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Tower designs a bad fit

Proposed condos would diminish park blocks
by: Special to, An artist’s rendering shows a view of the proposed Ladd Tower from the corner of Southwest Broadway and Columbia Street. The 21-story tower would share a block with the Historic Ladd Carriage House (bottom middle) and First Christian Church (bottom left), on the corner of Southwest Park Avenue and Columbia.

Mixed-use, high-rise development is turning downtown Portland into one of the country's liveliest and most successful residential neighborhoods. But the proposed Ladd Tower, a 21-story high-rise, is all wrong for a South Park Blocks location.

It would change the character of the South Park Blocks. It would alter the area's proportions and appearance and would set a troubling precedent. And it would require the demolition of the Rosefriend Apartments, with significant aesthetic and socioeconomic impact.

The Rosefriend is one of the few remaining early 20th-century buildings on Southwest Broadway. The elegant brick courtyard building is one of a handful of historic structures that lends a pedestrian and residential sensibility to a section of downtown that has come to be dominated by blank-wall and concrete/steel/glass canyonlike construction.

The demolition of the Rosefriend would represent a further loss of affordable housing in an area in which condo conversion and rapid development already have dramatically altered the income and social-class mix, squeezing out middle-income renters and creating a neighborhood inhabited chiefly by the very wealthy and the very poor.

The South Park Blocks constitute not just a unique space, but a unique public space. With the exception of the Roosevelt at the foot of the green stretch, there are no residential or commercial buildings in the four northernmost blocks. This beautiful, well-maintained public space has a constant traffic of strollers, dog-walkers, schoolchildren, museum visitors, symphony subscribers, churchgoers, and university staff and students that helps make the South Park Blocks a treasured civic amenity.

Locating a residential and commercial tower in the area risks fundamentally changing its character and the way it's used and perceived by the public. This public space should not be treated as just one more amenity that exists to enhance the marketability of a private condominium development.

The proposed 21-story tower would be grossly out of scale with surrounding buildings, the near-uniform heights of which gently frame the South Park Blocks and lend a pleasing proportionality. Except for the grotesque Ione Plaza at Portland State University, park blocks buildings are closely in scale with one another, none rising much higher than the top of the park's historic elms. With its looming, dominating height and mass, the Ladd Tower would dwarf all other buildings with park blocks frontage.

Three to seven times as tall as surrounding buildings, the Ladd Tower would create a boxed-in, claustrophobic effect that would detract from the symmetry of the park blocks' roof line and openness to the sky.

Like many who believe the Ladd Tower is poorly suited to the South Park Blocks, I'm generally a strong supporter of high-rise development downtown. I'm a big fan of the new Eliot Tower, another John Carroll development just two blocks away. But picture the Eliot's huge mass and height smack in the middle of the park blocks, with zero setback, and with three stories of ersatz-historical trim on the bottom, and you get the idea about what's at stake.

The Ladd Tower would signal a dramatic shift from chiefly nonprofit, open-to-all uses to privatized uses. It would represent an abandonment of the scale and aesthetic that make the South Park Blocks an attractive and highly utilized urban space. It would set a disturbing precedent, easing the way for further changes in the fundamental character and aesthetic impact of this unique public place.

Daniel Friedman is a retired college professor who lives in downtown Portland. He is a member of the Downtown Neighborhood Association Board of Directors; however, the views expressed in this article are his own.