Uncovering History

A hundred and more years ago, the land we know today as Portland’s Pearl District was a robust wetland, fed by streams that rushed down from the west hills. Where pedestrians now wander the streets of the Pearl, frogs and blue herons browsed at the edge of broad and shallow Couch Lake.


With the advent of growth and increasing technologies, the lake was drained, the wetlands paved over with concrete and the streams captured in pipes and routed underneath the rapidly expanding city.


Hard to imagine? It’s just gotten a little easier with the christening of Tanner Springs Park. Named for one of the buried creeks, the park allows water to find a symbolic route to the surface for the first time in a century.


“In essence, through a deus ex machina, we’ve peeled back layers of time and restored a part of the past,” said Henry Kunowski, program manager for Portland Parks and Recreation.


The park, occupies a city block between Northwest 10th and 11th avenues and between Northwest Northrup and Overton streets. It is one in a linked string of four parks planned for the River District urban renewal area.


Each of the four parks has a different theme, but all evince some sort of social connectivity, and all feature water.


Jamison Park, two blocks from Tanner Springs, was the first of the four to be finished. It is a favorite spot for Pearl residents, a combination of grassy space and walk-in fountain where families enjoy hot summer afternoons.


“Jamison is an active, engaging park,” Kunowski said. “The water mimics a shoreline, with a tidal ebb and flow. It invites people to walk along and wade in its edges.”

Step two was the creation of Tanner Springs Park, which opened to the public on August 5.  Where Jamison is an active, almost rambunctious site, Tanner Springs is designed to be quiet and contemplative.


The park’s creation was part of an open design solicitation process. Potential designers received two instructions: Evoke the feel of a wetland, and create a locus for contemplation.


The winner was landscape architect Herbert Dreiseitl of Dreiseitl/Waterscapes in 퀨�����berlingen, Germany. Dreiseitl’s ideas surpassed the basic guidelines. He not only created a functional wetland but by building the park to slope downward about six feet from street to spring made it responsible for its own sustainability.


Driven by gravity, surface and rainwater percolate down through the grasses on their way to the wetland pond. Once there, water seeps into an underground biope, a soil layering system that filters and purifies the water.


The water is then irradiated with ultraviolet light before being piped back to the upper edge of the park, where it again begins the trip downhill. Rainwater will keep the water feature running, with occasional potable water added as needed to “top off” the pond.

Dreiseitl also incorporated archaeology, cultural aspects and contemporary art into his design.


“The archaeological aspect has to do with Couch Lake. The park is sited in what would be about the center of the lake before it was drained,” Kunowski said.


The cultural aspect references Dreiseitl’s use of railroad rails and Belgium block pavers – what we know as cobblestones – from the industrial area that once occupied the Pearl District.


As for art, ninety-nine fused glass units, hand painted by Dreiseitl and suspended between an undulating wall of upright rails, feature different wetland animals and insects.


“The effect is similar to the idea of beads of amber, each with its own captured insect,” Kunowski said.


Visitors enter and explore Tanner Springs Park on a system of pebble trails that wind through the fragile ecosystem. The experience of being simultaneously immersed in a unique ecosystem and a living work of art is striking. At night, special lighting adds to the overall effect.


The park’s plantings mimic those that would have been found on the site hundreds of years ago, when oak savannah and grasslands dominated the landscape. Oregon oak, red alder, big leaf maple and various slough and tufted hair grasses are among the native plants, with sedges and rushes taking over at the water’s edge.


“It’s been one of the most enjoyable projects of my career,” Kunowski said. “To me, that visceral experience – that sense of presence, and of belonging – is worth everything.”


Yet to be added to Tanner Springs Park is a leaf-shaped structure called the Rainwater Pavilion. Pearl inhabitants are working to raise $150,000 to erect the pavilion, which will collect rainwater and return it to the pond for filtering.


Also yet to take shape are the final two parks. The third one, located between Northwest Overton and the railroad yard, will feature open grassy fields and a yet-unnamed water feature.


“The Fields will be a big, open recreational site,” Kunowski explained. “It’s a little more than two acres, and it’ll be the main site in the Pearl for active recreation, with swing sets, places to play ball and space for all kinds of active recreation.”

The fourth park will occupy the eastern edge of the Pearl District along the Willamette River, surrounding Centennial Mills. Like Tanner Springs, its open greenway design will be sustainable, cleansing and purifying rainwater and storm runoff before they reach the river.