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Such Great Heights

Portland's New Tram Could Be Just What Portland Needs to Grow Up



"This is huge for Portland," says Bobby Scarbrough, standing on the lower aerial tram platform in the South Waterfront District, and gesturing at the shiny silver bubble of a car gliding down the hill toward us.

Scarbrough is the tram "concierge"—he greets passengers at the station, answers tourists' questions, and has already witnessed first hand the impact it could have on the city. It opens to the public this weekend, but already "people love it," he says, beaming.

Indeed, as Scarbrough describes what the sunrise looks like from mid-air ("there's nothing more beautiful"), two women— possibly tourists, already making a pilgrimage to the tram—coo over how the curvy car "looks like a little character." They take turns posing for pictures in front of it.

The twin cars will have to endure plenty of flashbulbs this weekend: It only took two hours for every free ride slot—5,000 of them—to book up. The tram, Portland's newest mode of transportation, is certainly popular, and it'll definitely give visitors another stop on their tour of our city.

The tram's project manager, Art Pearce from the Portland Office of Transportation, arrives to escort me on the tram. He rattles off the mechanics and statistics of the system as we wait for the next car to arrive. It's a "bi-cable reversible aerial tram," with one car at each end of a 7,000-foot-long loop of "haul rope." When one car goes up the hill, the other descends, suspended from two cables as it floats over the Lair Hill neighborhood, clears the 197-foot tower next to the Ross Island Bridge, and docks at the lower station.

We step in, and I grab one of the poles in the open car, bracing for a jolt as we leave the station. It doesn't happen, and before I know it, we've popped up out of the station, and are smoothly climbing the hill. It's a 3,300-foot, four-minute ride, Pearce tells me (we're not at full speed). Once we dock at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) on top of Marquam Hill, we'll have climbed over 500 feet. It's a lot of large numbers to digest.

And the tram is actually bigger than all of that. It's not just a pricey—$55 million, at last count—way to get from point A to point B. The tram is symbolic of Portland's future—a potential inspiration, one that could lead to bigger and bolder architecture, citizens more comfortable with urban growth, and a figurative spot on the map for Portland as a city. And it's got the best view, as a bonus. At night, Scarbrough told me, it's magical.

In Portland, plans for any building over 20 stories causes a stir—witness the controversy over the proposed Allegro condos in Goose Hollow, the Ladd Tower planned for the South Park Blocks, the condos surrounding the lower tram station, and the recently announced Tom Moyer building slated to displace the Virginia Café. (Hell, mention the bustling, thriving Pearl District, and plenty of Portlanders still groan with dismay.) Standard urban changes, like infill, increased density, or new parking meters—things happening to mitigate Portland's growth—are often met by opposition from neighbors. It's enough to make Portland feel like a backwater town, where the locals resent newcomers, and anything that's happened since Bud Clark was mayor is blamed on those crazy urban planners and Californians.

The tram wasn't able to escape controversy, either. When the budget zoomed from $15 to $55 million (the city's share leapt from $5 to $8.5 million in PDC funds, with OHSU and private developers picking up the rest), there was the predictable outcry. Neighbors in the path of the tram jumped on the anti-tram wagon too, complaining that riders would stare down into their yards all day (and catch people sunbathing, no doubt). Even people who travel I-5—the tram crosses the freeway—came up with a reason to moan: Drivers gawking at the tram will cause traffic jams.

From the tram, however—as it silently drifts back and forth, from the river to the top of the city—all of those issues seem small. The city hasn't ground to a halt because $8.5 million was diverted to the tram, and frosted glass on the bottom half of the tram car windows direct your gaze out over the city (indeed, even without the glazing, the panoramic view is far more interesting than Lair Hill backyards). And traffic along I-5? It flows along as usual.

At the top, where the tram meets the ninth floor of OHSU, it's hard to imagine there are many higher spots in the city. I can see over Big Pink and the Wells Fargo Center, the city's tallest buildings. The Fremont Bridge—not to mention the Marquam, Hawthorne, Burnside, and other bridges—is diminutive. I have trouble finding the convention center's spires. Mt. Tabor looks like a rolling hill. I'm pretty sure I can see Gresham from here.

This is where the inspiration kicks in. From up here, downtown's towers look small. Portland's architecture is all but invisible—little rises to the top, literally. I imagine a downtown Portland—and an Inner Southeast, a Lloyd District, an Alberta, Mississippi, 82nd, and Interstate—10 or 15 years from now, skylines changed by taller buildings, perhaps drafted by architects who make it to the top of the tram and see what's missing.

I envision a Portland where neighbors don't automatically launch letter-writing campaigns against mixed-use buildings, because they too have glided to the top of the hill, and now see the obvious—that a six-story building ain't no thing. I hope for a Portland where curmudgeonly old-timers—those who think the city reached its peak in 1972, when the Wells Fargo Center opened—sit back to listen to the newcomers, who have grand plans and big ideas for this place. And those big ideas, they realize, won't ruin the city.

Pearce, and the city officials who had a hand in building this tram, get it.

"It's incredibly futuristic and inventive," he says, standing on an OHSU balcony that skims the tram platform, where we can watch the cars come and go, the river glinting hundreds of feet below, beyond ripples of evergreens. They wanted to "build a very special tram. A world-class tram," he says. "Portland's architecture could use a little jolt at times."

Portland could also use a landmark, something that gives us a spot on the map. No one ever says, "Oh, you're from Portland? Don't you just love the Portlandia Statue?" the way they fondly recall cities with, well, an actual symbolic anchor. New York has the Statue of Liberty. Los Angeles, the Hollywood sign. Seattle got a Space Needle in the '60s. An arch rose over St. Louis in 1935. Around the world, there's the London eye. Everyone knows Paris' Eiffel Tower.

While none of these necessarily add a tangible value to their city—the Hollywood sign certainly didn't launch the movie industry, and Seattle probably would have boomed in the '90s, Space Needle or not—they mark their homes, and stake them out as cities. But landmarks do more than make a nice frame for a postcard. They serve as reminders that a city has dreams, a vision for the future, and a willingness to occasionally go out on a limb.

As I drove up I-5 from Salem a few weeks ago—returning to the city on a Monday evening after a holiday with my family—I rounded the last of the Terwilliger curves. Usually, I crane for my first peek of downtown—my signal that I'm home, back in my comfortably unfamiliar urban zone, where I don't always know what's going to happen next.

This time, the tram's tower came into view. That's when I knew I was home.


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