The Portland Aerial Tram links Oregon Health and Science University with the city's South Waterfront. (Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett) Inset: Oregonian writer Randy Gragg. (Oregonian)
It’s overstating the case to credit Oregonian writer Randy Gragg for the sleek new Portland Aerial Tram, but without the acres of column inches he’s devoted to the project over the past seven years or so, the Swiss-made cars (named Jean and Walt for reasons to be explained later) and their dramatic span of cable between graceful towers would look a lot more like spare parts salvaged from ski lifts and old world’s fairs. Gragg pushed early and often for the sort of design competition that would produce a world-class project, warning against the throw-it-out-for-bid approach that marks most municipal undertakings. The tram, which began running in December, wasn’t and isn’t controversy-free. Homeowners living under it argued it would hurt property values and further marginalize their historic neighborhood, already sliced up by freeway expansion and other irritants of so-called progress. Some swear they will never ride the thing. Local bloggers have vented their spleen, too. “We urinate away millions of Portland transportation dollars every year running streetcars and an aerial tram … But we can barely spare a million, even on a one-shot basis, to help safety at those many eastside intersections where people are being killed in crashes,” is one of the milder entries on Jack Bog’s Blog, written by Jack Bogdanski, whose day job is law-school professor at Lewis & Clark College. Even some Portlanders who wanted the tram are still clucking over the final price tag of $57 million, angry that neighborhood and transit improvements intended to be part of the tram package aren’t happening. Yet no one who sees the futuristic silver cars glide along their air-path could fault the thing for sheer elegance of design. Gragg knows his urban design, drawing on years of what he calls “learning in public” as a critic, as well as wide-ranging formal study. He holds a master’s degree in fine arts in photography and was an arts writer in Seattle before joining the Oregonian in 1987 as its main arts critic. Within a decade, he moved into writing about design as a way to cover Portland’s character and growth. “Portland is not a capital-A architecture city,” says Gragg. “We build well, probably better than most. In part because so many contractors and developers live here, there isn’t so much fly-by-night work. But Portland doesn’t have the egos, the kind of people who lavish money on architecture. We’re not going to spend $80 million on a waterfront sculpture garden here.” His approach to understanding a city through design is one that, when described to the average newspaper editor, would be summarily rejected. In fact, brass at the O initially brushed off Gragg’s idea of such a column, worried, he says, that it would be “some tweedy, elbow-patched connoisseurship of architecture … but my idea was more about measuring a very idealistic city against its ideals and asking, ‘Is it able to fulfill these?'” He proceeded as determined reporters tend to, writing the stuff he wanted to write anyway, slipping it in between more usual arts critiques until gradually everyone came to see the wisdom of his pitch. Awards and professional recognition helped, too. By the time he cranked up his design beat, Gragg had already used a National Arts Journalism Fellowship at Columbia University to study architecture, and in 2005-06 had a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard. He began gathering string for a tram project back in the late 1990s, when city leaders and Oregon Health Sciences University officials rolled around a plan that included a tram to link the South Waterfront and the Oregon Health and Science University campus some 3,300 feet away, 500 feet above waterfront elevation. The Marquam Hill Plan, as it was called, eventually got the nod from the city, clearing the way for further, typically Portlandish processing. (Picture a gigantic potluck dinner, lasting years, without full agreement on the cuisine theme or appropriate portion sizes.) That’s where Gragg’s voice became key. Gragg has a healthy regard for a critic’s role – “someone said journalism is first draft of history but I think criticism really is” – but he’s a bit surprised when he looks at where all this column-ing led. “I was somewhat conscious that this was an issue that could go somewhere, but you know, plenty of ideas get tossed out when you write a column, and a lot of them never amount to anything,” he said. A critic like Gragg has to watch an ethical line with somewhat closer, or at least different, attention than a beat reporter might. Movers and shakers with a lot on the line are his regular sources as he evaluates development; buddies call for recommendations for a good architect to handle their garage-apartment remodels. “I try to find out what people want, and answer but not advocate. There’s a difference between advocating for individuals and advocating for choices.” In 2001, Gragg’s Oregonian column synthesized questions that got the ball rolling:
“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.