By Don MacGillivray
OMSI, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry is planning for significant growth and change over the next twenty years. With one million visitors each year the museum is a world class facility for scientific exhibitions, innovation and public educational programs.
No place in central Portland has as much potential as OMSI to grow, change and prosper. They own eleven undeveloped acres on their property which they expect to use in ways that will advance the central Eastside as well as provide institutional support.
It is one of the largest parcels in downtown Portland with one quarter mile of river frontage and near a major transit hub near the new Tilikum Crossing bridge.
In 1992, annual visitor count at the original OMSI building, near the Portland Zoo, reached half a million which was five times the anticipated capacity of that facility.
This necessitated their move to the industrial Central Eastside that few people believed to be a good location. Today the Central Eastside is growing and changing in many ways that were believed to be unlikely.
Looking at the plans developed over the last twenty years, people correctly saw the potential for growth. OMSI is utilizing the goals and ideas in these plans to build out their property and to create a positive future for themselves.
For one hundred and fifty years, Portland has been interested in scientific advancements happening around the world. In Portland’s early history, prominent leaders expressed interest in science and innovation though their private avocations and collections.
These became available for public view in various venues but it wasn’t until 1897 that the Portland City Free Museum was opened in City Hall for public viewing. This museum outgrew its space and was forced to close in 1936.
Its 35,000 exhibits and artifacts were removed and put into storage until other options could be found. The depression and the war years made reopening difficult. It wasn’t until 1946 that the display was re-opened in the Portland Hotel (today’s Pioneer Courthouse Square).
Support for the museum grew and, in 1949, the Lloyd Corporation helped to provide a location for a museum on NE Hassalo St. Within a year Oregon’s first planetarium opened. It was here that the name Oregon Museum of Science and Industry was coined.
By 1955, the museum’s annual attendance reached 25,000 visitors, but its building had to be demolished for the construction of the new Lloyd Center Mall. The City was willing to lease OMSI land in Washington Park for one dollar per year where a new facility was designed and built largely by volunteers.
In 1957 union masons laid over 100,000 bricks in one day to build the walls of the new OMSI building that opened ten months later. It was built to serve 100,000 visitors a year, but after thirty years it had outgrown its facilities and a new group began working to find an appropriate new location for OMSI.
PGE donated the current site and $35 million was privately raised to build a bigger, better OMSI on the banks of the Willamette River in its present location in the Inner Eastside Industrial District.
The design includes multiple new buildings on the existing site, and the dominance of the main OMSI building continues.
The OMSI Plan is unique because it is separated from the rest of Portland by the river, the main rail lines, and the MAX and Streetcar lines to the south. SE Water Avenue is the only major link to the surrounding district.
The major changes to the site will be the development of several redefined tracts of land that will be available for development to the east and south of the OMSI building.
Water Avenue will be maintained and a new loop street for autos and pedestrians will connect these new facilities and these blocks will be unique in their size and shape from the historic pattern of the surrounding Eastside district.
The plan has two main entryways – at the north end of the site is the redefined entrance for vehicles, pedestrians, and bicycles. At the south end there will be an enhanced gateway for those arriving by MAX and the Streetcar with a small square beside the station platforms.
The two main existing OMSI buildings will be upgraded with a new entrance pavilion and improvements within the buildings.
The Portland Electric Power Company(PEPCO) building will be retained and developed for a use yet to be determined. OMSI programs and events will utilize these areas as well as the public areas in the new buildings along with signage that will unify and define the property.
In addition to these changes OMSI wants to integrate the overall design into the rich, multi-layered context of the Portland downtown with a unified design to bring a greater identity and significance to the role of OMSI within the entire City and the State.
The Willamette riverfront, the associated open spaces and squares along with the streets, sidewalks, and landscaping will be very important in the overall design.
This area is also home to a Portland Community College Building; the Oregon Department of Transportation; the privately owned 1800 Water Ave.; Partners; Portland General Electric; and the Portland Opera.
In keeping with the OMSI mission of providing learning and new developments in science and industry, they are planning the new campus to have the latest and most sustainable innovations in technology so they will be a model to others.
The museum will be a center of sustainability in the design of carbon neutral and alternative energy systems and techniques, using the best technologies. With opportunities for hands-on demonstrations, Portland will improve its international leadership in scientific exhibition.