Robert Moses was one of the biggest names in urban planning in the mid-twentieth century, and one of the most polarizing. He was widely known for his strong opinions and disagreements. He had some incredible achievements, among them persuading the United Nations to locate its headquarters in Manhattan instead of Philadelphia by securing the money and land needed, building two the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs campuses in New York City, and building 416 miles of parkways and thirteen bridges in New York City itself.
Despite Moses’ many successes, he is perhaps best known for his feud with Jane Jacobs, a neighborhood activist in New York City. Jacobs rose to prominence for successfully fighting Moses’ plan to build a massive highway through the center of Manhattan in the 1960’s. The highway would have required the bulldozing of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, Jane's hometown.
When Moses came to work in Portland in 1943, he was the Parks Commissioner of New York City, a title that he seemed to use more for building parkways (highways) than playgrounds. His proposal for the Rose City included widening the Ross Island bridge, constructing a Skidmore Street bridge, an interstate bridge, a highway connecting McLoughlin Boulevard with the Skidmore bridge, a Mt. Hood Freeway running through SE Portland, and a footpath connecting the Ross Island bridge and the Skidmore bridge. Moses’ plan also included building seven new schools, an eleven-block Union Station/bus depot plaza, a twenty-four block civic center between SW Salmon and Columbia streets extending from Naito Avenue to 6th Avenue, and a $10 million sewage system.
To see the benefit of Moses’ plan today we really have to put ourselves in the mindset of 1943. America was in the midst of World War II and suburbs were rapidly expanding. The two main goals of the plan were creating jobs for the soldiers returning from the war and creating a car focused city that would allow families living the suburbs to access downtown. The plan didn’t end up getting far, despite its popularity, because of the massive price tag that it came with. The estimated cost started at $75 million, and the regional plan was voted down in 1945.
Today, it is easy to see the faults in Moses’ postwar plan for Portland. If the city had fully implemented his plan it would have tripled the existing mileage of blacktop, which we now know would dramatically increase the urban heat island effect. The city did end up adopting a few parts of his plan, including the Interstate 405/I-5 highway loop that circles downtown, but most major parts of the plan were blocked. Some parts of Moses’ plan took longer to fade, including the eight-lane Mt. Hood Freeway that would have decimated many Southeast Portland neighborhoods. That freeway plan was finally put to rest in the mid-1970’s, around the same time that Portland was starting to focus more on public transit and enacting an urban growth boundary. Just a few years later in 1986, light rail service launched. This was the first step towards what Portland has become, a city focused more on public transit and riding bikes than accommodating cars.