When the Portland Bus Mall was unveiled in 1976 along SW 5th and SW 6th streets, shelters that graced the mall were some of the most technically advanced for its time and included amenities such as stylish (remember: 1970s) smoked glass and bronze design, pay phones, and a first-of-its kind monitor system that alerted passengers to arrival times of busses.
When the new mall was unveiled in 2009, the 70s architecture was ripped out and recycled as building materials by the project’s contractor. Sure, one can still see the outline of the old, oval shelters etched into the sidewalks, and the oh-so-70s planters along SW 5th and 6th. But for the most part, the new mall has transformed the streetscape with new shelters, bus trackers and better access to the storefronts along the street. The improvements were badly needed and most Portlanders at the time weren’t exactly bemoaning the loss of the old mall.
“Over the 25 years of the mall, the shelters were showing wear and tear and we just couldn’t maintain them,” says Bob Hastings, TriMet’s architect, who manages the architecture and urban design issues for light rail projects.
Thus began the retrofit of the bus mall.
Called the Mall Revitalization Project, it was “aimed to improve and repair the buildings and businesses along SW 5th and 6th to help increase their participation in the life of downtown,” says Hastings.
However, there is another holdout to our old bus mall. If you’ve recently strolled downtown along the mall on SW 5th, you’ve probably noticed the lone, 1970s surviving bus shelter and the coffee shop inside of it. Located near the former Congress Hotel (demolished in 1980) Caffe Viale, snuggled in an old shelter, complete with transit maps, original signage and icons, takes adaptive re-use to a new level. And it might have all started with a walk around downtown Portland back in 2004.
Tad Savinar was working for ZGF Architects at the time and was an urban design consultant for TriMet. While strolling around downtown along the mall during a series of walks, Savinar, also a trained visual artist, was taking inventory of the “existing conditions” of storefronts, such as badly placed awnings, garbage cans in front of storefronts, and anything beyond that. He broke down his walks into 20-foot segments, examining the mall as more of a “human experience.” And then he started to notice the lack of important services – like coffee. Would a coffee shop be successful if it was strategically placed directly on the street?
“I knew that all of these shelters were eventually going to come out and I started wondering about things along the mall that could be improved. Storefronts could be improved, lighting could be improved. All kinds of ideas. And one of them was the potential of rehabbing a bus shelter,” he says.
A study found – believe it or not – there was a dearth of coffee service in the area. Savinar then created a diagram of the number of office workers adjacent to the potential coffee spot and discovered there was a gap in service. He then approached Caffe Viale owners – who still have a brick and mortar location nearby – and they were game in setting up shop in the shelter. Money was accessed through the Portland Development Commission’s Storefront Improvement Program who then matched money from the business, as well as money kicked in from TriMet.
Certainly, new construction had to be done, including the addition of plumbing for water lines, electricity and waste lines, but the final product has proven to be a successful re-purposed project that adds life on the street, helps keep some of Portland’s post-mid-century heritage alive. The space also illustrates there are dual purposes and creative ways to re-use and re-adapt unwanted and (mostly) unloved structures, including a bus shelter.
Nowadays, there are just a few more coffee places to choose from, but the coffee kiosk still does brisk business during weekday mornings catering to bleary-eyed commuters in need of caffeine before work. Plus, it’s a kick to peep inside the kiosk and see a part of Portland’s transit history still alive while waiting for your coffee.
“It’s a wonderful addition onto the streetscape,” says Hastings. “It livens the presence of the mall and does a great job of reinterpreting the original mall shelter.”