Walking Portland’s SouthWaterfront streets

Here’s part 2 of the Portland series, from 2015. They did an excellent job of creating lively streets. We haven’t done nearly as well here in Ottawa. Yet the formulas for success are out there.

Do note that since this story was first written, Claridge’s Flats project has greatly improved, with benches and gardens and resident participation and involvement growing. (We might look at that in a future story). Alas, the city continues to shun the area, except to collect fees and taxes, but not providing so much as a tot lot for the scads of kids that live there.

Remember, the city is complain driven, and the squeaky wheel gets the grease.





The South Waterfront neighbourhood is very well landscaped. Intensively landscaped, with interesting bits of planters, plants, gardens, courtyards, and squares tucked into the smallest corners. The contrast to Ottawa’s LeBreton Flats couldn’t be stronger.

Some of this may be due to a milder climate in Oregon. Or a project that has had vegetation in the ground and growing for longer. Or maybe a much more generous budget for greenery. The Flats look good on paper, and on the ground the “right elements” are laid out, but the execution makes me wince and thus far is poorly maintained. The City has totally neglected its parkland space along the west ridge of the Tailrace. Where is the tot lot or sandpit? Or park benches? Does the NCC and CIty really believe a usable bike and pedestrian path network can be built in 100m segments opening years — decades?? — apart?


above: sidewalks are broad and generous, not limited to two metres width. Better than normal inscribed joints cut the cement. Trees grow by the curb, which the City of Ottawa strictly forbids on the Flats (are there any other neighbourhoods in the City where that restriction is in force?). Note the close proximity of trees to curbs — Ottawa insists on 18-24″ from the curb to the plant zone, and the tree set back further than that. That setback may be to push the tree back from the salty snow, or it maybe catering to the convenience of motorists by giving them a generous car door opening zone.


above: townhouse units, apparently two stories high, line many of the side streets. These barren porches shown here reflect a limited understanding of how to make those spaces work — other buildings were much better implemented.


above: a turning circle in front of an apartment building. Note the benches. Has anyone ever seen a bench around the condos on our LeBreton Flats? Or a play structure? Or large flower pots?


above: a more established block, with vegetation screening the patios from the mews lane (combined walkway and local car access — note the pedestrian feels comfy taking the centre of the right of way). These patio spaces are like front porches of old: semi public, semi private spaces, set back just the right distance and elevation from passersby.


above: the condos closest to the waterfront were obviously very high end. Notice the large patio and large balconies, and the public bench with a backrest and no anti-street-people “armrests” in the centre.  The landscaping showed every sign of being maybe one year old and not yet established or spreading.


above: drainage swale


above: generous patios behind a grassy, naturalistic landscape, fronting onto the riverside park. The mixture of naturalized grass and concrete walls looked well done to provide for the plants and control humans from trampling the vegetation.



above: two very nice block-sized parks were already in place in the centre of the built up area, being the roof vegetation of an underground car park for the medical building. Along the waterfront — shown above — construction of a sophisticated array of lighting, benches, gathering areas, planters, separated bike and pedestrian paths, dog walk zones, etc. was still underway in August 2014.



below: generous size balconies on the lower floors cater to those who value private outdoor space and can pay for it. Upper floor balconies tended to be smaller, altho all these ones are more generous than one usually finds in Ottawa:



A “main street” through the neighbourhood has busier vehicular flow and storefronts all along the various facades. Curiously, many ground floor levels didn’t match the sidewalk elevation, requiring ramps and creating awkward spaces. Can’t we design buildings with ground floors to match the planned walkway grade? Note also the recessed parking bay, power boxes in the tree wells, and awnings.



below: a side street / mews with a very lush planting and interesting tableau in a very small area. The underplanting is new and hasn’t yet grown to form a full groundcover. I did not notice any guards to prevent people from peeling the white bark.



below: A courtyard nestled into the crook of a multibuilding complex combines planting, shade, a sunny patio, outdoor animation. Cleats on the centre planter deter skateboarders.



below: low rise building above condo store fronts. Several buildings had what I thought were “temporary” ground floor uses, like college gathering areas, architects’ open commons office areas, etc. This reinforces the need for flexible zoning so that spaces can evolve, maybe from residential when the neighbourhood is young, to commercial space later on as the area populates and people learn to seek out local sources.




below: a fully occupied  commercial strip along the main street. The businesses (hair salons, eateries, dentists, lawyers, realtors, architects, financial advisors, montessori school) seemed to have custom, people obviously use those large balconies, creating a nascent “real” traditional main street. Architects’ drawings are nice, actual animated streetscapes are nicer.




below: these people are sitting on very large wooden storage boxes outside the montessori school. I suspect they house toys, strollers, or whatnot. I notice throughout the states that daycares and grade schools may offer secure or weather-sheltered stroller and bike storage. Note also the broad canopy over the sidewalk, making it partially sheltered from rain or snow.






below: there was a daycare facility in a repurposed building near the entry transit plaza. It had giant roll up garage doors so that kids played indoors in fresh air. Note also how close the daycare is to the sidewalk and traffic and other people, not fenced off or segregated. Looking inside the window, you can see another open garage door to the side play yard.




below: one side of the medical building had this enormous PV solar array, 60 kW. It looked to me that the arrays might be motorized, to tilt to the optimum angle to catch the sun, although all of these are in the horizontal position where they act as brise-soleils for the south facing facade. The building resuses its own wastewater, with minimal discharge to the sewers.





Windmill developments uses pictures from Portland’s South Waterfront to illustrate what they plan for their Isles development in Ottawa.

I wondered as I wandered the South Waterfront whether the increased density generated the money to provide the lush landscaping and quality exterior spaces. Would a higher density Flats make for better public spaces? Or is the Portland environment a product of the affluent sponsors and market value of the development, ie it is a more expensive place than the Flats.

Of course, no self-respecting new urban place can be without the requisite farmers’ market:



For those long suffering readers than are confused by my walkabout, note the following map: the first story arrived over the i5 ped bridge shown in light gray at the top left, where we had great views down into the South Waterfront aerial tram terminal. Streetcars arrive from the direction of the Ross Island Bridge, proceed straight down SW Moody, loop over a parallel street (follow the faint gray arrows on the map) and come back up by the parks to circle around the H for Hospital building back into the plaza. We walked the high-rise lined streets between the Carruthers park and the River, with a brief look at the low rise buildings (did I see yellow brick?)  at the bottom of the Moody loop:


map of south waterfront, portland


This concludes the overview of Portland’s South Waterfront district. I hope it gives you some ideas of what the Islands project by Windmill might look like, or the next phase of LeBreton, of what LeBreton could have looked like if we had chosen to go with more high rises in phase 1. I hope this helps the discussion of Building LeBetter Flats here at home in Ottawa.

I have lots of other pictures of Portland parks, the SW Waterfront green space, etc but it is time to move on to other subjects.

Next: extending the OTrain Trillium line south…




One thought on “Walking Portland’s SouthWaterfront streets

  1. Would winter conditions in Portland impose fewer limiting design standards for the lovely landscape details you illustrate so well.?

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