Portland advocates for parks and public space were excited when city officials announced the plan to overhaul and reopen O’Bryant Square, the downtown park now named Darcelle XV Plaza, after the late, renowned drag performer. Now, roughly a year since the plaza’s rebirth process began, some early project stakeholders and local urban design leaders fear the plans are being swayed by private business interests. 

Though it was once seen as a feat of public planning, O’Bryant Square was not well-maintained over the years. By the end of its life, the park was better known for seedy activity than award-winning urban design. The city of Portland closed O’Bryant Square in 2018 due to structural issues with its underground parking garage, and it’s been fenced off and unused ever since. 

But in late 2022, Portland leaders said they would take steps to make the area usable again. After completing the necessary construction (demolishing the underground parking structure and filling the hole left in its wake), the city plans to reopen the plaza with a fresh design starting in 2025. 

Darcelle XV Plaza will open on an interim basis for three to five years in a “beta” phase, which will save the city money and allow planners to see what will and won’t work for the space. 

After nearly a year of idea-gathering and planning, Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) released the final proposal for the interim Darcelle XV Plaza design in December, and said the park would be managed in partnership with Downtown Portland Clean & Safe. The plan, designed by NNA Landscape Architecture firm, proved to be controversial— particularly for its inclusion of a six-foot high fence around the plaza’s perimeter. 

The proposed design for Darcelle XV Plaza. portland parks & rec


Many people in Portland were enthusiastic about the idea of reactivating a once-lively piece of central downtown, and hoped the new plaza could aid in post-pandemic downtown recovery. But some critics of the proposed design believe it reflects the city eschewing the public process in favor of downtown business owners, and they want to know: When the construction is finished, who will Darcelle XV Plaza serve? 

Gatekeeping public space

When the city unveiled plans to reopen O’Bryant Square, it grabbed the attention of many Portlanders with an interest in urban design and public space— a subject that has received significant attention over the past few years, in Portland and beyond. Locally, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT)’s ongoing Public Street Plazas initiative— begun as a way to encourage socially-distanced outdoor activity during the pandemic— has demonstrated long-term benefits for street safety, business vitality, and city livability

Harnessing the burgeoning citywide interest in activating public space, the Portland Parks Foundation (PPF) led the “Back to Square One: Rethinking O’Bryant Square and the Future of Public Space” project last winter, in collaboration with PP&R, the Portland State University Center for Public Interest Design, and the Harvard Loeb Fellowship. 

After a series of workshops, urban planning webinars, and public input collection, 17 design teams created concepts for the plaza

During the program, community members reiterated the importance of acknowledging the LGBTQ+ legacy at the site through the plaza’s design. The site, which is about half a mile from Darcelle XV Showplace, is located within Portland’s “Pink Triangle,” a district with historical significance to Portland’s LGBTQ+ community and the site of Gay Pride events over the years. Enthusiasm for this idea only grew when, last summer, the city renamed the plaza to honor the late Darcelle, an iconic Portlander and legend of the local queer scene who was the world’s oldest living drag queen when she died in March last year. 

People also suggested including public gardens, artwork, food carts, and involving Portland’s unhoused community members in park programming. 

The final proposal contains elements present in the community recommendations, such as shelter/shade structures, nods to the local queer history, a chandelier to honor Darcelle, and an event stage. But other parts of the design, particularly the six-foot-high security fence, confused people who had participated in the public outreach process. 

At a February 1 Portland Design Commission briefing on Darcelle XV Plaza, project leaders said the fence was crucial. 

Steve Wytcherley, director of operations at Clean & Safe, said incidents with unhoused people in crisis downtown put a strain on the city’s “ability to have vibrant, safe areas.” He said keeping the plaza fenced in at night will help attract tourists to the area, boosting the financial outlook for nearby hotels and attractions. 

“It’s unfortunate to have to consider the presence of a fence,” Wytcherley said. “[But] it’s pretty much essential for us as a partner to be able to do the work we say we’re going to do.” 

Fence opponents didn’t deny downtown Portland’s challenges. But they said enclosing the plaza in a fence would defeat the project’s main purpose: To create a truly public, accessible space where everyone feels welcome.  

Former PPF Director Randy Gragg— who led the foundation’s “Reimagining O’Bryant Square” program last year before he retired in September— submitted a letter to the Portland Design Commission ahead of the February 1 briefing on the plaza. In the letter, Gragg wrote “the current scheme is troubling in both how it was conceived and what it signals about the future of our downtown.” (Gragg wanted to make it clear he is speaking as a private citizen and not on behalf of the Portland Parks Foundation.) 

“For certain, these are complicated times for our downtown,” Gragg wrote. “Everybody who participated in ‘Reimagining O’Bryant Square’ understood the challenges, but the vast majority also saw an opportunity for Portland to face these challenges with compassion, creativity, and community, not with barricades and exclusion.” 

In addition to other public testimony the Design Commission received on the subject, commissioners also shared their concerns about the design. 

Design Commission Vice Chair Chandra Robinson said even though the park gates would be open to the public during the day— Wytcherley emphasized this point during his presentation— people may still feel excluded by the fence. 

“People who have always lived with some privilege…feel welcome everywhere you go. For someone else, you see a fence and even if the gates are open, you’re not sure if you’re allowed there, because you often aren’t,” Robinson said. “So you cannot put a fence around a public space…it doesn’t matter what it looks like.” 

Others expressed concern that building a fence around this plaza would set a precedent for other Portland parks, especially those run by Downtown Portland Clean & Safe and other Enhanced Service Districts (ESDs). Clean & Safe is also contracted with PP&R to manage Director Park a few blocks to the south, and may have an interest in running the programming at other downtown public spaces. 

Project leaders said they wouldn’t use Darcelle XV Plaza as a test site for fencing other spaces. Still, some people have doubts. 

“Out of the 1,000-plus participants [in PPF’s program], only one person advocated for fencing the plaza: a representative from Portland Clean & Safe,” Gragg wrote. “Building the first fenced public plaza in Portland history will be a sad punctuation mark on an amazing legacy, a concession to private interests as opposed to community hopes, and a signal to visitors, investors, and ourselves what we believe the future of downtown Portland will be.” 


Food carts, dog parks, and private interests 

Darcelle XV Plaza is located in the shadow of the Block 216 high-rise, home of the new Ritz-Carlton. Though Ritz-Carlton developers promised to bring prestige to the area, many Portlanders aren’t over the loss of what preceded Block 216 on Southwest Alder Street and 10th Avenue: The Alder Street food cart pod. 

The Alder Street pod was the city’s largest and most well-known food cart locale, housing around 60 carts at its peak. After being displaced by Ritz-Carlton construction in 2019, some former Alder pod cart owners saw an opportunity to move back to the area when the city announced the O’Bryant Square revitalization. And for a while, it looked like their hopes would come to fruition. 

Before PP&R revealed its fenced-in plaza design plan, project leaders had already agreed to a different design submitted by nonprofit Friends of the Green Loop and the design firm SERA. The plan highlighted the plaza’s location along the future “Green Loop'': A six-mile linear park planned to circle around central Portland and provide easy, multimodal connectivity. In the plan, Friends of the Green Loop— which already operates the “Cart Blocks” food cart pod on West Ankeny— featured a setup for food carts and substantial outdoor seating, making room for some of the former Alder pod occupants to move back near their old digs. 

In August, city staff said they would move forward with a combination of proposals from Friends of the Green Loop and Clean & Safe. The plaza created with this partnership would contain the Green Loop’s proposed food carts and seating area, with Clean & Safe tapped to run security operations and provide their own programming. 

The Green Loop plan. friends of the green loop


So, why aren’t there food carts in the current design plan? 

On July 20, Brian M. Owendoff, principal and CEO at the Portland-based BMO Commercial Real Estate, sent a letter to PP&R Commissioner Dan Ryan. In the letter, Owendoff urges plaza project leaders to include a fence and dog park in the space— and not to include food carts. Owendoff said he was writing as an engaged Portland resident with experience in the local real estate industry, but he also revealed that he’s the Block 216/Ritz-Carlton’s “owner’s representative.”  

Owendoff said the market currently doesn’t demand more food carts in downtown Portland. In addition to two nearby outdoor food cart pods, he cited the forthcoming food hall planned for the Block 216 building’s ground floor. 

“Flooding the market with too many food vendors will benefit no one,” Owendoff wrote. 

Food cart proponents point out that there are fewer food trucks currently occupying the area surrounding Darcelle XV Plaza than there were at the Alder pod alone during its heyday.  

Steven Lien, executive director of Travel Gay Portland and CEO of underU4men, both headquartered very near the plaza, also expressed his opposition to food carts. 

In a July 20 letter to Ryan, Lien wrote that although food carts are “part of the Portland culture” and Darcelle XV Park is located near the former Alder pod, “times have changed.” 

“This plaza should complement the commercial offerings and investments and not compete with them,” Lien wrote.

Others aren’t convinced. 

Last week, with support from Friends of the Green Loop, several former Alder food cart pod occupants delivered a letter to Portland City Council asking to “discuss [their] future.” The six signees— Jane Kim (#1 Bento), Francisco Castañeda (Tito’s Burritos), Noe Uribe Mendoza (Villa Angel Taqueria), Lily Chen (Hua Li House), Mahmoud Zeri (Kafta House), and Run Zeng (Beijing House)— currently operate their businesses at the Cart Blocks pod, located along West Burnside St at the south end of the North Park Blocks. 

“Many of our customers from our previous location would eat food from our businesses at O'Bryant Square,” the letter reads. “We hoped that once O'Bryant re-opened, some of us would be able to move back closer to our original location…However, we are now being told that none of us will be welcome to relocate to O'Bryant Square.” 

The food cart owners said that many of them are immigrants to the United States who have worked hard to make a living with their small businesses. 

“We know that many of our neighbors have deeper roots in Portland and are much more powerful than we are so we don't want to seem ungrateful or presumptuous,” the letter says. “We just would like an opportunity to continue to contribute to Portland's comeback.” 

Design Commission members and testifiers at the February 1 meeting were also skeptical about the decision to forgo food carts. 

“Even though there were punks hanging around, and kids up to no good or whatever, I still ate lunch [at O’Bryant Square] because there was a fantastic group of food carts [nearby],” Robinson said. “If there were food carts again, people would have a reason to hang out outside.” 

Dog park doubters say they don’t have a problem with the idea in theory, but they worried about it taking up a piece of the plaza that could be used for something else. Some members of the Design Commission said other than the Ritz-Carlton, there aren’t many residential buildings in the immediate area, and people who have dogs can utilize the nearby Park Blocks.  

“This is such a small piece of land, it's only a half-block…it’s also taking up a key corner [of the plaza],” Commissioner Jessica Molinar said. “Corners are critical. They need to be active. Locating a dog park in this particular spot is not great.” 

Gragg, the former PPF director, put it more bluntly. In his letter to the Design Commission, he wrote that the plaza’s current design, particularly the fence, dog park, and lack of food carts,  “has been directed almost entirely by a narrow group of private interests.” 

Gragg said although those initially involved in the plaza revival project “all voiced concerns about the fence [and] believed a small group of food carts would help animate the space and keep it safe,” PP&R “ignored [their] recommendation and began immediately negotiating with Clean & Safe, inviting a representative to join the design meetings.” 

Though Portlanders can still provide input on Darcelle XV Plaza, the bulk of the project planning is complete. No major changes are on the table, at least not until the end of the three-to-five-year beta period. 

“The interim park will give us the opportunity to really test different activities and programming,” PP&R Capital Projects Manager Lora Lillard said at the February 1 Design Commission meeting. “It's a new model for us, and we're really excited about that.”