At its meeting Wednesday evening at City Hall, the Landmarks Preservation Commission got its first look at the proposed landscape plan for the Spanish Stairs next to the old Elks Lodge.
Because the stairs and the Elks are in a historic district, the plan must be approved by the commission. Members made no decisions Wednesday because talks between the city, the architects and the developer are still going on and the plan might change.
The big announcement – good news for some – is that the city has decided that the towering monkey puzzle tree at the top of the stairs will remain.
“The monkey puzzle tree is being retained,” said city historic preservation officer Reuben McKnight. “That is something the city’s asked, as I understand.”
Overall, however, the commissioners weren’t exactly impressed with the plan developed by Portland architecture firm Ankrom Moison for the McMenamin Brothers. The redeveloper of the Elks Lodge has offered to design the landscaping – and even maintain it – because it will be integral to their complex of pubs, restaurants and music venues.
One reason for concern about the plan is that the two-dimensional sketches presented didn’t give the commissioners the ability to gauge how tall the plantings would be. But several also expressed worries that the design was “too busy” with plantings that would overwhelm the historic stairs and even the lodge itself.
Commissioner Ken House said he was struck by how simple the landscaping used to be, as revealed in historic photos.
“We’re going to repair the steps, paint the steps, do lots of great things with the steps and then we’re going to hide it with a bunch of bushes … and trees,” House said.
Added Commissioner Pamela Sundell: “This is quite an architectural element. I’d hate to see it obscured.”
And Commissioner Bret Maddox said he counted 34 different plant varieties plus many more as ground cover.
“There’s a lot going on in this,” Maddox said.
House also said he was concerned about the number of non-native, exotic plants in the plan.
“Personally, I prefer northwest plants. They are more adapted to northwest climates, you don’t have to water and care for as much,” House said.
But Commissioner Fred King said he thinks the planting plan “although busy in appearance” is similar to what was placed in Ben Gilbert Park next to city hall.
“So I’m not too frightened by what I see,” King said. “I agree that as these plants mature it could overpower the environment but I suspect that most of them don’t get terribly large.”
This PDF of the commission’s agenda includes the landscape plan. If you have a sharp eye you will notice that two new plants are included at the top of the stairs with one appearing where the monkey puzzle tree now stands. They will be Japanese arallas. But they are smaller plants that don’t exceed eight feet in height and could be placed beneath the canopy of the monkey puzzle tree.
A tiny note in the upper left corner of the landscape plan reads: “Existing ‘monkey puzzle tree’ to remain protect and preserve.”
Here’s a column I wrote in September about the conversation surrounding the monkey puzzle tree.