When a Highway is Demolished for a Park: Riverfront Park, PDX


The park emerged from what used to be a busy urban highway. In the car-centric days of the 1970’s it would have been unheard of to replace asphalt with asters. And runs counter to the practice of severing cities with new freeways. One example, as outline in today’s New York Times article, is Buffalo which is still under assault from off-ramps and interchanges. It probably received its greatest blow in the late 1950’s when Fredrick Law Olmsted’s beautiful Humboldt Parkway was paved over to allow for the construction of the behemoth Kensington Expressway. This divided the once thriving neighborhood of Hamlin Park into a tailspin, an event all too common in America’s “urban renewal” period. Despite these events on the other side of the country, Portland seemed to be heading in an opposite direction.

There was always a plan for the park along the west bank of the Willamette River since Olmsted suggested it in a report for the city in 1903, but several stumbling blocks interrupted its progress. First was the construction of a seawall in 1920 along the Willamette’s west bank to prevent urban flooding, then came the construction of the Harbor Drive highway in 1940, which completely severed the ties of Portland denizens to their riverfront. It took quite a bit of public will from the Riverfront for Citizens coalition and assistance from Governor McCall, who established the Harbor Drive Task Force, to demolish the highway in place of the riverfront park. This became the first American highway to be intentionally removed (source: Congress for New Urbanism).

before and after below

harbor drive McCall Park - portland

The park has since been extended to the south, almost doubling its size, and has sparked mixed-use development along the once dingy riverfront. One sustainable development is the River Blocks which is well on its way to becoming the largest sustainable development in the country. It includes an aerial tram that connects the River Blocks neighborhood in the South Waterfront District to the main campus of Oregon Health & Science University (also a LEED silver building).