Header photo: GreenWorks
While the coronavirus and related economic crisis has walled major highways across the country, Portland’s Denver Avenue is once again in a vibrant new transformation. The Kenton Business Associationin close collaboration with the Portland Bureau of Transportation and Salazar architectcreated Denver Avenue Plaza that prioritizes portions of the street for outdoor commerce, restaurants, exhibitions, and socially distant gatherings.
Almost fifteen years ago, SERA and GreenWorks were lucky enough to be asked by the Portland Development Commission (now) Prosper Portland) Work with city officials and community members on a redesign of N Denver Avenue – the core of Downtown Kenton – as part of a major revitalization effort for this northern Portland neighborhood. (Our team was further strengthened by Landsman Transportation Planning and the late (and very great) artist Valerie Otani.)
Denver Avenue Roots
Due to its location near the Columbia River and the confluence of several major railroad lines, Kenton’s roots were in a corporate town. Originally the headquarters of the Swift Meat Packing Company, the district soon became the home of several industrial operations including the Davis Safe and Lock Company, the Columbia Wool Basin Warehouse, and the National Wood Pipe Company. But it was cattle Kenton was known for, and legend has it that cattle were marched right down Denver Avenue (originally Derby Street) on their way to the cattle fair at the nearby Union Stockyards. Despite the occasional cattle drive, Denver Avenue quickly became the community’s Main Street. In addition to larger homes for Swift executives, Denver Ave included a bank, several retail stores, two three-story brick hotels, and two theaters in the early 20th century. There was even a tram line that opened in 1909 – two years before the city paved Kenton’s streets.
If you look forward half a century, you’ll see the addition of Kenton’s mascot: a 31-foot concrete and metal statue of Paul Bunyan erected in 1959 to celebrate Oregon’s centenary. The icon now stands at the intersection of Denver and Interstate Avenues and cleverly marks the northern gateway to downtown Kenton. However, in the decades following Paul’s arrival, Denver Avenue collapsed somewhat and businesses closed, vacancies rose, and crime (real and perceived) increased.
When we arrived to do our jobs in the mid-20th century, Denver Avenue was a collection of seedy retailers, unfathomable industrial companies, and empty storefronts – and that patina of neglect that resulted from a long drought of both public and private investment. Far more important than the appearance of Downtown Kenton, however, was the enthusiasm of the community members, who welcomed us to the project and donated their time hour by hour to planning the street scene. They were a mix of Old Guard (true to their history and concerned about change) and New Guard (first-time homeowners drawn in by the district’s affordability and potential), and each side brought values and perspectives that drove the final design of the Clearly influenced the streetscape.
We completed our project with a lot of help from the city, TriMet and the Regional Arts & Culture Council. It had three main movements:
1. We have eliminated an unnecessary middle lane and given this space to pedestrians and cyclists.
2. We added rainwater planters making Denver Avenue Portland the first Green Main Street.
3. We worked with the sculptor Mauricio Saldaña, who prepared a characteristic work of art and several reliefs that together celebrated the history and culture of Kenton.
All of this has been supplemented with new street trees, sidewalks and concrete pavement, bespoke benches and street signs in the historic district. The Denver Avenue Streetscape Map was adopted in 2008 and construction began the following year.
The street design and process that led to it sent a clear signal to businesses and property owners of the city’s commitment to Kenton, which continued to support the city through recruitment efforts and a facade improvement program. The city also worked with local Multnomah County a new library Located in the heart of Denver Avenue in a store previously used as a warehouse. All this work contributed to a positive development of the business district of the city quarter over several years. In fact, 18 businesses opened or moved to downtown Kenton between 2008 and 2012 – despite the great recession.
Today the newly created Denver Avenue Plaza gives us hope for the vitality and development of our main streets. And while the new square has undergone some changes – it was originally opened as a car-free zone, but has since allowed vehicle traffic again – the trade association reports: “What has not changed is our determination to design the plaza in one way or another as safe and comfortable space as possible. “This latest version of Denver Avenue clearly underscores the importance public space has to us even in these toughest times (and even when Paul Bunyan) must wear a mask).
Gallery: Denver Avenue through the years
1970s Denver Avenue was a four-lane street lined with tavernas and local retailers. (Photo: The Oregonian, Aug 9, 1976)