Tram construction to begin early next year

Design of the aerial tramway between Oregon Health SciencesUniversity and the South Waterfront is well under way, but thelittle cars won’t set down very close to Portland Stateproperties.

The architectural design team ofAngelil/Graham/Pfenninger/Scholl presented its detailed MarquamHill Aerial Tram project community update last week. About 200attended the presentation of final recommendations and report inthe Smith Memorial Student Union ballroom.

The tram will comprise much more than a glorified variation on aski lift. The architects presented a design that clearly reflects acompromise between the technical requirements of building aneffective system and the need to bow to the concerns of affectedneighborhoods and citizens.

The system will consist of an almost skeletal upper terminusaccessible via a pedestrian bridge through the ninth floor of anOHSU building. It will proceed downhill, then cross a pencil-thinintermediate tower that carries tram cables over Interstate 5 andthe Lair Hill neighborhood. It will reach ground level at SouthwestGibbs Street, currently a cluttered, nondescript residentialstreet.

The tram won’t create any new commuting points for PortlandState. The university has a presence in the general neighborhoodbut no proximity to the lower terminus.

PSU currently operates the former David Evans building at 2828S.W. Corbett Ave. under a lease option to buy. The university plansto develop the area as a business accelerator, sometimes termed abusiness incubation center.

Regarding the proximity of this PSU property to the tram, “It’sclose but not contiguous,” Jay Kenton, vice president for financeand administration, said. “It would be four or five blocks as thecrow flies but for pedestrians it would be a circuitous route.” Thebusiness accelerator is west of I-5 and the tram terminal lies tothe east side.

Mike Lindberg, former city commissioner and chair-elect ofPortland Aerial Transportation, Inc. (PATI) introduced the program.The presentation included not only the aerial design concepts butalso the elaborate community improvements proposed to make overheadpassage of the tram more palatable to the affected neighborhoodsand a more forward-looking development plan for the area.

Sarah Graham of the architectural firm outlined the project as awhole, saying, “We’re about halfway through the design process.”The firm won the job after an international design competition ayear ago and expects to present its current status to the Portlandcity council in about three weeks.

In a nutshell, the project is a 5,300 linear foot aerial tramwaythat rises 500 feet over I-5, the Lair Hill neighborhood andTerwilliger Parkway. Expected to require two years to finish, thetramway will provide a ride of 2 minutes 40 seconds and serve morethan 7,000 passengers per day.

The design itself takes neighborhood concerns into account atevery level. The upper terminus is supported by stilts on an almosttiny patch of ground jutting out from the OHSU property. The midwaytower, located at Macadam Avenue, bears no resemblance to thetypical electrical tower, for example. Rather, it appears as asuper-skinny finger pointing upward.

Graham described the tower as a structure “as slim as possible.A single sculpted form so specialized it must be fabricated on theother side of the country and trucked here.”

The lower station Graham described as “A reduced footprint assmall as possible.” The whole area will be designed to emphasizepedestrian use. There will be no turnstile. There will be coveredwalkways and bicycle parking.

“Automobiles will be made to feel they’re trespassing,” Grahamsaid. A glut of automobiles was one of the major concerns of thesurrounding neighborhoods.

Everywhere along the installations, elaborate greenery isdesigned into the plan, much of it deciduous to blend in color withthe seasons.The design of the passenger-carrying gondolas – or tramcabins, as the architects call them – reflects a number ofconcerns. They are conceived as “bubbles floating through the sky”made of a translucent material so the occupants will not feeltrapped. At the same time, the shell material is of a character andcolor so that when the cabin rises above the population below, itwill appear as part of the sky, in fact, almost disappear into thesky above. The cabins actually reflect and refract light tominimize their visual presence. They will change appearance as thesky changes.

The cabins will have other unique features. They will hang froma curved arm structure designed to minimize sway due to wind. Theywill be translucent, but present an opaque surface to personslooking up from below to ensure privacy for the occupants.

The cabins will pass over a heavily-traveled freeway and will bedesigned so their sound will be completely unnoticeable compared tofreeway traffic.

The cost of the project is currently estimated at $28.5 million.Funding will come from a variety of sources. OHSU will be a heavycontributor, as well as the Portland Development Commission. Theoperating budget is $915,000 per year.

The proposed timetable shows the present proposal going beforethe city council on May 6. Design is to be completed by June 18.Contractors are to be designated by December 31. Construction is tobegin between January 28 and February 15, 2005.

Matt Brown, project manager for the Portland Office ofTransportation, presented proposed community development plans inassociation with the tram project. He saw one of the mainopportunities as reconnecting Lair Hill with the South Waterfront.He visualized traffic calming and tram connections on Marquam Hill,plus transportation improvements and sidewalks.

Terwilliger Parkway would be in line for traffic calming, trailimprovement, viewpoint enhancements and improvement of SouthwestSixth Avenue. Lair Hill could look forward to Gibbs Streetimprovements and better pedestrian connections. He generally sawthe South Waterfront as a convergence of improvements in lightrail, bus service and the Portland streetcar.