PORTLAND, Ore. - Pioneer Courthouse Square may be 'Portland's livingroom' but a fairly new urban park just a couple of blocks away is coming into its own as a central-city gathering spot.
Every Friday we put the spotlight on a local park and this week we headed to Director Park, a small, half-acre space at 815 S.W. Park Avenue that began making its mark in the city last summer, following its official grand opening in late 2009.
The park is named in memory of Simon and Helen Director.
The two have long since passed away and their grandson, Jordan Director Schnitzer (who made a sizable donation for the development of the park) named it in their honor.
It actually took years and years of planning for Director Park to come to fruition and in the end it cost a lot more than originally planned. It seemed everyone involved wanted to make sure it was done right.
"It's prime real estate and they really wanted to make sure a park that came in here was a real positive space to be and a positive impact to Portland and their businesses," explained Alicia Hammock, the park's Cultural and Events Coordinator.
Hammock has worked at Director Park since the beginning and has been instrumental in bringing special events, shows and other activities there, which has really drawn in the community. During the busy months she works on-site at the park in a nondescript little office that is simply labeled 'Park Attendant.'
The title on the door doesn't begin to describe the work that Hammock does at Director Park. She plans and executes the events that go on there, manages a small team of park hosts and keeps in close contact with local businesses in the area to ensure what's happening at the park fits in with the neighborhood.
Hammock has been with Portland Parks & Recreation for over 13 years and took on this new job as a challenge to see what she could make happen in a small downtown space. The idea behind Director Park was to create a European-style piazza that would fit in with the surrounding arts and cultural scene of downtown Portland and become a place where people would gather.
"This is an experimental park," said Hammock, who admitted that it wasn't so easy in the beginning to get folks to come around to the idea of a piazza-type atmosphere.
"A lot of people weren't sure - they were like 'why is it a park when there's no grass?' And it's taken this first year for people to really kind of understand what the architect's visions were," she said.
Now, on any given day, you'll find the park full of life. And more and more people are discovering it all the time.
"Our attendance numbers have doubled from what they were last year," Hammock said.
The park is even becoming a tourist stop. Hammock said she and the hosts often answer questions like 'what restaurants should we go to?' or 'what kinds of events are going on right now?' She said it's become a great opportunity for them to show off Portland.
Part of the attraction of Director Park is that there's a little something for everyone.
The small space is maximized to its greatest benefit. It's not just a flat, 1/2-acre open space - it's actually divided up into several spaces, each with a different function.
"So like right now we have people playing chess and then we have the rest of the people eating at the restaurant and outside on the terrace," Hammock said while showing us around. "We have the Oregon Ballet Theatre and then we also have all the people in the fountain. So there are like four different types of uses going on and plus there's just sitting and existing."
And the space can be transformed to accommodate whatever is going on at the time. For example, the park actually extends to two of the surrounding streets, which can be blocked off for larger events. And the splash fountain (pictured below) can be turned off and drained to create another performance area.
"I look at it as the science of a public space - how do you use it for different types of experiences that draw in different people," Hammock said.
One of those different types of experiences is achieved simply by the sun going down and the lights going on.
You see, a large canopy with over 100 LED lights (pictured at right) is turned on at night and it transforms the park into something magical. We haven't had a chance to see it for ourselves yet, but according to Hammock it's something you don't want to miss.
"At night it is unbelievable," Hammock said. "It's just so beautiful."
As for the chess that Hammock mentioned earlier, she was talking about the giant chess board that has proved to be quite popular. Hammock said she ordered the big chess pieces (which are made of plastic) online and as soon as they arrived, people were interested.
"It was an instant hit," she said.
The chess pieces are put out on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 2:15 p.m. to 4 p.m. and daily from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Anyone can play - all you have to do is step up to the board and begin. Or you can just sit and watch others play.
One of the other fun events at the park is Poetry in the Piazza. Every Monday between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. you can hear local poets read their work at Director Park.
And right now, the Oregon Ballet Theatre is there for OBT Exposed, where they bring their dance studios outdoors. This week they're working on rehearsals for a summer tour of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker.
At OBT Exposed, folks can also find out what it's like to be a ballet dancer by hopping up on stage for a free class. When we stopped by, a large group of children were on the stage following an instructor's lead. Some of the kids took to it right away and for others it was a challenge to keep up, but it was all good fun.
"We love being here because it's just so central," Eli Liliedahl-Allen with the Oregon Ballet Theatre told us when we asked what draws them to Director Park. "We get a lot of great lunchtime traffic and the people who love the fountain. And I think we've had a lot of people who just came by because they always come here and then got surprised and are enjoying OBT Exposed."
Liliedahl-Allen said the Oregon Ballet Theatre first caught wind of Director Park when they were looking for a location for their Fall.ART.Live festival back in 2009. They had previously held the event in their parking lot and quickly learned that a flat slab of pavement wasn't quite the type of atmosphere they wanted. So when they heard about Director Park, they jumped on it.
"There's a natural stage space here," Liliedahl-Allen said. "I don't even know where the conversation started but we decided it would be a really good fit and a great thing to try out."
If You Go
Saturday, July 23 is the last day for OBT Exposed, so that would be a great day to head to Director Park if you want to check out some ballet. It's free and we hear the weather is going to be quite nice.
On Sunday, downtown Portland's Sunday Parkways event will be running from 11 a.m to 4 p.m. and Director Park is right on the route.
Of course if neither of those events are enough to get you to go to downtown Portland, there's the new Ringside Fish House that just opened across the street at the Fox Tower.
Ringside is a familiar name in town and the owners are getting into fish after running two of Portland's most well-known steak restaurants for almost 70 years.
The restaurant actually overlooks Director Park, giving you a fantastic view while you dine.
For lighter fare or to just grab a quick bite to eat, there's a small cafe called Violetta that is located right inside the park. And of course there are a number of neighboring eateries you can visit.
(All photos by KATU.com Producer/Reporter Shannon L. Cheesman)