Multnomah County Central Courthouse receives Design Advice (images)

Multnomah County has presented its new Central Courthouse to the Portland Design Commission. The 17 story, $300 million project will replace the existing courthouse on SW 4th Avenue, which is considered seismically unsound and no longer fit for use. The architects for the project are Portland based SRG Partnership and New York based CGL RicciGreene. The landscape architects are PLACE.

The program for the building includes multiple courts, office for District Attorneys, Public Defenders, Sheriffs, as well as support areas for staff, juries, defendants and the public. No parking is proposed. The project intends to achieve LEED Gold Certification.

Multnomah County Courthouse

The site for the new courthouse was selected last year, after a long list of sites was narrowed to two potential sites. The site that was chosen is on County owned land at the Hawthorne Bridgehead, surrounded by SW Madison St, Naito Parkway, Jefferson St and First Ave. Roughly one quarter of the block is occupied by the Jefferson Station office building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and will remain. In January 2016 it was reported that Multnomah County will buy the Veritable Quandary restaurant annex and incorporate the land it sits on into the site. The restaurant will close in the autumn.

Multnomah County Courthouse

The courthouse will be arranged in plan as an “L” shape, split into two distinct volumes: a bar for the courtrooms on the east half of the block; and a smaller tower form for the judges and staff offices at the northwest corner of the block. The public circulation will be located at the perimeter of the courtroom volume, allowing for uninterrupted views to Waterfront Park, the Willamette River and Mt Hood.

The main entry to the building will be located at the corner of SW Madison and First Ave. The entry sequence will be arranged so that the public lobby can be seen directly from the entrance, without being obscured by the security screening area. Unlike the current courthouse there will be sufficient interior space to ensure that security queues won’t have to form outside. The triple height lobby will include a grand staircase aligned with the east-west axis of the building. The staircase will terminate at the jury assembly area on the third floor, where the building will have views to the river uninterrupted by the tree line.

Multnomah County Courthouse

The primary material for the Courthouse will be limestone, a material which the architects point out has a long history of use in US courthouses.

Multnomah County Courthouse

At over 300′ in height, the new courthouse will exceed the 200′ height limit that currently exist on the site. In March 2015 the City Council voted 4-1 to approve the West Quadrant Plan, which established the principle that heights on this block, and others at the Hawthorne and Morrison Bridgeheads, should be raised to 325′. These height increases have yet to go into effect, and are dependent on the adoption of the Central City 2035 plan later this year. To keep on schedule the County has applied for a Zoning Map Amendment to increase the allowable height on the site.  The Planning & Sustainability Commission recently voted to approve the height increase. The final decision will be made by the Portland City Council, who are currently scheduled to consider the matter on May 26th. A similar process last year resulted in the approval of a height increase for the Multnomah County Health Department.

Multnomah County Courthouse

The first images of the project were publicly released when the Courthouse was presented to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners in February 2016. The project design has remained fairly consistent since then, though a proposal for landscaping a triangular parcel of County-owned land to the north of the building is no longer being considered.

memo [PDF] to the Design Commission, published before the May 5th advisory hearing, outlined potential areas for discussion. These included: the ground level of the building; the overall massing and composition; exterior materials; the design of the rooftop elements; and the open space improvements. By far the largest area of discussion was the ground floor of the building, particularly as it relates to SW Naito, Madison and Jefferson. A concern raised by Bureau of Development Services Staff, and shared by the Design Commission, was that the ground floor along SW Naito is being used for short term defendant holding, and that this compromises the City’s active streetscape requirements. Security concerns would mean that the ground floor windows along Naito, already high above the ground due to the grade differences, would need to be translucent. The applicants were strongly encouraged to study ways to make the building less hostile at the pedestrian level.

A second Design Advice hearing for the Multnomah County Central Courthouse is currently scheduled for June 16th. Assuming the height increase is approved, the County will be able to proceed to Design Review. The project will be required to go through a Type III Design Review, with public hearings before the Design Commission. Construction is expected to begin in 2017.


4 thoughts on “Multnomah County Central Courthouse receives Design Advice (images)

    • I’m glad to see Design Commission raised the issue of the ground floor facade on Natio. It does look like they’ll widen the sidewalk there, within the existing curb-to-property line distance.

      The raised bike lane along Madison is a good idea. It does look like, though, that they area doing it without dedicating any site area. It also appears to be only about 6′ wide. It should be 12′ wide, to accommodate the growing number of bike commuters downtown. And surely within the lifetime of this building, bike share will grow significantly, and this will become a choke point. (Of course by that point, one of the traffic lanes might be converted for bikes)

  1. The east façade play is not an adequate offset for the inelegant block massing presented. This is such a significant site and civic project demanding a more elegant and compelling execution. All the more so given the proposed waiver of current height limits on this site (and the Morrison bridgehead). We should be using these additional heights for better design not just more floors. I fully support the idea of using taller buildings at bridgeheads to act as a kind of “gateway towers” to contrast the step down to the river concept but to fulfill this function the massing needs to be elegant and lighter. Unfortunately the current proposal is closer to the black wall we see on the east side of the Burnside Bridge with Yard by Skylab–walls do not make good gateways. As proposed this building appears to have pushed itself to the front of the line without deserving to be there…

  2. Given the prominence of the site, this would be a fantastic opportunity for a statement tower to add to our skyline: something elegantly taller (I know I’m wishfully thinking) in the neighborhood of 500 to 700′, E-W oriented to slim the silhouette as to not completely block out east facing views of buildings behind it (or to avoid making the buildings behind it invisible from the east bank), potentially with a curved glass façade to visually contrast the overall rectangular context of the surrounding towers. This design as is lacks basic level of contextual integration that a front-row, waterfront site deserves. The current proposal would be a fine design set back a few blocks into the city where it’s less visually obstructive, but sites like this are too rarely available and important for such designs…

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