”

Fixes, he says, can be micro – but valuable.

“All of this is common sense. It’s not rocket science,” he says. “The whole thing is based on what exists today, what’s working today, what are the patterns, and can we fertilize or strengthen those by really simple moves as opposed to giant whole-district redevelopment? There’s value in that, but this is a very small approach.”

DJC: Did it all begin with the new Transit Mall, or is it something that’s taking place simultaneously?

Savinar: I think it’s both. What happens with light rail is really a land-use tool, so people begin to live and work around stations. So as our system grows, more people will be congregating around these station areas. So they’ll be coming to downtown for these other things.

The more we begin to connect the dots, the stronger it’ll be. My contract is with the mall, but when you come to the mall, you’re not just on the mall. There’s no barbed-wire fence that doesn’t let you go anywhere. And a lot of those amenities are off the mall. So how do we begin to connect that?

DJC: Where’s the process at, in terms of the Transit Mall design?

Savinar: For the architecture in the Transit Mall, I think that’s actually Dec. 13, so we’re right on it. We’re at 95 percent construction documents – that’s right on schedule. That’ll then be sent to Washington for funding.

DJC: And the concept is still a series of outdoor rooms?

Savinar: I think it’s still valid. It was interesting; as I said, it’s kind of been an organic process. One group does a study, then you take what you’ve learned from that group and move it on. So the whole “station as place” and “urban rooms” theory was the foundational work that was done.

When we got into it, we realized that, rather than say you’re in the financial district with glass and steel, and you’re in the arts district with pumpkins and whatever, that maybe what we really should work at is how can the existing uses there become extroverted as much as possible. So that when you arrive, it’s not about the architecture that’s green or purple, it’s the place you’ve arrived in. The architecture of the stations has become extremely transparent: glass and single supports.

DJC: It’s more about experiencing what’s around you rather than the actual shelter space.

Savinar: When they built this Transit Mall, originally they built those shelters as a shelter, a house. And that was what was needed then. But what’s needed now is not a symbolic gesture from architecture. It’s the city that’s on stage here.

So everything has been designed with the intent to let the city reveal itself, which is kind of contrary to saying, ‘OK, we’re in the purple district now.’ Just let the district be. Why put purple on top of it?

So that has really morphed into, rather than station as place, place as place.

Walking down the existing Sixth Avenue bus mall, Savinar spots the potential.

“See, here’s a great place – you see the building has overhang, so people could wait for transit back here,” he says. The existing shelter structure goes away. A “Tad Pad” gets added. And the project moves forward another block.

“Oh, here’s a place where we’ve got a really grand historical building, but its scale to the pedestrian is a little overbearing,” he says, looking at the U.S. National Bank building. “So ZGF is looking at ways, in the actual construction drawings, to set the planters up, so it kind of creates a more formal edge. … We need to try and maybe gang a bunch of things together to give it a better presence, do some lighting enhancements, a work of public art someplace in between the two buildings to get some scale on it. If you really start looking at it, you just think, how do I feel in this 20 feet, or 50 feet, and what would make the experience better?

How can we begin to animate? We have this work of art that’s not very, this kind of disc thing. That’s probably not the best place for it. It’s dark, we need something more colorful or reflective here. And the shelter can go away, maybe some benches. And try and reinforce the entry to this building. Things like that.”

Rounding the corner to Southwest Fifth Avenue, he sees another quick fix.

“This block where the food trailers are, we’re going to put a fence,” he says. ” It’s not going to run the whole block, but segmented fence along the curb, with a leaning rail, so that you can buy some food. Right now, it’s just an open edge. But if there was containment there, people would be free to sit down, on table and chairs, or lean against it.”

DJC: There’s such perception, I think, of that you travel to get somewhere, but once you get there, the transit and the being is completely separate. Because who wants to hang around at the bus mall? But you all are trying, it seems, to change the thinking about get there and get out of there.

Savinar: Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, I was working with them on the westside light rail in the ’90s, my first system, and (ZGF partner) Greg Baldwin said something that I’ve always remembered, which is, “The train comes in and it operates like a train for about 30 seconds. And then it leaves. All the other times, the station has to be a part of the neighborhood. It becomes a transit station only when people are waiting and getting on the vehicle. The rest of the time it’s part of the street.”

I think that’s really a theory or philosophy that’s been encouraged. To think about letting buildings be the principal actor. That’s meant reduce the additional architecture. ZGF has done an amazing job.

Like here (along the bus mall on Southwest Sixth Avenue), you have a certain kind of rhythm of patterns of the trash can and the sign and all this stuff. We’re not doing that. They are designing each station block individually, to make sure they’re not putting something in front of a door, sprinkle it out, so it’s not that kind of rigid patterns. It lets the activities and the storefronts and the entries to buildings really determine where signage goes, where benches go, where planters go. It’s a very different approach.

DJC: What’s ahead, in terms of financing and timeline, for the BBB project?

Savinar: It’ll take place over a number of years, like three years, but it’s not a very expensive program. Awnings, storefront improvements –

DJC: . . . power-washing.

Savinar: Right! We’re working with PDC, in terms of their existing storefront improvement program, already. And that really provides opportunities. We’re talking to the property owners to get them to work with us on that.

DJC: How has the buy-in been?

Savinar: It’s as efficient as it could be right now. But we’re moving into the future. That’s, I think, the key, is to get people to understand that it’s going to have a different flavor. And I also think that the younger generation is getting more aggressive about what their cities should provide. I don’t mean in the way of services, but how they behave in a city. Longer hours, more things open, more fun. So along with this kind of transparent architecture, sleeker vehicles, you begin to see a different kind of downtown.

DJC: The BBB improvements seem like they’re directed both at the businesses and the actual users of the transportation.

Savinar: One would hope. If it works at a higher level of urban design efficiency, and people are more comfortable going there more often, then they’re going to spend their money more.

I mean, it’s all going to be a different experience. There’s something like 140 buses on the Transit Mall now, at peak hour. With the addition of light rail, we’ll reduce to 90 buses at peak hour. In 2015, the theory is that, with the addition of the next light- rail line, we will then begin to be able to reduce to 70 at peak hour.

Imagine this place with less noise, less exhaust, modern vehicles, bigger windows. Downtown becomes a place that’s not about those buses anymore, as much. It’s hard for me, right now, to convince someone to put a sidewalk cafe out on the bus mall. But when you begin to realize that it’s interspersed with light rail, which is a much quieter vehicle, it creates a kind of lively urban aspect to the city that’s additive. Downtown will become a different place.

(c) 2006 Daily Journal of Commerce (Portland, OR). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.