For a second time, city of Portland (Ore.) officials are grappling with the design of an Apple retail store, weighing their aesthetic concerns against the possibility of bringing a ground-breaking glass storefront and public plaza to the downtown area. And based on the first feedback from the city’s Design Commission during a meeting last week, not everyone is convinced the current store would be a good idea. In 2005 Apple proposed a store project about a mile away, but after negative feedback from city officials, a peeved Apple cancelled the project. Now Apple is trying again, this time with a more spectacular design at almost the exact location of the existing Pioneer Place store. During last week’s Design Commission meeting, an audience of about 25 listened as architect Karl Backus of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ) described renderings of the project and answered questions. The store would span 165 feet, the width of a city block on Yamhill Street that is now the unremarkable rear of the Pioneer Place mall. The entire structure would have glass walls, topped by a thin membrane roof edged with metal. Behind the store, a 30-foot tall stone wall would provide separation from the existing building. The store would be set back 12-foot from the sidewalk, creating a plaza that Apple would share with the public, accessible by stone steps leading up from the sidewalk level. At the meeting, each of the seven commissioners had objections to the design, including the lack of a green roof and the arrangement of the stone steps. Their criticism provided insights into the sometimes long process of obtaining final approval for new buildings from skeptical city agencies. Update: On July 19, 2012 the Design Commission voted 5-1 (David Wark voted “No”) to approve the store design with slight changes.
Apple’s earlier proposal was for a retail store on N.W. 23rd Avenue, about 1½ mile away. From the beginning there was criticism by building officials that the store didn’t fit into the surrounding neighborhood, didn’t have a second story, offered no parking spaces, and that the proposed materials and scale were “unfriendly” to to the pedestrian environment. Apple asked for several postponements so they could consider alternative designs, but then quietly cancelled the project entirely in mid-2006.
Since then, downtown Apple enthusiasts have had only the basement-level Pioneer Place store to shop and obtain service. That 30-foot wide store is stuck behind a row of pillars in a dimly-lit, low-ceiling section of the mall. Geographically, it’s located just north across Yamhill Street from the proposed new site, and one level underground.
Last week’s meeting was held in response to Apple’s submission of a Design Advice Request to the Design Commission, a group of volunteer commissioners. The panel consists of two architects, a civil engineer, a land developer, landscape architect, arts and culture council member, and a marketing and design executive. Design advice is a very early step in the city’s approval process, intended to provide informal feedback to a project’s architects.
In its application for advice, Apple described its project as, “Demolition of a portion of the existing 2-story retail store on this block to allow for a new single story building and outdoor plaza area. The new building and outdoor plaza area will comprise the northern 55’ of the block bound by SW Yamhill, Taylor, 4th and 5th. The new 17’-6” tall building is fully glazed with clear glass, with a 27’-6” tall stone wall adjacent to the existing building tower. The north elevation includes 3 sets of double entry doors.” The store would occupy the now vacant section of Pioneer Place once occupied by the Saks Fifth Avenue store.
As is common, during the commission meeting last week Backus never once mentioned the word “Apple” during his description of the project. In fact, the commissioners never mentioned Apple either, although it was obvious they all knew the identify of the future tenant. One commissioner wondered if the glass was going to provide a view inside for “the latest and greatest gadgets” on sale, while another asked if the plaza would be big enough for any waiting lines that might form.
Backus spent about 15 minutes providing an overview of the project, given while commissioners reviewed print-outs of renderings and site plans, and while he projected project renderings to the group.
He told the commissioners there were four elements to the project: a stone wall, a plaza level, a layered-glass enclosure and the roof structure. He used all the usual BCJ words and phrases that describe Apple stores: a light and open structure, a very inviting building, a public space, and an interior and exterior that are “pretty much indistinguishable.” Backus said the glass walls would be three layers of 8mm or 10mm insulated glass. Because of the layering, it would have a slight green tint, not the very clear quality of a single layer. Where the glass panels meet, the space would be filled with a silicone sealant.
The store is designed on a master grid of 30 inches on the inside of the store (the size of the interior floor tiles), which translates to a grid of 30 inches by 60 inches on the outside (the size of the wall stones).
He noted that Yamhill Street slopes about three feet from right to left, creating the need for steps near the S.W. 4th Avenue side of the store. That slope and need for the steps creates what is formally known as an “encroachment.” That is, the steps intrude off the property by about two feet, Backus explained, and into the space normally occupied by the public sidewalk.
He said the roof was designed as a very thin and light structure, “hovering over the space, ” and made nearly invisible to passersby by the thin metal, 7½–foot skirt at the edge of the roof. He said a green or eco-roof was not proposed because of shadow patterns created from adjacent high-rise buildings.
Backus said the project includes the removal of the existing street furniture on the north side of Yamhill Street, but added that he had been in discussions with city staff over the issue. This subject would later come up in the commissioners’ comments about the project.
After his presentation, Backus fielded questions from the commissioners, demonstrating the breadth and depth of their concerns about the building. The questions ranged from birds, to hydrants, to handrails.
First, a commissioner asked what existing downtown structures had been used as a reference for the design. Backus said that, in fact, the design wasn’t referential to any existing Portland projects, but was entirely original.
One commissioner questioned the three entrance doors and how adaptable the building might be in 20 to 30 years if three tenants occupied the building instead of one. Another asked why Apple didn’t simply rehabilitate the existing building instead of building anew. Backus said the project was not intended to re-use the building, but was a rejuvenation, “more a new kind of thinking for retail.”
On the issue of the roof, a commissioner asked why it wasn’t all glass, and Backus said such a design wouldn’t meet energy code requirements.
One commissioner questioned the possibility of vandal damage to the store’s glass panels. “We’re wrestling with that ourselves,” Backus replied. He said the panel designs took into account that they might have to be replaced.
When asked about the stone materials, Backus said the 30-foot tall rear wall would be a light-gray color, while the interior floor of the store would be a medium gray.
There could be tables and chairs on the plaza, Backus said in response to a question, and said discussions were on-going among the architectural team about the issue. The Lincoln Park (Chicago) store has an adjacent Apple-controlled plaza, and it has round metal tables and chairs. The Fifth Avenue (NYC) store has a similar plaza configuration. Both stores also have water fountains installed in the plaza, which the Portland project would not have.
The store would use metal-halide lighting inside, but would have no outside lighting. The lighting might be turned down during the day, Backus told the commissioners. All of the store’s mechanical requirements, such as air conditioning, would be tapped from the existing Pioneer Place building, he explained, and would be invisible.
Amazingly, one commissioner even questioned how Apple intended to handle the city’s birds, suggesting that pigeons would land on the rear stone wall or roof, and deface the building. Backus did not have an immediate answer to his concern.
Matt Burlin, coordinator for the city’s Environmental Services agency spoke briefly, urging Apple to consider a green or ecoroof. Despite Backus’ previous comments about shadows making a green roof impractical, Burlin said the store’s location, height and orientation supported installation of an ecoroof. “We are agreeing to talk about this further,” Backus conceded. Apple has green roofs at its Boylston Street (Boston), Lincoln Park and North Michigan Avenue (Chicago) stores, and at the Uptown (Minn.) store. Green roof gardens are intended to counter the urban heat effect and improve the quality of rainwater runoff into the city stormwater drains.
After their questions, the commissioners provided feedback, within a range of criticism that is hard to summarize. In general, they liked the design and appreciated the demolition of the skybridge that now links the buildings on the north and south sides of Yamhill Street. One commissioner called the proposed store a “jewel” and “very elegant,” while another called it a “great improvement” over the current building. All of the commissioners seemed anxious to learn more of the fine details of the design during a future meeting.
The most questions surrounded the 12-foot set-back of the store, the two-foot stair encroachment, and the necessity of handrails and management of the plaza. To a person, the commissioners all believed that an ecoroof should be used in the design.
First, instead of building the store out to the full extent of the property line, BCJ is proposing to set the building back to the maximum allowed by the state’s building code, 12 feet. The purpose for Apple, apparently, is to increase lateral visibility of the store from the side streets, and to create space for the 10-foot deep plaza and steps in front of the store. And yet, some commissioners questioned why the store had been pressed back into the block, perhaps feeling a larger store would blend better into the surrounding buildings.
For some commissioners, the stone steps looked too steep, and one member suggested actually encroaching more into the sidewalk so the stair tread could be lengthened and made more “relaxed.” One commissioner urged a “more graceful transition from top to bottom” for the stone steps.
At both ends of the store there are changes in grade level that might confuse visitors, the commissioners said, and where handrails might be necessary. Some believed the demarcation line between gray stone and red brick pavers would help visitors realize they were about to encounter steps or a grade change. However, others believed handrails would be necessary for pedestrian safety.
There were also questions raised about who would police or manage the plaza, where Apple’s philosophy of public-private space intersects with the real world. The commissioners apparently felt the space might become a haven for the homeless or transients.
Commission co-chair David Wark offered the most criticism of the plan. “I’m not as enamored,” he told his fellow commissioners after listening to their praise of the plan. He said the project broke “all sorts” of guidelines, and flatly claimed,”It doesn’t relate to anything around it.” Instead, the project was turning its back on the existing building. “Maybe we can take it back to charm school and take a look at a few things,” he said.
Wark questioned the relatively narrow depth of the plaza, and questioned whether it would accommodate the expected number of people, especially with the doors open. He noted that the southwest corner of the building was tucked into a space formed by the grade change—”notoriously bad spots in the inner city,” he said.
Wark said that encroachments usually come with a public benefit. But in this case, with the steps intruding into the sidewalk, he said,”I don’t see any public benefit, other than the project can go forward at a less costly rate.”
As for Apple’s plan to rid the sidewalk of all furniture, bike racks, benches, planters and other obstructions, both Wark and commission chair Guenevere Millius offered objections. Millius said the proposal was an “overly controlling approach to what’s in our environment.” Wark agreed, saying, “The tone of it is, let’s change everything around us so it’s our environment, and not necessarily Portland’s environment.” Millius summed it up: “I’m not sure sweeping all the street furniture out is acceptable to me. I would like some justification.”
Backus didn’t respond to the commissions comments, specifically the recommended ecoroof. His position is understandable, since it would require a major change in the roof design. The current roof would not support the weight of the substrate and watering system, or allow personnel access for maintenance. More importantly, the thickness of the resulting structure would substantially change the look of the roof, adding mass that would be inconsistent with the overall store design.
At the end of the comment period, when asked if he had questions for the panel, Backus said he did not. But he did promise an on-going dialog with city staffers about the project. A future date to consider the Apple store project has not been scheduled.
BCJ did not release to the public the slide presentation or the printed material given to the commissioners at the time. However, later, some of the materials were archived by the city.
Audio of the Design Commission meeting, mp3E-mail this story