Portland's aerial tram connects Oregon Health and Science's campus with the South Waterfront.

Portland’s aerial tram connects Oregon Health and Science’s campus with the South Waterfront.

Bill Forster

Ten years ago, two silvery orbs began floating 3,000 feet between Marquam Hill and South Waterfront over the roofs and backyards of one of Portland’s oldest neighborhoods. Millions of rides later, Portland’s aerial tram can now be seen as one of the city’s most transformational projects ever, leading to the dramatic waterfront expansion of OHSU and the creation of a new neighborhood, and paving the way to the successful $500 million Knight Challenge that is positioning the university as a global center for cancer research.

The tram’s elegant towers and cars came courtesy of the city’s first international design competition since the early ‘80s and have since grown into a glittering landmark, making it easy to forget that when it was being conceived it was the center of a brutal political fight.

The tram grew out of OHSU’s need to grow. The campus is essentially a historic accident. In 1880, Oregon Railway and Navigation bought 360-acres from a simple survey map, not realizing it was atop a 500-foot hill and unsuitable for the desired train-switching station.

A University of Oregon doctor who worked part-time for the railroad got the railroad to donate the land for a medical school. One-hundred-and-twenty years and 5 million square feet later, OHSU was landlocked. With all the surrounding land zoned residential, every new building was a major fight with the neighborhoods. The fear — and one OHSU heartily stoked — was that Portland’s largest employer would become like University of Colorado Denver’s Health Sciences school and slowly move, lock, stock and lab to land it owned in the suburbs.

Since plans for the tram got solidified, OHSU has built a million square feet of new facilities, beginning with the Center for Health and Healing (pictured). A new hotel, Ronald McDonald House, and, courtesy of the $1 billion gift spearheaded by Phil and Penny Knight, two new OHSU buildings are under construction, transforming the university into a major international hub of cancer research.

Since plans for the tram got solidified, OHSU has built a million square feet of new facilities, beginning with the Center for Health and Healing (pictured). A new hotel, Ronald McDonald House, and, courtesy of the $1 billion gift spearheaded by Phil and Penny Knight, two new OHSU buildings are under construction, transforming the university into a major international hub of cancer research.  

Bruce Forster

Meantime, 130 acres of largely empty, polluted industrial land sat—as the crow flies—1000 meters away in what we now call South Waterfront, but then was “North Macadam.” Clean-up and infrastructure would be a big lift, but the right actors stepped up, including the Schnitzer Steel family, who agreed to donate the land to OHSU, and developer Homer Williams. The only question was how to connect Pill Hill and South Waterfront.

Way back in the late 1970s, a city planner — and eventual planning director — Michael Harrison first hatched the idea of an aerial tram, but going between OHSU and PSU. As OSHU’s expansion plans incubated quietly, all kinds of shuttles and conveyances were explored. But the tram was the simplest — and fastest. Speed is extremely important to OHSU’s busy researchers who are saving patients, conducting science and hauling in millions of dollars in grants.

But homeowners in the Lair Hill neighborhood below OHSU’s campus on the hill felt that their privacy — and their rights — were being stolen.  Reached by phone, the leader of the tram’s opposition, lawyer Larry Beck, still feels sore from the battle.

“The fear and the unknown of what was coming was certainly difficult for me and other people in the neighborhood to comprehend,” he said. “What’s this going to be like? What’s the impact going to be like on our neighborhood?”

“I can sit on my toilet and see the tram go by,” he added. “But realistically, nobody is looking in your one skylight window as they’re going by. There’s a lot more for them to see. I think it’s just the impression, the feeling that somebody is always above you, watching and looking down on you.”

There was also the cost. OHSU would pay more, but the city and other South Waterfront property owners were pitching in. OHSU insiders privately guestimated a cost as high as $75 million, early on the number publicly bandied about was $15 million. The final price for the aerial tram came in at $57 million, with $8.5 million of that provided by taxpayers.

Accusations of mismanagement and subterfuge flew. But the original price was more civic self-delusion. The early $15 million estimate was pure optimism — a number put out by an early tram consultant based on a simple ski-lift design anchoring into Marquam Hill’s bedrock. But unknown to anyone but OHSU insiders, the university was planning a hospital on the hill where the tram was going to land — a completely different engineering problem.

Fearing vibrations, microsurgeons insisted the tram tower and building had to be entirely separate structures. The tower rises 80 feet from a tiny spot between the road and parking lot, and the cable and cars weigh about 1 million pounds, creating 80 million foot pounds of torque. The engineer for the tram, Steve Radchye, said at the time that nothing in the world had ever been built to deal with that kind of torque.

Bruce Forster

The international design competition and the winning designer were sometimes blamed for the escalating cost, but all the publicity raised the tram above being just another spat with the neighborhood and a poker game between OHSU and the city, to a civic discussion about OHSU’s growth and a major addition to the Portland landscape.

Four teams competed, but it was won by locally-born Sarah Graham, co-founder of AGPS based in Zurich and Los Angeles. Her competitors went for bold. She went for a minimalist beauty. And as at least one developer in the tense budget negotiations slammed his fist on the table and called for a cheaper ski-lift tower design, Graham stood as taut as the tram’s cables, even publicly threatening to resign.

Graham’s idea was bubbles, floating in the sky. Two craftsman from the company that produced the first Bugatti race cars came out of retirement to shape the the cars’ skin, forming the metal curves with an old-fashioned hammering machine around plywood forms.

Since plans for the tram got solidified, more than 2,700 units of housing have been built in the South Waterfront. OHSU has built a million square feet of new facilities. A new hotel and a new Ronald McDonald House is on the way. With Phil and Penny Knight’s $500 million gift to the university — matched by the state and donors — resulting in two new buildings currently under construction, OHSU is becoming a major international hub of cancer research.

Right next to the tram, the Zidell family will soon launch its last barge and begin developing its 33 acres, expected to lead to another 2,600 units of housing a 1 million square feet in commercial development.

But while housing units have popped up left and right as a result of the tram, the city has thus far fallen short of it’s original affordable housing goal for the district. It had planned on there being 788 affordable units, but only 209 units thus far meet the standard. Another 375 remain in the pipeline.

Would the South Waterfront’s boom have happened without the tram?

TriMet’s extension of light rail, the streetcar and the Tillikum Crossing would certainly have spurred development. But that direct connection with Pill Hill was the booster rocket.

And what about the folks on Gibbs Street, who now live with this modernist silver bullet soaring overhead every 10 minutes?

“I think we did end up getting some things that were positive for our neighborhood,” said Beck. “We had some above-ground utilities, which they removed, and put them underground. We got some period street lighting, which is nice. The mix of people that go up and down from the old neighborhood to the new neighborhood, that’s good to see. It’s livelier in that way because you’ve got that connection.”

Indeed, Portland has always been about connection. What first put the port in Portland — instead of competing villages like St Helens or Linnton — was a wood-plank road, the region’s first all-season connection between farmlands of the Tualatin Valley to Stumptown’s docks.

The tram connects OHSU and South Waterfront. The streetcar connects the South Waterfront to Portland State University and downtown. And the Tillicum Crossing connects the South Waterfront to OMSI and the Central Eastside. Forming a weave from which a stronger city will rise.

Read more stories about architecture and design by State of Wonder’s columnist-in-residence, Randy Gragg. His residency is funded by the Oregon Community Foundation’s Janet M. & Van Evera Bailey Fund and the Architecture Foundation of Oregon.