The 1% City

Looking over the city skyline on an unexpectedly beautiful day like this leaves me wondering what cities will look like in a future dominated by the 1%; all of the tallest and most architecturally significant buildings were built by proud local businesses seeking to make a statement for themselves, and virtually all of them are gone.  As corporate bigwigs leave, there simply isn’t any need for glamor or novelty anymore, nor is anyone willing to pay for it.  Of the five or so office buildings that have gone up in the last twenty years, all were speculative boxes hastily slapped up to coincide with one white-shoe law firm or another ending its lease, two of them by an eccentric local movie theater magnate, Tom Moyer, who had long owned some dilapidated but charming old theaters on Broadway, and could summarily bulldoze them for enough nearly free land to make them pencil out.

As you can imagine, the elimination of local corporate headquarters has had a negative impact on downtown employment, both in quantity and quality, and a proliferation of cheesy chain hotels further diminishes the community both architecturally and economically.   Portland still looks pretty and prosperous today only because of what was left behind from when it actually had civic leaders and boosters; now it’s a Potemkin village, pillaged by the 1%, and the future hardly looks bright.

The picture above tells the story.  The flaring, white-striped tower at center right was built in 1972 for First National Bank, and at 40 stories, was our first real skyscraper, hated and loved in equal measure.  (Count me among the latter; as an awestruck 8-year old I fondly called it the bellbottom building..) It’s now known, for the moment anyway, as the Wells Fargo Tower.  The two-stepped, horizontally striped tower at center once was the headquarters for now-vanished PacWest Bank, designed by the same architect as New York’s Citicorp Center, Hugh Stubbins, to resemble it. (Personally, I think it’s better….)

In the distance at left, a sliver of Big Pink, once the headquarters for US Bank (now based in Minneapolis), can be seen behind a glossy new condo tower.  It was built during the recession of the early 80′s, which hit Portland particularly hard because of the decline of the timber industry, and during construction, the tarps on each successive floor were emblazoned with announcements of how much the bank had spent so far to “See Oregon Working Again.”  It was three stories taller, natch, than its chief competitor, First National. The shiny black box just left of center was once the headquarters of Orbanco, the concrete box to its immediate right was once Georgia-Pacific, and the squatty white cantilevered thing in between PacWest and Wells Fargo was Equitable Savings.  All are gone today; their buildings now have new and ever-changing names.

The real estate boom of the last decade paradoxically brought dozens of new condo towers to a city with progressively fewer people working in it who could afford them, and the result was predictable; many converted to apartments during or after construction, and the rest are now owned by underwater homeowners.  It will take a decade, at least, before the excess inventory is absorbed, even in the most desirable areas; right downtown and in the ill-conceived and distant “South Waterfront,” much longer.

What, then, is to become of a city when its workers are all cowering peons, its builders are all rapacious speculators, and no one is left to care what anything looks like after they’ve cashed out?  Not much, I’m guessing.  The one crane in the picture at center right is a stimulus-funded retrofit of a Federal office building, and will soon be taken down; another not visible in the picture is a “dorm” being built by a private entity, primarily to fleece Portland State students.  On Park Avenue, a gigantic hole in the ground, with no crane at all, sits in the middle of the shopping district, long since abandoned after being initially downsized by now Alzheimers-stricken Tom Moyer.

The only certainty, given the evidence, is that the 1% city will be a bland and cheap simulacrum of what it once was.   At best.





  1. Ché Pasa says:

    Portland was once (back in the 80′s and 90′s) the non-plus-ultra ideal of our local city planners; they constantly cited it as the model we should be following. Being the wag and curmudgeon I am I said to them, “Welp, if you moved Sacramento 700 miles north into the rain forest, if it stopped being the Capital of California, and if you gave it a certain corporate gloss and panache, you could have a city that was much like Portland, but as things are, it ain’t gonna happen.” The shock and indignation of officialdom at hearing the truth resonates to this day. But what’s actually happened to the city and Downtown in particular ain’t pretty. “Hell-hole” comes to mind…

    Now it seems from your report that even Portland isn’t what it used to be. The backward march is striking and sad. Disinvestment seems to be a social disease among the High and the Mighty, and of course Our Rulers claim they are Powerless to Prevent It.

    Is it any wonder the masses are restive?

    • cocktailhag says:

      Not really. The homeless problem was already pretty bad before Occupy made it visible; people from the ‘burbs are forever writing whiny letters about their horrible experiences downtown. Our famed transit system continues to expand into ungrateful suburbs, even as it relentlessly cuts service and raises fares for the people who use it. The scandal-plagued mayor entered office as a lame duck; colorless automatons listlessly vie for his seat.
      But now I have a new slogam for “The City That Works:” “At least we’re not Sacramento!”

      • Ché Pasa says:

        For a time around here it was: “At least we’re not like Indianapolis!”

        Then it was, “Wait! Why can’t we be like Indianapolis???!”

        This was before the Portland phase among the city planners…

        At least Sacramento’s Mayor is a bona-fide ex NBA Star. (And the stories about him make Sam Adams seem like a saint and martyr…)

  2. michlib says:

    The GOP plan for all large cities ( over 500 people ) is the studious application of the federal policies since 1950 that have given us Detroit. Some features – no FHA home loans for returning WW2 vets inside Detroit proper – only in the burbs. Dismantle mass transit as the large manufacturers ( we USED to build things here ) move their production facilities to those same burbs. Require jobseekers to have their own transportation. Those three alone went far in keeping off-white people in their place. Disinvest in infrastruscture, schools, parks – you know, the things that make urban living tolerable. Then stand back and shreek in horror when the disenfranchised resort to the only business model left – drugs, prostitution, etc. . All large cities have lost their local flavor to be replaced by the sameness of decay. Take a bow, Ronnie.

    • cocktailhag says:

      It’s surprising, and a little scary, that they’re so open about this these days. They’re counting on the stupidity of the American people, and their attitude toward education can only help make this work even better over time. Coincidence?

  3. Teddy says:

    That hole in the ground next to Director Park and Nordstroms is particularly vile, with its rebar columns sticking up. Doesn’t Portland require some kind of bond to cover up unsightly unfinished projects like that?

    I was horrified to realize, shortly after moving here 18 months ago, that it wasn’t in progress: it was stopped dead. Hideous and wrong.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Well, the geezer went cuckoo with Alzheimer’s, and the worthless, squabbling heirs completely fucked up after the economy crashed. Initially, it was going to be the third tallest building in the city, 37 floors with 15 floors of condos on top. They had rented the retail to Nike, and had one big 10-floor law firm also committed. But the condo market was crashing even as they toppled the old buildings, formerly Mercantile, a local jeweler(now out of business), and Virginia Cafe.
      And they threw money down the hole, too… Fox Tower and Director Park have several, connected levels of basements between them; Park Avenue there is just a lid. Moyer seemed to like big holes (with lots of parking, which makes a lot of money).
      They downsized it and took out the condos, but the process took too long and their lease agreements expired. The crane sat there for years, but only because cranes were in such surplus.
      It is shitty that these people aren’t made to clean up their mistakes, but in this case a family tragedy was involved.

  4. dirigo says:

    CHNN Flash Traffic: Gloria Allred says she may be able to sue Rush in Florida.

    How absurd, eh Rick?

  5. loretta says:

    haha Gloria Allred. Of course she’s going to throw her tiny little broached suit into the mix.

    I met her a few times. Thoroughly obnoxious, but effective.

  6. The Heel says:

    I don’t know. One Percent of 300 Million is still 3 Million. One can hope that there are a few aesthetically inclined egos left with in those 3 Million Americans to build the one or the other impressive building. They sure will have the cash to do so…