|Bob Thompson and Robert Van Brocklin
// Photo by Adam Wickham
BY LINDA BAKER
When the developers of the Park Avenue West Tower announced this past fall that construction would resume on the 30-story skyscraper downtown, the city’s business leaders and owners heaved a collective sigh of relief. For the past four years, the Park Avenue West Tower has languished as a massive crater in the middle of downtown, a symbol of the recession and the economic damage it wrought. The project’s reset has been heralded as a boon for Portland real estate — concrete evidence there is renewed confidence in the marketplace.
That’s the real estate story behind the Park Avenue West Tower. But if the skyscraper symbolizes a new era for Portland downtown development, the tower’s lesser known backstory is equally symbolic: about a 45-year friendship between two men who were influential in shaping and executing that development vision.
Robert Van Brocklin is the managing partner of Stoel Rives, the largest law firm in Oregon and the Park Avenue West Tower’s anchor tenant. Bob Thompson is the founding principal of TVA Architects, the firm that designed the tower. Now 60, the two men met when they were 14 years old as freshmen at Andrew Jackson High School in Portland, then lived together as undergraduates at the University of Oregon. After college, the duo traveled around the United States and Europe before eventually returning to Portland to raise families and build successful careers.
The story of their friendship is a footnote to the story of a landmark building and a chapter in the history of Portland, a city that, over the past 40 years, has morphed from a small-town backwater into one of the country’s leading examples of sustainable urbanism.
“If you go back to 1977, when we all got out of school, and took a snapshot of what the city of Portland looked like at that point in time and look at it today, you won’t even recognize it,” Thompson tells me. “It’s pretty amazing what our generation has accomplished in terms of building the city.”
I sat down with Thompson and Van Brocklin in a Stoel Rives conference room about a month after TMT Development, the developers of the Park Avenue West Tower, announced construction was back on track. The longtime friends are a study in sartorial contrast. Wearing a black turtleneck and black-frame glasses, Thompson epitomizes a kind of urban architecture cool. Perhaps best known for his collaborations with Nike — TVA has designed more than 37 buildings for the global sportswear company, including the Washington County headquarters — Thompson has also earned a reputation for the sleek, modern residential and corporate projects that dot the Portland skyline, including the Fox Tower downtown and the John Ross Tower in South Waterfront.
Dressed in a suit and sporting a red tie, Van Brocklin looks every bit the corporate attorney, infused with a playful, energetic spark. A 30-year veteran of Stoel Rives, Van Brocklin helped grow the firm from one office in 1987 to 12 offices around the country today. As former director of government affairs for the city of Portland, Van Brocklin also helped lay the groundwork for many of Portland’s signature public projects: light rail, the convention center and the performing arts center.
“I used my skill set to get those things authorized and funded, and get legal permissions for the buildings to go up,” says Van Brocklin, who did the land-use work for the Fox Tower, another TMT project. “But I didn’t design any of it. Bob would have been the one to do that.”