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A catchy George Jetson idea

With a tram design in place, city turns attention to financial details

Now the city has to figure out how to pay for it all.

The aerial tram design that won out this week in a competition that drew entries from all over the world is part and parcel of what will be the largest economic development project in Portland's history.

AngŽlil/Graham/Pfenninger/Scholl Architects, a Los Angeles- and Zurich-based team, was selected Wednesday to design the $15.5 million tram project, which has been called the linchpin of the South Waterfront development.

The 30 acres of biotech research facilities, private offices, apartments, condos, streets and lights slated to go with it will cost upward of $2 billion in public and private funds, said Portland Development Commission Executive Director Don Mazziotti.

The Los Angeles team won out in part because its conception of the tram was one that sought to conceal it from neighbors who treasure their Mount Hood views.

The design was the unanimous choice of a six-person jury that included Portland architect Robert Frasca and management consultant Diana Goldschmidt. It was the culmination of a process that began late last year with 16 invited entries.

The PDC, which is overseeing the redevelopment of what now is an industrial area next to the Willamette River, is in negotiations with Oregon Health & Science University and Williams & Dame Development Inc., the group headed by local developer Homer Williams.

The development agreement hammered out by the group will stipulate who pays for the estimated $90 million worth of features at the development site. The tram construction makes up $15.5 million of that total, with estimated operation costs of about $1 million. OHSU is expected to pick up the bulk of the tram costs.

'We're talking about what it will take to get this going Ñ streets, sewers, lights, park components and the tram,' said Gordon Davis, a consultant working with Portland Aerial Transportation Inc. 'The question is who will do what in terms of payment and responsibilities.'

'There are still many technical issues to resolve before we have a development agreement in hand,' Mazziotti said. 'It's moving deliberately, and I'm very hopeful we'll have an agreement by late spring.'

It's uncertain if TriMet will operate the tram, since it will not be a commuter facility but primarily a vehicle for OHSU staff to travel between the university's Marquam Hill and South Waterfront campuses. A new OHSU administration building will be at the heart of what city leaders intend to be a medical research and bioscience district.

The tram will 'have lasting positive impact on our city,' Commissioner Jim Francesconi said at a news conference on the design. 'At a time when friends and family are out of work, it's a chance to create jobs.'

The North Macadam neighborhood that recently was renamed the South Waterfront is expected to generate thousands of jobs with the construction of two hotel-conference centers, restaurants, condos, retail and a maritime center, among other buildings.

Neighbors fear costs

Corbett, Terwilliger and Lair Hill neighborhood groups Ñ the people over whom the tram will pass Ñ believe its costs are understated. They have no qualms about the waterfront redevelopment, but they are concerned about the traffic it will generate.

'North Macadam will not succeed or fail because of the tram,' said Larry Beck, a resident of the neighborhood under the tram. 'The tram is a catchy George Jetson idea and billboard for OHSU. Do what you need to do to develop the area, but take care of the transportation needs.'

Supporters of the tram say the strength of the AngŽlil/Graham design is the brushed metal cars that 'disappear' into the sky. The orb-shaped cars travel down Marquam Hill before dipping under the tram's grass-covered landing on Southwest Gibbs Street. The tram's structural proposal includes two towers of wood laminates, with the weight of the nine-story upper tower supported by a smaller 185-foot lower tower.

The preliminary design is subject to change over the next few months as the architects meet with the tram's planners, Portland Aerial Transportation Inc. Davis predicted more definite designs would be complete in late fall, with construction documents to follow. Construction would start in late 2004, he said.

Besides AngŽlil/Graham, three other internationally known firms were finalists in the design competition. They were Sharples Holden Pasquarelli (SHoP), New York; UN Studio, Amsterdam; and Guy Nordenson and Associates, New York.

On the jury with Frasca and Goldschmidt were architects Thomas Hacker of Portland, Frano Violich of Boston's Kennedy & Violich, New York City engineer Charles Hoberman and Berkeley, Calif., landscape architect Walter Hood.

Praise for approach

'We're absolutely delighted,' said the winning firm's Sarah Graham, who started her career in Portland under the late architect Will Martin, designer of Pioneer Courthouse Square.

'The next step is not ours, but agreements with the city, hospital and waterfront about how they'll be collaborating,' she said.

The firm was praised for an approach that was light in spirit and fit well in the context of the Portland community.

Barbara Walker, a community representative on the tram planners' board, said Graham's previous ties to Portland didn't advance her cause with the jurors, but they did help 'in her understanding the sensibilities of Portland.'

In reducing the tram's impact on the view, Graham said, 'You have your icon; it's Mount Hood.

'This is transportation infrastructure; it should be elegant, but there is no reason for it to be overly heroic. Mount Hood is heroic. A tram is not a place for the overly ornamental.'

Contact Kristina Brenneman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..