History of the Portland Mall

Portland: the city of transit “firsts”

In Portland, we have a long tradition of discovering better ways to get from here to there. For example, the nation’s first interurban electric streetcar system began here in 1893, connecting Portland and Oregon City. And the first flight of U.S. airmail service, with service from Portland to Vancouver, began in 1912.

Just like the rest of the nation, Portland embarked on a post-World War II binge of affordable land and plentiful cars and gas. Transit ridership plummeted from the late 1940s to the 1970s, but those were boom years for air pollution and traffic congestion. Then “the city that works” became one of the first to recover.

1973: Voters reject Mt. Hood Freeway

In late 1973, voters rejected the proposed Mt. Hood Freeway, which would have uprooted neighborhoods along US 26 in Southeast Portland. The following year, Oregon adopted tough new emissions standards for cars. In downtown Portland, new parking limits, along with the advent of Fareless Square (TriMet’s fare-free zone,) helped restore public transit as an attractive choice.

1978: Portland Transit Mall opens

That set the stage for another Portland first: The nation’s first mall with one-way streets intended specifically for mass transit — the Portland Transit Mall — opened in 1978.

It was among the first of its kind in the nation, spanning 22 blocks on 5th and 6th avenues through the high-density office and retail/commercial core of Portland’s city center.

The Mall immediately received international attention as a model for transit and downtown redevelopment. It was recognized for its exceptional design quality and its strategic and operational innovation. Over the next decade, the Mall was celebrated as a prototype for redeveloping an urban center using transit as a major catalyst.

1994: North Mall expansion

In 1994, the Mall was extended seven blocks north into the Old Town/Chinatown District, linking the original Mall with Portland’s intermodal transportation center at Union Station. The design of the original Mall was replicated as closely as possible, although the narrower right-of-way north of Burnside provided a little less space for transit and pedestrians.

What worked…

  • Dedicating two of the four most important downtown streets to transit and making them the heart of a new reoriented regional transportation system: Most cities developing bus malls at the same time as Portland’s either selected less critical streets, or focused on traditional operational concepts. These malls were not as successfull as Portland’s. Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street, Washington’s F & G Streets, Chicago’s State Street, and even Minneapolis’ Nicollet Mall, were removed or completely redesigned because, unlike the Portland Mall, they were unable to simultaneously enrich a downtown and a transit system.
  • Setting a new standard for civic design in Portland: The Portland Mall has been recognized with the highest architectural design awards given. It was the first public street or place ever to receive a National Honor Award by the American Institute of Architects. Today, with its newly redesigned shelters, public art and meticulously resolved surface materials, it remains Portland’s benchmark for design quality.
  • Guiding and stimulating redevelopment near the Mall: Ten years after its completion, the Mall was responsible for leveraging $30-$50 of public and private redevelopment for every dollar of its original capital cost. At the time, the leverage standard adopted by cities such as Boston, New York and San Francisco ranged from only $3 to $5. Most of the investment stimulated bythe Portland Mall was along its south end and at its northern terminus.
  • TriMet’s unique leapfrog bus operation: The efficient “weave” of buses coming and going allows the Portland Mall to accommodate more buses per hour than any other downtown transit street in the country.

…and what didn’t

Two characteristics of the Portland Mall have compromised its ability to sustain and expand its contribution to downtown and to transit.

  • Lack of downtown community stewardship: The Mall never achieved the kind of stewardship from its adjacent community that wasn critical to the success downtown of MAX and the Portland Streetcar. The downtown community was asked to “grit its teeth” and accept the Portland Mall and its extraordinary construction impacts. By contrast, the downtown community offered to invest in, guide the development and help maintain the success of both MAX and the Streetcar.
  • Deteriorating facilities due to deferred maintenance: The major maintenance of the Mall was deferred for the more than 15 years while its future was debated. During that time, several renovation and improvement programs were conceived, designed and nearly funded — but never executed. As a result, Portland’s two most durable and carefully designed streets were allowed to deteriorate.

Ready for revitalization

By 2006, the 30-year-old Mall was showing its age. Despite widespread acknowledgement of its successes, crumbling facilities, growing maintenance costs and uninviting areas continued to limit its civic value.

Downtown Portland has three principal public spaces that invite and accommodate the citizens of our region: Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Pioneer Courthouse Square and the Portland Mall. Two of the three have been repeatedly renovated and improved throughout their lives. The time was right for the Mall to receive that same attention.

While adding the MAX Green Line service downtown along 5th and 6th avenues, a number of improvements were made to the Portland Transit Mall, including renovated streets, sidewalks and storefronts, new brick intersections, street furniture, landscaping and redesigned bus and MAX shelters, to name just a few. The project was completed in September 2009.