Wim Wiewel: Time for "Bigger Plans"

Wim Wiewel at the Augen GalleryWim Wiewel keeps a bust of Daniel Burnham in his office. He didn’t bring it to our McCall Society Speaker Series event on October 16, but the Portland State University President did describe it in absentia to make a key observation about Portland and Oregon.

“Make no little plans,” Burnham, the architect and planner whose most celebrated works include the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Union Station in Washington DC, and New York’s Flatiron Building, once said. “They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

For Wiewel, whose career has been focused on making smart urban development possible, Burnham’s famous words are both an inspiration and a call to action. And after five years at the helm of Oregon’s largest urban university, he still sees many places for PSU to go in helping Portland and Oregon make bigger plans. In short, Wiewel believes strongly in the university’s motto, “Let Knowledge Serve the City.”

It isn’t an abstract question to Wiewel. At previous stints as a faculty member and administrator at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the University of Baltimore, he pushed the institutions to make a more direct impact on their cities, through partnerships and development. He has continued this push at Portland State, which now has hundreds of community partners and has instigated or supported several projects that are dramatically reshaping the fabric of downtown Portland.

At the Augen Gallery, Wiewel shared examples of urban universities as neighbors, city planners, entrepreneurs, and of course, as educators. There is the South Campus Gateway, where The Ohio State University worked with the City of Columbus in reviving a deteriorating neighborhood into an entertainment, employment, and residential center. And “Loop U” in Chicago, where dozens of colleges and universities have worked together to create “the biggest college town in Illinois,” home to classrooms and research centers serving 65,000 students while also fostering considerable economic development. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Georgia Tech has created a Technology Square to support tech research and business development on what once were surface parking lots.

Wiewel sees Portland State playing a similar role in its urban home, and he wants to expand it. Already, he noted, the university serves 28,000 students on 50 downtown acres, generating $1.5 billion in economic impacts. It employs another 4,000 full-time positions, and has attracted major national and international research money to Portland. And it’s undertaken major building projects throughout its district, from renovating the historic Lincoln Hall to building nearly room for nearly 1000 students at the College Station residence halls, in what is now Oregon’s densest census tract.

Wiewel also showed how Portland State’s urban work supports 1000 Friends’ Cool Communities program goals, describing how he sees the university supporting key outcomes of better land use planning, including healthier people, more transportation and housing choices, saving taxpayers money, and supporting economic development. Even Oregonians’ goals to protect critical farmland are supported by PSU’s work in downtown Portland, he said, because “the protection of open space depends on great cities for people to live in.”

Portland State benefits from Oregon’s international reputation for sustainability and innovative planning. But it also has an obligation to push such thinking forward, Wiewel argued. That is why he raised Daniel Burnham’s observation about “little plans.”

“Portland and Oregon have been making too many little plans lately,” Wiewel said, noting that innovations like statewide urban growth boundaries and early investment in light rail were quintessentially “big plans.”

“It is time for more big plans,” Wiewel said. As one example, he presented the Innovation Quadrant, a partnership with the City of Portland, OHSU, Portland Community College, and others to create a research-driven economic development hub in central Portland, linked by transit and shared purpose. It is a project that is still underway and has much to do to meet its goals.

But Wiewel expressed confidence that through determination, partnerships, and continued public and private investment, PSU can continue to be a great place not only for its students and workers, but for its city and state, too.