"Amenity or boondoggle? A postcard shot or an eyesore? The answers lie in the approach: Will the tram be conceived and constructed as purely a transportation system or as a larger, comprehensive act of urban design? Will it be just an engineering solution or a timeless architectural gesture in the building of a better city?He framed questions that would elevate the debate above the usual NIMBY vs.The Developers feud, asking how a tram might "weave the currently isolated [OHSU] campus into the fabric of the city's economy" and improve access to the river, trails, and nearby attractive neighborhoods. Later in 2001, Gragg prodded the city more pointedly:
Now and not one moment later is the time to talk about design. And for such a pivotal project, we need to talk big. An endowment grant would be an important political and financial start toward the $300,000-plus required for a first-rate competition. But the payoff would be having some of the world's best architectural and engineering minds focused on the tram's problems and opportunities. What's more, it would reintroduce the idea of design competitions to the city.As he continued writing about the benefits of linking OHSU's hilltop campus with the waterfront, some people with a lot of clout – and land – got involved, including businessman Jay Zidell, whose family has owned riverfront property for decades, and developer Homer Williams. (The same crowd now is embroiled in some complex debates over how the waterfront is carved up, but that's another story.) They joined OHSU and a newly formed nonprofit, Portland Aerial Transportation Inc. (PATI), to fund a $300,000 design competition. As everyone knows, any decent city effort begins with a pile of money and an acronym, and the tram project was now off to the races. Good newspaper columnists serve readers in three ways: original observations, pointed (often irreverent) questions, and careful reporting. Some with mug shots next to their bylines work harder on the first two skills, relying on news accounts by fellow staff reporters instead of their own first-hand fact harvesting. Gragg's strength, along with a clear writing style, is the energy and depth of his reporting. Even those who disagree with Gragg's advocacy recognize those strengths. Anton Vetterlein, Portland designer and activist from the Homestead neighborhood near OHSU, was one of the reasoned voices raising concerns about the tram's effect on nearby residential areas. Like many of his neighbors, he is not happy about unaddressed transit, pedestrian bridge-construction, and freeway ramp changes that got tabled due to lack of money. But he does believe that the tram's innovative design benefits the city, and credits Gragg in large part. "It's been a controversial project, and it's appropriate that it's received a lot of coverage," Veterrlain said in a telephone interview. "He's the first person who articulated the need for a design competition, and he continued to champion that cause. That's to the project's benefit – in the end, we're all lucky that it is well designed, not just off-the-shelf." It took months for the OHSU gatekeepers to provide access to Edward Neuwelt, the professor, brain surgeon, and researcher who lures millions in grant monies to OHSU. Gragg followed along as Neuwelt power-walked between facilities. The image of this brilliant man, darting between buildings as he raced to find cures, made the case for the tram in an anecdotal style with wide reader appeal. Not all the neighbors were convinced, but plenty of other Oregonian readers were. A 2002 interview with Reed Kroloff, the national consultant who ran the international competition for the tram design, was another example of the columnist drawing on a primary source to benefit readers. Kroloff, a former editor-in-chief of Architecture magazine who'd become a professional manager of such competitions, summed up the complex project with useful succinctness when questioned by Gragg. His response is food for thought for any policy maker who wonders at the need for a top architect for a complex city project:
There is a technical problem to take people between the top and bottom of the hill. But underlying that is a much richer challenge: to connect two parts of the city while trying to ameliorate the difficulties of the neighborhood between. The top of the hill is jumbled. Here's an opportunity to create a transportation focal point. The bottom is undeveloped. Here's an opportunity to create a town square that will be the demarcation point for thousands of people. When given a problem, any strong architect tries to solve more than that problem.Once the design competition awarded Sarah Graham of the Swiss/American firm Angelil/Graham/Pfenninger/Scholl the job, it became clear that the cost of the tram would be millions over the original guess of $15.5 million. Gragg, who early on warned that the number would grow, kept readers up to date as the pricetag changed. He wrote about the final cost of $57 million, substituting a straightforward look at the project's stages rather than joining in with the predictable finger-pointing about the bottom line:
Graham captured the imagination of the jury and the public with her concept of "light infrastructure" – minimalist structures and bubble-shaped cars – and a wider set of connections between OHSU, the river and the long-abused neighborhood in between. The rest, of course, is tortured history.The original budget was based on something more like a ski-lift tram, not the "1 million pounds of cars and cables on a freestanding 80-foot tower, a feat of engineering never before accomplished." The designer, Gragg noted, infuriated some and earned the grudging respect of others when she stood her ground as proposed cost-saving measures threatened her concept. "Fifty-seven million is a lot, yes," says Gragg during an interview. "But remember that this thing has triggered close to a half-a-billion [dollars] in waterfront development, including a 19-acre donation by the Schnitizer family in 2004, for an OHSU campus. This all would not have happened without the tram project. And this isn't just about OHSU buildings, this is about the city's largest employer. This is about building two million square feet of classroom and lab space – a world-class, waterfront campus in the next 20 years." Gragg, of course, is not the only writer in town – or even the only writer at his newspaper – to cover the tram and related development. But his particular blend of original reporting and criticism of the dance of developers, design teams, bureaucrats, neighbors, OHSU personnel, and patients is in a class by itself. Last Sunday, April 9, he put to rest any notion that he might rest on his laurels by nudging the city, OHSU, and waterfront landowners to tie all this new development to some forward-thinking transit system and building-design plans. Once again, he is beating the drum for "a bold new form of urbanism." When he lets his inner artist trump the reporter for a moment, he hits it right on the head: "The opportunity to build a beautiful thing is constantly embattled. Every now and then when a straight shot gets through, it is great. You look at it and you can only say, 'Wow!'" "Wow" is indeed the most-often heard word inside the futuristic 12-ton cars, named Jean, for Jean Richardson, the first woman to graduate in civil engineering from Oregon State University, and Walt, for Dr. Walt Reynolds, the first black graduate of the University of Oregon Medical School, which became OHSU. The view from the cars is beyond stunning: a growing city on a river, banded by bridges, with mountains appearing and disappearing as the weather shifts. Watching the tram from the outside, silhouetted against the hillside, is nearly as breathtaking: a working piece of art carrying us, doubts and all, into a future.
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