2.ink Studio: The NE Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard Gateway and Heritage Markers Project supports the ongoing efforts of area residents and business owners to highlight the unique identity of Portland’s inner north and northeast neighborhoods. 2.ink Studio Landscape Architecture led a multidisciplinary team in both Master Planning and Design, working closely with neighborhood activists to create a landmark gateway and plaza that denotes entry into these historically rich neighborhoods and shares the history of their diverse residents.
The site context is five adjoining neighborhoods, linked by a forty block stretch of NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and terminating in a remnant property owned by the City of Portland. Surrounded by heavy vehicular traffic and a mix of underdeveloped commercial properties, this terminating site marks the convergence of a couplet including NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and NE Grand Avenue. The result is two small parcels disconnected from the urban fabric, but highly visible from this primary arterial roadway. This convergence also marks a transition from the highly commercial Convention Center and Lloyd Center Districts, into the historically rich residential neighborhoods and small businesses of inner northeast Portland.
Collectively referred to as the Albina District, these neighborhoods have historically served as home to numerous interwoven, but also competing, communities including Native American, Irish, Scandinavian, African American, German Russian, and Eastern European immigrants. Each group created strong centers of place through their churches, businesses, and neighborhoods. It’s not uncommon in this district to find deeply rooted African American churches with German inscriptions on the church foundations.
Historic events have both challenged and galvanized these often migrant communities. World War II, the Great Depression, the Vanport flood, and the Civil Rights Movement all fostered dramatic physical and social changes. Both national and local heroes arose as well, contributing to these communities finding a strong civic voice. Contemporary events have continued to bring change to the Albina District. Demolition for, and construction of, the Memorial Coliseum in 1956 took place in what was once the oldest part of the well-established African American community. In the 1960’s the construction of Interstate 5 again fractured neighborhoods and communities. Most recently, rising home prices and gentrification have further influenced community transition. In spite of these ongoing urban renewal pressures, jazz clubs, hair salons, and other cultural icons have continued to anchor the neighborhoods.
2ink’s role was to listen carefully to the diverse and at times competing community stories, and identify themes that spoke not only to the common experiences of these groups, but also respected the unique pride, character and challenges that they individually identified with. Once these themes were identified, it fell to the landscape architect’s design team to develop a physical form and narrative to carry these stories forward, as well as to create a gathering space in which to begin a civic dialogue about what these stories mean for both past and future residents. During a series of nearly thirty public meetings and events that stretched over a three year period, the design team developed a Concept Master Plan that set a direction for developing community stories along the 40 block streetscape, as well as laying the foundation for the creation of a civic space and gateway landmark at the remnant property marking the convergence of NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The landscape architect led all public outreach activities including interactive community charrettes, a series of Public Open Houses, and participation in neighborhood events throughout the year. Working with a historian who resides in the neighborhood, a graphic design team, engineers, a technical advisory committee encompassing City development bureaus and a diverse community stakeholder group, the design team ultimately developed a site design to address three primary community goals:
• Create a clear threshold announcing arrival into a unique neighborhood district
• Preserve, interpret and celebrate the diverse history of the area’s cultural communities
• Develop a gathering space for the preservation and exhibition of community stories
The final Gateway Plaza site presented many challenges including how to create a comfortable plaza surrounded by fast moving traffic and with adjacent architecture that does little to activate the space. The existing context was also dominated by large billboards, power lines, and had poor pedestrian connections. In addition, the desired location for creating a gateway experience was located in the middle of a difficult S-Curve in an arterial roadway.
The design response introduced a sculptural scrim wall that shelters a modest civic plaza within one curve, before being bisected by northbound lanes in its reverse curve. Fast moving traffic breaks through the line of the wall, while the scrim of punched weathered steel embraces the plaza. Weathered steel was selected for its historic reference to the Albina District’s wartime ship building industry that instigated large-scale immigration to the area as well as the materials durability in this intensely urban environment. Fabrication of a double panel of punched steel provided transparency through the scrim for safety while creating a shimmering moiré’ pattern for passing traffic. Lit from within, the scrim created a gateway presence 24/7, also referencing the vitality of the district’s nightlife. The scrim supports a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that spans both the primary northbound segment and the smaller terminating southbound segment. In entirety the quote reads “I believe…they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” referencing the common hope of shifting communities that have called this area home. Broken when the scrim crosses traffic lanes, the full quote can only be fully read by both entering and exiting the district. Planting further unifies the site with textural grasses catching the motion of passing traffic and hardy perennials providing subtle seasonal color. Large trees shade the plaza and vegetated bioswales filter run-off from the hardscape. The planting palette is repeated at the smaller median parcel, further strengthening the threshold experience.
Rising up behind the scrim, a series of Heritage Markers hold communities stories and imagery. Also constructed of weathered steel and lit from within, these twenty foot markers serve as beacons to on-coming traffic as well as hinting at the plaza behind the scrim. Cut into the steel of each Heritage Marker is one of four themes identified in the community process: Community, Civil Rights, Immigration and Migration, and Commerce and Culture. At pedestrian height, each Heritage Marker supports interpretive panels that carry images and stories of the many communities that have called this place home. It is the design team’s hope that both the Gateway scrim and the Heritage Markers will support on on-going dialogue about what it has meant to reside in the district as well as to begin to frame an understanding for how this areas many communities may continue to move forward.
Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard Gateway
Landscape Architecture: 2.ink Studio
Location: Portland, Oregon
Area: Portland, Oregon
Text & photos: 2.ink Studio