The Portland Riverfront that Almost Was

While browsing the city of Portland’s auditor’s website, I recently stumbled upon a rare image with which I was previously unfamiliar. Portland’s history of halting harmful highways like the Mt. Hood Freeway and Harbor Drive is well documented. In the 1960s, bright citizens enforced the power of community organizing to radically alter the trajectory of our city, furthering a proud tradition of building livable, communal spaces connected by streets constructed for human beings.

I live for learning secret histories, hidden places, the thoughts and plans for superior spaces that used to be, or never were. Moving to Portland eight years ago compelled me to inquire why Portland was such a sought after city to reside in, as opposed to the maddening sprawl of Houston or gridlock of Atlanta. Learning the history of Harbor Drive and the Mt. Hood Freeway taught me more than just how transit dictates the kind of urban space you can enjoy. This education taught me we don’t achieve these socially positive outcomes by default – they require hard grassroots work by regular people, by activists, by mothers and fathers and children, too.

The critical mass of citizen revolt that brought about the demise of Harbor Drive and heralded the birth of Tom McCall Waterfront Park was certainly a critical chapter in Portland’s history. But the story of how the west side of the river was restored to people doesn’t start here. For that chapter, you’d have to go back to 1932.

Illustrated as part of the Bartholomew Report, the image below shows the west downtown waterfront looking much like the public park we enjoy today. The report, written by Harland Bartholomew for the Portland Planning Commission, was drafted partly to determine how to accommodate additional motor vehicle traffic, yet Harland seemingly approached the issue by maintaining lower volume surface streets.


What obviously stands out is the East side of the riverfront has also been developed here as open green space. At the time of the report, the east bank was already a dilapidated industrial pit. To envision both sides of the riverfront opened to the public for recreational use must have seemed a truly ambitious project for the era. Also worth noting is the inclusion of several additional bascule bridges with low sight-lines similar to the Burnside and Morrison bridges – the latter having yet to be built in its existing form in 1932.

Sadly, only ten years later, the infamous planner Robert Moses came to Portland for just one week, yet his own 1943 report would have disastrous consequences for decades to come. Moses’ vision was that of a Portland bound with freeways in every neighborhood like some sadistic bondage experiment. By the time the defeat of the Mt. Hood Freeway brought his ultimate agenda to a halt, the I-5 freeway and the double-decker Marquam bridge had already been built, decimating the east riverfront under thousands of tons of asphalt, roaring traffic, and unbreathable air.

Screen shot 2013-11-05 at 9.38.45 PMThe east waterfront today, a bleak, depressing eyesore. 

That fact that I-5 cuts off Portlanders from their waterfront is a black mark on our much lauded reputation as a livable, sustainable city. Though many have explored how to liberate this space from the mistakes of Robert Moses. In the 1990s, then commissioner Charlie Hales and the rest of city council began looking at the viability of burying or removing the freeway altogether.

A group of citizen activists called Riverfront for People who helped rip out Harbor Drive reconvened some years ago to propose the ‘Eastbank Initiative’. Included among their members at that time were veteran freeway slayers Jim Howell and Ron Buel, as well as one Jefferson Smith: ‘lawyer, political activist’. The group came up with illustrations equally compelling as Bartholomew’s, imagining a range of possible improvements for the waterfront.

marquamMarquam Bridge fragment: a reminder of past mistakes. Courtesy

With cities realizing the urban freeway is an unaffordable liability that wrecks air quality and degrades social interactions and property values alike, it’s no wonder there is a movement building to begin tearing them down entirely. Concern over where all the cars will go has been alleviated by data proving that once you remove a traffic-inducing highway, some 70% of those automobile trips simply disappear. Such success stories have already taken place in San Francisco, New York, and most heroically in Seoul, Korea.

The vision from 1932 of Portland’s rejuvenated waterfronts has only been half realized. It’s only a matter of time before we finish the job. As a community concerned with global warming and the adoption of exceptional land use practices, we owe it to ourselves to truly earn our reputation as a livable city. It’s been 81 years since Harland Bartholomew was inspired to conceive boldly what our city could be. Let’s not allow an even century to pass before we ensure this dream finally comes true. The era of our addiction to freeways and the automobile is dying. Let’s help kill it for good.




  1. I have not seen it documented, but have seen it asserted elsewhere, that Robert Moses’ plan would have run the highway up 7th Ave.rather than on the East Bank. This is plausible, considering his work in developing the New York area roadways. Ostensibly, the City Fathers felt his plan was just too spendy, from a land acquisition standpoint, to be feasible (also plausible in view of other decisions made later; e.g.: the Portland building.). While I am no fan of Mr. Moses (an authoritarian elitist, by any measure), I believe we may be rushing to judgement without more precise citations here.

    1. …and let’s not forget the thousands displaced for I-5 by force. The hundreds of businesses closed for I-405 through inner Portland, the hundreds and hundreds (maybe thousands) displaced through legal (sometimes physical force). Then we could start on just a few other cities where his plans segregated racial lines and created an even greater violence in cities by pushing more people into poverty in New Orleans, St Louis, Memphis, Jacksonville and almost every major US City. Overall hundreds of thousands of stores were shut down, zoning was changed and now we’re damned by the plague of big boxes the country over…

      Only in the United States was the country so blind and ignorant (or in the cases of those not blinded or ignorant, outright racist and hateful) that we build these massive interstates through our cities to break apart neighborhoods. Barely a single place in the world was so short sighted and ignorant.

      A criticism to harsh for Robert Moses? Shit no there isn’t… that guy was a short sighted jack ass.

      But I do digress… I could rant for days about that guy. 🙁

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