Portland’s Japanese Gem Gains Luster

The $37 million upgrade last year, is earning plaudits both locally and internationally – for everything from its medieval style castle wall to its imposing new entrance.

Park Infrastructure Needs Reboot

As Americans on Labor Day weekend flock to parks, many will be traipsing through recreational infrastructure long overdue for major maintenance and upgrade as local governments struggle to spend limited funds on competing interests. In New York City, a report by the Center for an Urban Future reviewed 1,700 parks and found:

  • the average age of 282 parks in Manhattan stands at 86 years, while, on average, their last major upgrade was 16 years ago.
  • While repair costs have soared to $589 million last year, a scant $88 million was dedicated to getting the work done.

Parks are more than baseball diamonds, dog runs and bicycle paths. They have out-sized economic impacts, according to Kenneth Roth, vice president of research for the National Recreation and Park Association. Local park agencies’ operations and capital expenditures generated $140 billion in economic activity and 1.1 million jobs in 2015. The level of spending on our parks, however, has eroded 7 percent over a decade.


The Portland Japanese Garden has long been a cultural jewel tucked into the west hills that loom over downtown.

After 5 decades, the facility, considered one of the most authentic gardens of its type, needed a serious upgrade to handle larger crowds and facilitate new, relevant programming.

A $37 million upgrade, completed last year, had achieved all that – and is earning plaudits both locally and internationally for everything from its medieval style castle wall to its imposing new entrance meant to replicate the contemplative approaches to shrines back in Japan.

The scope of the accomplishment here in the Pacific Northwest is noteworthy as many park and recreational areas across the nation cope with crumbling infrastructure.

Nationwide, local governments with dwindling financial resources and escalating demand for capital expenditures first prune first spending on outdoor places we flock to in our recreational hours, experts say.

Not Portland – and not, in particular, at the Portland Japanese Garden.

Photo by Martin Rosenberg

Since completion of a major upgrade of its facilities, local residents and a surging crowd of visitors from across American and abroad have visited.

Annual attendance soared to 450,000 people last year, up a steep 28 percent from 2016 levels, according to Erica Heartquist, communication specialist at the garden.

“The enhancements to the garden are in response to and anticipation of that continued growth as well as an increasing interest in the aesthetics of Japanese art, history, and culture,” she said.

“The garden’s audience is now 10 times bigger than originally planned for. There is big demand for garden’s workshops and classes which we didn’t have space for before. We are now safeguarding the authenticity and tranquility of the Garden for 100, 150 years from now.”

Jonah Cohen

Jonah Cohen, Principal with the Hacker Architects, based in Portland, worked on the five-year, $37 million Cultural Village expansion, upgrading the garden infrastructure, including a major new entrance,  an office complex and meeting and exhibit space.

Cohen and his Hacker associates worked closely with master Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, who is lead on the National Stadium rising in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics. Joining Thomas Hacker Associates on the project were Walker Macy and Hoffman Construction.


“It’s one of the most powerful pieces of architecture in Oregon,” says Jonah Cohen, of Hacker architects.


Photo by Martin Rosenberg

The park employs 103, including 8 gardeners and has an $11 million operating budget.

The project included construction of a 185-foot long Japanese medieval castle-style wall recreated on site by craftsmen from Japan led by Suminori Awata, a 15th generation master stonemason. The 800 tons of granite used came from eastern Oregon.

One key aspect of the project was the creation of the International Japanese Garden Training Center which has become a beacon for many gardeners charged with caring for approximately 350 Japanese gardens in North America, Cohen said. Garden Curator Sadafumi Uchiyama and his staff train others in Japanese style gardening, covering everything from garden design and basic maintenance to pruning techniques to how to design bamboo and rope fences.

“That’s a big deal in terms of infrastructure,” he said.

The overall effort has been memorable said Cohen, 66, who views the project as one of the capstones of his career.

“The building are gardens are exquisitely detailed. It’s one of the most powerful and timeless pieces of architecture in Oregon,” he said. “It will look good 100 years from now.”

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