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A sense of place: Through a design competition, Portland State University plans to transform its campus, as well as downtown

The urban university intends to create a stronger sense of campus identity — and become a leader in revitalizing downtown Portland.


Portland State University is beginning an effort to make its campus more distinctive, which will include adding better signs and other indications that you are on the PSU campus. Photo by: Amanda Waldroupe

It is easy to be on Portland State University’s campus and not know it. There is no front entrance. There aren’t a lot of maps or insignia indicating that one is at a certain part of campus. In many places, city streets bisect the campus, and the university seamlessly blends into downtown Portland.

Portland State University’s administration hopes a design competition will fix those problems, create a stronger sense of identity and community on campus, aid in student enrollment and retention, and spur a revitalization of downtown Portland.

Three design firms, selected to compete in the Place Matters Design Competition, submitted their design proposals to PSU on May 30. A public comment period runs through June 10. The winning proposal is expected to be selected by a jury in late June, and the university expects to begin implementing short-term elements of the winning design immediately. 

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In interviews with Oregon ArtsWatch, university officials said that the Place Matters initiative is pragmatic, as well as lofty and ambitious, with parts of the design plan expected to range from wayfinding maps and signs to street-lighting to solidifying Portland State’s role as a leader in Portland’s arts, culture, and education sectors. 


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PSU makes no secrets about its ambitions. Combined with its proposal to build a new Keller Auditorium, PSU hopes its placemaking efforts spur something sorely needed in Portland: the revitalization of downtown.  

“I’m excited about the opportunity for PSU to be the center of arts, culture, and education in downtown, which I think is what’s going to revitalize downtown,” PSU President Ann Cudd told Oregon ArtsWatch. “We’re eager to help bring about a resurgence of Portland.”

The Karl Miller Center was substantially renovated in 2006, to be more inviting, include an entry plaza, and incorporate native plantings. Photo by: Amanda Waldroupe
The Karl Miller Center was substantially renovated in 2006 to be more inviting, include an entry plaza, and incorporate native plantings. Photo by: Amanda Waldroupe


Placemaking is an inter-disciplinary concept in urban planning and design referring to the design of public spaces. Placemaking considers the people and communities who use the space, and the environment — both built and green – where those spaces are located to design spaces that reflect identity. Ultimately, the intention is to create public spaces that improve urban vitality and the connections between people and place.

When it comes to college campuses, many have iconic spaces that help define the college’s identity. Reed College’s Eliot Hall and Old Dorm Block, designed by Portland architect A.E. Doyle, define the campus’s atmosphere and architecture. Lewis & Clark College has its Frank Manor House, with a reflecting pool facing one side.

The University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning dominates the skyline in many parts of the city. In New York City, white and purple flags with the university’s logo on them fly in front of every New York University building, clearly identifying the university amidst Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood. 

Portland State University has been challenged, by its nature as an urban university and its history, to find its own sense of campus placemaking and identity.

Portland State’s student body is nontraditional: PSU boasts the most diverse student body amongst Oregon’s universities; in addition, the average age of incoming students ranges from the mid-20s to early-30s. Those students most likely live off-campus, given the university has less dormitory-style housing than other similar-sized universities. They also may have families and work part- or full-time jobs. All those factors mean that a good number of students are not staying on campus for very long.


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Founded in Vanport then forced to move three times after the 1948 Vanport Flood, Portland State moved to the South Park Blocks in 1952, taking over the former Lincoln High School (now Lincoln Hall). Since then, the university has grown in fits and starts. 

“PSU is a hodgepodge of styles and buildings,” said Don Stastny, a local architect who is managing the Place Matters competition for PSU.

“There isn’t a definition of boundary,” he said. “The connections from the university back into the city are really fairly undefined.”

Stastny’s decades-long career has been defined by placemaking. He managed the design competition for Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, as well as the Oklahoma City National Memorial and the Flight 93 National Memorial.

“The idea of design competition is that you are able to develop multi-disciplinary teams that can … come up with extraordinary answers,” he said.

The three design firms chosen to submit design proposals are:

  • A collaboration between BIG, a Danish design firm, and PLACE, a Portland firm. Both specialize in placemaking, and PLACE has participated in the design of two PSU buildings, the Native American Student and Community Center and the Vernier Science Center. 
  • Bionic, a San Francisco-based company known for landscape architecture. The firm is working with Office 52, a Portland-based architecture firm.
  • A collaborative led by Walker Macy, a landscape architecture firm that planned and designed PSU’s Urban Plaza. Among other organizations, the collaborative includes Hennebery Eddy Architects.


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Bringing together professions such as architects, landscape architects, graphic designers, and artists can yield “different conceptions of place and meaning,” Stastny said, with the potential to create placemaking at PSU “that is distinct.” 

Sarah Schwarz, the president of the PSU Foundation, the university’s philanthropic arm, has been deeply involved in developing the Place Matters initiative. “Both the university board [of trustees] and our Foundation board were really compelled by this idea of creating a campus where students felt a heightened sense of belonging,” she said.

The question the Place Matters initiative seeks to answer, as she put it, is “how do you create a campus of belonging?”

“There is some lack of real distinctive sense of place here,” Cudd said. “It would be great if people say, ‘I’m on PSU’s campus right now,’ and say, ‘this is a beautiful campus.’”  

Portland State University’s motto — “Let Knowledge Serve the City” — can be seen driving south on Southwest Broadway. This type of distinctive feature is what university officials hope to see more of as the result of a place-making competition. Photo by: Amanda Waldroupe
Portland State University’s motto — “Let Knowledge Serve the City” — can be seen driving south on Southwest Broadway. This type of distinctive feature is what university officials hope to see more of as the result of a placemaking competition. Photo by: Amanda Waldroupe


There are areas of campus that are more iconic to the institution. Anyone driving down Southwest Broadway toward Harrison Street can see the university’s motto inscribed across the concrete of the bridge above: “Let Knowledge Serve the City.”  

The Urban Center Building opens out to a quintessential urban environment: a plaza with retail, the Portland streetcar and MAX trains running through it. Nearby, Montgomery Plaza is a pedestrian-only space, recently created by permanently closing off Montgomery Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues to car traffic (the result of an agreement between the university and the Portland Bureau of Transportation). In the northeast corner of campus, students turned a vacant lot into a skate park, transforming it into an active outdoor gathering space.

In the past decade, a handful of buildings have undergone substantial renovation. Jason Franklin, PSU’s associate vice president for planning, construction, and real estate, said that, in each, the university was intentional about adding more spaces for students to study, gather, and spend time.


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The Karl Miller Center may be one of the best examples of placemaking created through renovation. It is located on Southwest Broadway, an area of campus that Franklin and others admit is little more than a corridor of nondescript concrete buildings.

A corner of the Karl Miller Center was cut out to make room for a spacious entryway, landscaped with native trees and other plantings — making the building, and the area surrounding it, more inviting. “It’s not just this monolith,” Franklin said.

In 2022, the university opened its Native American Student and Community Center, which Stastny designed. Every component of the building — art, architecture, landscape, walkways — is informed by cultural practices of local Indigenous communities.

Over the past decade, Indigenous students, faculty, community members, and the Indigenous Nations Studies program have transformed a vacant lot at Southwest 10th Avenue and Montgomery into an oak savanna, the landscape of the Willamette Valley prior to white settlement. The area is used to grow native plants important to Indigenous food, cultural practices, and ceremony.

PSU’s most significant asset remains the South Park Blocks. It gives the university the idyllic, green landscape common to so many colleges and universities, and many campus buildings –including the library, the student union, and Lincoln Hall — face the Park Blocks, making it a space that students frequently traverse.

“There is a certain cohesiveness to it,” Stastny said. To him, the success of the Place Matters initiative depends on being intentional about “taking what we have and upleveling it.”

Or, as Cudd put it, “we could take it up a notch.”


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In recent years, Indigenous students and the Native American Studies program have turned a vacant lot into an oak savanna, mimicking what the Willamette Valley looked like before white settlement. Places that reflect the culture of people who use the space is central to place-making. Photo by: Amanda Waldroupe
In recent years, Indigenous students and the Native American Studies program have turned a vacant lot into an oak savanna, mimicking what the Willamette Valley looked like before white settlement. Reflecting the culture of people who used the space is central to placemaking. Photo by: Amanda Waldroupe


It’s likely that no new buildings or construction will result from the Place Matters initiative. Instead, the initiative is expected to roll out incrementally over a period of years. But Schwarz said money is already set aside, so it’s possible that changes will be made to PSU’s campus this year, or in early 2025.

Some initiatives may be as simple as adding lawn chairs in the South Park Blocks to encourage people to spend time in the space. 

Other low-hanging fruit includes better signage, maps, and wayfinding so that people — students and the public alike — know where they are on campus, and how to get to other parts. More lighting is likely to be installed, the design of which may evoke something distinctive of PSU. The purpose of lighting is twofold: to make the campus feel safer and to facilitate more evening and night-time activity on the campus’s outdoor spaces.

Murals and art installations are a possibility, as well as more street closures like Montgomery Plaza’s; community gardens, a dog park, different types of landscaping, tree-planting, and other plantings. Information on the history of the university, its buildings, and important people may be installed around campus. Posters and other types of public announcements may become more common, to advertise lectures, performances, and other events taking place that are open to the public.

“It’d be great if the shows going on at Lincoln Hall are made more visible to people,” Cudd said.

The city’s Green Loop — a pedestrian and bike path under construction through the central city — is expected to pass through the South Park Blocks and Portland State’s campus. Figuring out how the campus will incorporate the Green Loop will likely be a priority, and it will be another way to embrace Portland State’s status as an urban university. “We are so permeable to the city,” Cudd said. “We don’t want to lose that. That’s got to be a feature, not a bug.” 

Stastny said many of PSU’s buildings are “blah buildings” with low ceilings and “a maze of hallways and classrooms.” The interior spaces of different buildings could also see a facelift with new coats of paint, widened hallways, and other renovations.


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the South Park Blocks, which hosts the Saturday Farmer’s Market, is one of PSU’s most distinctive features, with many university buildings facing them.
The South Park Blocks, which hosts the Saturday Farmers Market, is one of PSU’s most distinctive features, with many university buildings facing the park. Photo by: Amanda Waldroupe


As PSU began planning the Place Matters initiative, Schwarz said, “we got pretty lofty in the room” in thinking about what could be possible.

“We actually talked not just about placemaking, but about city making,” she said. “We see this as a catalytic project that could expand all across downtown.”    

For decades, downtown Portland was defined by a retail core supported by office space, with the people coming to those offices for work also shopping and dining there. The COVID-19 pandemic permanently altered that paradigm. With vacant office and retail space, and a persistent crisis of homelessness, mental health, and drug addiction, downtown Portland’s recovery — and its purpose in the larger city and region — has not yet been defined.

Portland has become “a city that really needs help,” Franklin said. “We’ve lost our way. There isn’t that vision that’s as apparent as it has been in the past.”

With the Place Matters initiative, Portland State University is coming out swinging, arguing that the placemaking it will undergo can be replicated throughout downtown.

“It can put Portland back in that place of leadership that we were back in the ‘90s and the early aughts, when everyone was turning to Portland to see how you planned a city, how you created places that matter,” Franklin said. “We can do that again. There’s an opportunity to lead what downtowns are going to become post-COVID.”

Portland State’s answer is the arts, culture, and education. Further north on the Park Blocks are the Portland Art Museum and the Oregon Historical Society. One block east on Broadway is the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and the Portland’5 Centers for the Arts.


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On the PSU campus itself, Cudd referred to “our arts corridor along Broadway” — Lincoln Hall, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, and, PSU hopes, a new Keller Auditorium.

Stastny thinks there are ways that PSU’s placemaking efforts can blend into and lead people to different parts of downtown, in the same way that Pioneer Courthouse Square acted as a central node that invited people to gather, then disperse in different directions.

As an example, he wondered, “is there a lighting system that began to define PSU, and a subsidiary system that led into different neighborhoods?”    

“How could you use PSU as this head of the octopus that connects you to different parts of downtown?” he asked. “That is the potential of what PSU could be.”

Speaking of both PSU’s placemaking and downtown Portland, he said, “this is the path to something better.”

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Amanda Waldroupe is a freelance journalist and writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Guardian, Bklyner, The Brooklyn Rail, InvestigateWest, The Oregonian, the Portland Tribune, Oregon Humanities, and many others. She has been a fellow and writer-in-residence at the Logan Nonfiction Program, the Banff Centre’s Literary Journalism program, Alderworks Alaska, and the Sou’wester Artist Residency Program.

4 Responses

  1. Portland State already has its own font. All of the buildings you’ll notice have the dzne lettering style. elizabethAnderson some years ago developed an alohabet for the buildings and for other uses. I sulpted the actual letters in three dimentions in a prismatic gorm and the original patterns are at a Portland foundry. Elizabeth and I are students of Lloyd Reynolds (years ago) who taught at Reed abd had a national reputation in Calligraphy. This style should be perpetuated in whatever design goes on in future public construction. And perhaps some expansion of it could be devised with symbols and other graphic and glyphic Portland State design.

    1. Ralph, I’d love to talk with you more about the work you did sculpting the letters onto PSU’s buildings. (Also, I am a current student of Reed’s Scriptorium, so I think of myself as “grand-student” of Lloyd Reynolds, if you will.) Please feel free to email me at awaldroupe (at) gmail (dot) com. I hope you do! Thank you.

      — Amanda Waldroupe

  2. This project has already done catastrophic damage to the PSU relationship to the neighborhood. Funding is a dream. Thinking they can get a hotel and restaurants to that area, ridiculous.
    What is their mission?

  3. Hopefully the project will place some emphasis on local art treasures within or near campus, including sculptures by notables Don Wilson, Fred Littman, Tom Hardy, Jim Hansen, Tom Morandi and Lee Kelly, since many of them have a long history with the school. The older buildings generally are not well suited for hanging artworks, but that should be corrected and made a priority if you’re going to stress the local culture beyond PSU’s little museum.

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