With the Portland City Council’s final decision not to further delay projects to build new reservoirs to replace the five historic open reservoirs, on the west side of the city in Washington Park a new below grade water storage tank is being planned in the general footprint of one reservoir. The second of the two reservoirs at Washington Park will be decommissioned and used for new purposes.
The implementation of underground storage tanks may still elicit a spirited discussion. And at the heart of the discussion is how to implement thoughtful change to a historic, well loved cultural resource to the rigors of rapidly evolving public safety and seismic protection mandates.
Reservoirs 3 and 4 were constructed as part of the Bull Run water system, a gravity-fed mountain watershed system built between 1894 and 1911 to provide the City of Portland with high quality drinking water. Reservoirs 3 and 4 continue to function as the city's primary water distribution source for the west side of Portland. The reservoirs have been in continuous operation for more than 100 years. They serve as a featured amenity enriching the landscape of Washington Park, one of Portland's largest and oldest parks, with vistas of open water, and period historic structures. Also due to their location on hills on the west side of the city, scenic views are afforded across the reservoir water.
As summarized in the National Register of Historic Places nomination, “one of the most defining landscape principle of Reservoirs 3 and 4 is the open expanse of water, their irregular shape, rusticated concrete structures, and ornate wrought iron detailing of fences and lampposts. The reservoirs are a striking and elegant addition to the serene forest that makes up this end of Washington Park. The surrounding forest is composed primarily of Douglas fir, western red cedar, and big leaf maple all predominating native tree species of the Pacific Northwest.”
The challenge is to design a 100 year plus engineering solution while simultaneously designing a thoughtful change to the context, natural park setting, and historic district. Arising from the Olmsted Brothers vision for Portland and the City Beautiful movement, the changes to the Reservoirs offer an opportunity to evaluate the evolution of development outside Washington Park within the Park, changes to the Reservoirs themselves, public access, and protection of cultural amenities. If access to the “water” is transformed to a public amenity, how does the design enhance the serene qualities of the site? How should the change reconnect the reservoir area with the surrounding neighborhood and Park features?
The reservoirs embody the challenge associated with retaining a historic place as both a visual element and a dynamic landscape. The safety, security and seismic solutions may alter the purpose of the visual feature and the interaction with the “water,” but that does not translate into a diminishing of a historic place. There are no easy answers. In the end, this final decision should be assuring that the Washington Park Reservoirs will continue to provide safe, reliable water storage, and to elicit wonder well beyond the next 100 years.