Axioms for the good life
Two civic leaders come up with a 12-point blueprint for betterment
John Russell thinks downtown parking lots are a waste of developable space, and he's adamant that Portland's street trees should be planted 'with caution and care.'
Greg Baldwin says Portland needs to 'civilize our freeways' and replace the Marquam Bridge with something that's less of an eyesore. Neighborhood schools, he believes, should be nurtured for their ability to build community.
Those thoughts reflect four of the dozen points in 12 Axioms, a call to action put together by civic leaders Russell, owner of Russell Development Co. Inc., and Baldwin, a partner in the architectural firm Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership.
In the last year, they have presented their vision to a variety of public bodies, including the Oregon Transportation Commission (of which Russell is a member), TriMet board, City Council, Planning Commission and Portland Development Commission (Russell is a former chairman).
The two longtime friends first discussed what became 12 Axioms a few years ago, on a sailing trip in the Caribbean. 'One topic persisted Ñ what would we have happen in Portland now, and before we died,' Baldwin says. 'John was more 'now' and I was more 'before I die.' Virtually every goal identified in the 12 Axioms was discussed.'
Transit ideas are key
About a year later, Russell approached Baldwin with the idea of preparing a simple document presenting their ideas. With the help of architects and urban designers Jerome Unterreiner and James McGrath, they put together a slide show and the 12 Axioms book, which features photographs and the axioms in a large format.
The limited-edition book is not available in stores.
The first axiom, 'Ban the word 'suburban,' ' is followed by such admonitions as 'Return our ghost highways to thriving streets,' 'Foster pride in the Oaks Bottom' Wildlife Refuge and 'Raise dramatically our expectations for our bicycle system.'
Four more axioms urge the use of light rail to build community, the building of a high-speed intercity rail system, investment in freight railroads to stimulate the economy and an extension of the streetcar system.
'One of the things I find really fascinating about what they put together is how much of our urban form and future is tied to transportation,' says Ethan Seltzer, outgoing president of the Planning Commission and director of Portland State University's School of Urban Studies and Planning. He called 12 Axioms a call to action 'that's inspiring but, in the true tradition of Portland, also provocative.'
Russell says the document 'stemmed from a belief that although voters claim they really want bold leadership, they don't behave as if they do Ñ they criticize people who come up with ideas they disagree with. So I just had the conviction that bold, controversial ideas had to come from people like Greg and me, who couldn't be fired or recalled.'
Commissioners lend an ear
Don Mazziotti, executive director of the Portland Development Commission, says commissioners were 'fascinated' by the 12 Axioms presentation. 'It's a very innovative way of looking at the development of cities,' he said, calling Baldwin and Russell 'two really great thinkers and doers in urban affairs.'
As for some of its recommendations, Mazziotti says the PDC views surface parking lots 'as our urban land bank,' and he says retaining neighborhood schools is 'probably the biggest challenge in the opus they've written. The problem is, it defies urban economics,' because as less affordable housing is available in urban areas, school populations drop, he says.
Baldwin says he's gratified at the progress made since they envisioned 12 Axioms, including developments on the transit mall, in the Brewery Blocks and along the South Waterfront's tram and streetcar lines.
Seltzer might not agree with every axiom: 'I'm a real fan of London plane trees; he's not going to sway me,' he says of Russell's contention that the downtown street trees, also called sycamores, should be pruned or replaced.
But with the 12 Axioms, Seltzer says, 'they've put together their version of why this place is worth the commitment and the passion and the struggle that it takes to make a real world-class place.'