Square's directors get earful of comments, many of them negative
After staging six public workshops on a proposal to build a $10 million seasonal ice rink in Pioneer Courthouse Square, it's up to the square's board of directors to decide what happens next.
'The reality of the rink project is, it's going to go if the community wants it. It's not going to go if the community doesn't want it to go,' said Greg Goodman, the board's president and one of the rink's key advocates.
The nonprofit Pioneer Courthouse Square Inc., which oversees the city park, has agreed to meet with opponents of the rink Ñ a posse of prominent Portlanders that includes real estate developers Tom Moyer and Melvin 'Pete' Mark, two former Portland Planning Commission presidents and members of the square's original design team Ñ before deciding whether to proceed at full speed, go slowly, or drop the rink idea.
'We're hoping to present some of our concerns and divert their attention from the project,' said rink opponent and architect Dave Soderstrom, who worked on the square with late partner Will Martin.
Soderstrom said he doubts that Goodman and other rink advocates will view what he termed a less than enthusiastic response at the workshops as a signal to reconsider the rink.
'We've hit them between the eyes with a relatively clean shot several times, and they sort of shake it off,' he said of attempts to derail the proposal.
Advocates think that the proposed 7,200-square-foot rink, which would be erected on the square for about four months a year, would draw crowds of people Ñ an extra 400,000, according to one estimate Ñ to downtown. Proponents hope that these crowds would boost retail business during the lackluster shopping months of January, February and early March.
Critics, however, view the rink idea as an attack on what the square is about.
'This battle to keep a faction of the business community from turning the square into something other than a public square for all the the people, all of the time, is not new,' said Gail Martin Rutherford, architect Martin's widow, recalling that some people initially wanted the square enclosed and not accessible to everyone.
The board has just finished the last of six public workshops on the proposal for the city park. Reaction among the 350 to 400 people who attended was mixed. At most of the workshops, attendees were encouraged to list advantages and disadvantages of the plan, and the list of cons was longer than the list of pros.
At the sixth and last workshop, held Tuesday, 'the strong feeling was that the square is kind of a people place for anybody and everybody, and the rink would be something for a small minority of the population Ñ even though they would be giving away free skating, it still wouldn't be for the masses,' said John Bentley, who was planning commission president when the square came into being.
Goodman repeatedly assured people at the workshops that no one on the square board would support the idea if it would take money from schools or police Ñ a response to comments indicating that this might not be the most politic time in Oregon history to suggest spending $10 million on something that would operate for four months a year and charge admission to the general public.
Rink supporters already had pledged almost $5 million toward construction and operation when the proposal first gained public attention last summer.
Goodman's business, City Center Parking Inc., pledged $1 million. The two business advocacy organizations that have merged into the Portland Business Alliance unanimously voted in favor of the rink.
Emphasizing that the rink would be privately financed and self-supporting, Goodman sees it as a way to parlay private donations into a project that will enliven the square as well as attract shoppers.
But some speakers at the workshops made it clear that they take the rink proposal personally.
'I have voted for every park measure for the last 15 years. If a downtown business organization can supersede our park without a vote, I am going to stop voting for parks,' Nancy Abrams said at a workshop last week at the Portland Police Bureau's East Precinct community room, attended by about 20 people. 'You're covering my park with an ice rink paid for by a business association.'
Still, Portland State University student Nancy Tobias, also at the East Precinct workshop, said she liked the combination of whimsy and technology in the rink design. 'I think if I went there, I would feel part of what was going on even without skating,' she said.
Goodman quoted from a survey paid for by the Portland Development Commission, which projects that as many as 90,000 people would be attracted to downtown to skate during the rink's four-month season. About half of those people would pay to skate; the others would skate for free, financed by various sponsorships, he said.
Some critics suggest that the numbers are overly optimistic, given that Lloyd Center's ice rink, which is almost twice as large as the one proposed for the square, attracts 52,000 skaters annually.
Rink foes also fear that Portland firm Zimmer Gunsul Frasca's ebullient concept for the proposed rink would clash with Will Martin's meticulously scaled design.
ZGF is proposing to protect skaters and the ice from the Oregon rain with six massive inside-out umbrellas, 'floating like a cloud over the square,' ZGF architect Greg Baldwin said at a workshop last week at the historic Kenton firehouse in North Portland.
The Zamboni, skate rental and concessions would be housed in what Baldwin called translucent 'ice cubes.'
The whimsy is apparent but not universally appreciated. Cameron Hyde, project architect during the square's construction, pointed out that several permanent features of the square Ñ the iron gates from the Portland Hotel, brick links between pillars along Southwest Morrison Street that are used as seats by MAX riders Ñ are gone in the ZGF designs.
And, Hyde grumbled, 'They're going to be out there mucking around with heavy equipment and concrete trucks and piles of bricks for months,' converting the square for the ice rink.
Former planning commission leader Bentley, a longtime construction company owner, said he gets nervous when he hears architects and owners using terms such as 'state of the art' and 'never been done before,' both terms that AGF architects have used in describing the umbrellas.
Combined with Goodman's frequent references to free skating, 'I begin to get a real sense that there's a budget to be busted somewhere,' he said.
He estimates that the rink and its six umbrellas would cover 85 percent of the square's plaza; rink supporters say the ice rink would occupy less than 20 percent of the entire square, which occupies a city block.
If built, the seasonal ice rink wouldn't be the first at Pioneer Courthouse Square. The first rink was smaller, portable and operated for five weeks in 1989 and again in 1990, while the Lloyd Center rink was being refurbished.
The 2,800-square-foot rink bustled with skaters in its first season. In 1990, 'we were hit by a huge ice storm, school was closed Ñ you didn't need a skating rink to skate on the square,' said Steve Cohen, the square's program director from 1989 to 1993.
'That, combined with the limited number of people who came the second year and the inclement weather Ñ as I remember, we barely broke even, even with the sponsorship.'
Cohen said square managers decided not to bring back the rink for a third year, although the bank underwriting it would have continued its partial sponsorship because it would have been financially risky for the nonprofit square corporation to operate.
The original plan
It was Portland parks activist Barbara Walker's idea, about two decades ago, to raise money for Pioneer Courthouse Square by selling personalized bricks.
Now, although she said she feels 'dreadful' about it, Walker is speaking out against the ice rink. She said she's fearful that the commercial activity occupying much of the square's open plaza would change the character of what's often called Portland's living room.
Walker headed the brick drive, which raised $500,000 and resulted in the square's plaza being paved with about 65,000 bricks engraved with the names of both famous folks and everyday citizens.
Brick buyers, she noted, got a certificate saying that they owned a piece of the center of downtown Portland.
'The spirit that was infused in that, and the sense of public ownership, I think, is a great deal of why (the square) became so successful,' said Walker, who served on the square's board of directors and did a stint as board president.
The square is so important to Portland that the proposed rink should debated fully in public, where alternatives could be considered and 'where we could build consensus,' she said.