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Rave reviews roll in for temporary ‘Better Block’ on 3rd Ave

Posted by on October 6th, 2014 at 4:10 pm

3rd Avenue Better Block PDX
The temporary plaza in front of Ankeny Alley and Voodoo Doughnut was bustling with commerce and enjoyment for most of the weekend.
(Photos: Greg Raisman unless noted)

This weekend in downtown Portland’s slightly seedy north side, a citizen group temporarily converted two lanes of auto parking, a big expanse of empty pavement and two traditional travel lanes into a huge new pedestrian plaza, rows of street seats and ping-pong tables and a protected bike lane.

And it was, more or less, a huge hit.

“It’s a radical change that bellows a bold declaration: Welcome to the future of Portland,” wrote Oregonian reporter Jamie Hale in a short, glowing review.

“They want you to feel a kind of living-room atmosphere here,” explained KGW’s reporter Nina Mehlhaf.

Organizers hope the city will decide to make the changes, or something like them, permanent.

Old Town’s car-free weekend nights, intended to keep drunk and rowdy people safe from traffic, haven’t been popular with patrons or local businesses. Their trial period expires this month, and local businesses are pushing to replace it with a permanent design that will improve safety and atmosphere without requiring towed cars and heavy police presence.

With that in mind, Mayor Charlie Hales stopped by at least twice, once on Friday evening:

3rd Avenue Better Block PDX

And once over the weekend, when he picked up some ice cream…

Better Block

…and joined a game of ping-pong.

Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick came by for some ping-pong, too:

On Saturday, the Mayor tweeted his take:

Hundreds of ordinary Portlanders and visitors, meanwhile, stopped through the area for fun, commerce or relaxation.

When KPTV, the local Fox affiliate, posted a short news item about the three-day demo, one of their website’s commenters was nervous.

“Bike lanes? uh oh here come the haters,” Liona wrote.

But the haters didn’t show.

“Actually. this was neat,” the next comment read. “They have it by Voodoo Doughnuts. There were ping-pong tables set up and extra places to sit. Worked really well. Sounds like a good weekend idea for that area, I didn’t see any issues with drivers OR Bikes.”


The only truly negative media coverage seemed to come from KOIN, where reporter Lisa Balick described it as “confusing to many drivers” and “a good thing this is just for the weekend.”

But even on that site, the only web comment disagreed with Balick’s take:

This was an experiment and it sounds like the businesses in Old Town supported it. I stopped by today and the atmosphere was genuinely lovely–something I never would have said about that area before. There were people relaxing in the plaza and drawing chalk art and playing ping-pong.

But it made somebody late for lunch. Apparently, that’s enough to tip the scales for KOIN.

Portland Bureau of Transportation employee Greg Raisman spent 30 hours at the project on his own time Friday and Saturday, capturing some terrific photos of the scene:

Better Block

Better Block

Better Block

3rd Avenue Better Block PDX

3rd Avenue Better Block PDX

3rd Avenue Better Block PDX

Better Block

Better Block

3rd Ave Better Block

As Jonathan observed on Friday, the big new plaza in front of Voodoo was clearly the star of this show. When I stopped by around 7 p.m. Friday, families were continuing to enjoy the street space, which was scattered with hay bales loaned by Linnton Feed and Seed.

kids hay bales night

tourists hay bales night

The city’s top traffic engineer, Rob Burchfeld, was there on Friday afternoon, too, biking up and down 3rd with Raisman to assess how much traffic was backing up. (And during rush hour, it certainly was backing up to the north — usually for a little more than two blocks during a red-light cycle. In other hours, multi-block backups were rare, though cars were certainly moving slower.)

“This is the type of community-led effort and collaboration that makes Portland a dynamic place to live, work, and play.”
— Rob Burchfeld, city traffic engineer

The basic issue in the Friday afternoon traffic backup was that in the block just north of Burnside, where many people were trying to either make left turns to cross the Burnside Bridge or head south to the Morrison Bridge freeway onramp, one block-lane of traffic wasn’t enough space to store all the cars that showed up during each light cycle.

In an email to BikePortland Monday, Burchfeld wrote that “we haven’t fully debriefed on our observations of traffic flow, but our preliminary response is that temporary traffic control appeared to work O.K. and pretty much as we expected for a demonstration project.”

Promising a more detailed response soon, Burchfeld added that “We congratulate all of the businesses and community volunteers that contributed their time, effort, and resources to the event. This is the type of community-led effort and collaboration that makes Portland a dynamic place to live, work, and play.”

In an email to his fellow organizers in the wee hours of Monday morning, Dixie Tavern owner Dan Lenzen wrote:

Simply, thank you.
You’re amazing. Let’s make dreams happen.
Need your help at City council now to make the 3rd street Street Closure Ordinance sunset and allow US to drive what has been started by the community.
This belongs to you and needs to stay in your hands.
Letters to all commissioners, testimony in 2 weeks, it’s time to activate your voice.

Another enthusiastic advocate of the demo, local pedicab entrepreneur Ryan Hashagen of Portland Pedalworks, chimed in:

Let’s encourage council to replace the Entertainment District “Street Closure Ordinance” with a community inspired “Public Street Ordinance” to better describe the uses of public space in Old Town. …

It was really amazing to see how different 3rd operated last night once our experiment ended and to be reminded how much more dangerous it is with 3 lanes of vehicles racing each other, even on Sunday night! This weekend, 3rd Avenue really was a welcoming public space! I really loved how it was an opportunity for tourists, locals, Old Town residents, and neighbors to all enjoy the space together. Many of the visitors i met were surprised that this was not a regular use of 3rd Avenue!

Boris Kaganovich of Better Block PDX, who led a volunteer team that raised more than $5,000 to cover costs and put hundreds of person-hours toward design, construction, supervision, media relations and teardown, wrote that he “can’t wait to see what we do next!”

The sponsors included regional government Metro, the nonprofit America Walks, Dixie Tavern and architecture firm Ankrom Moisan.

Kaganovich set up an overhead camera to capture the whole three-day experiment from a third-floor window. That video is being processed now; look for an excerpt of it here on the site soon.

Still, of all the ideas, gripes and raves I heard this weekend about what’s surely Portland’s most unusual volunteer-led transportation project in years — and it seemed as if everyone I ran into around town this weekend wanted to talk about it — one of the reviews was my favorite.

It came from Kirk Paulsen and Erinne Goodell’s dog, Cordi. Paulsen, a traffic analyst for Lancaster Engineering, fixed a camera on his bike on Friday to capture Cordi’s reactions as she rode through the downtown streets toward the event. You can see the entire video here, which really drives home how calm Cordi is as she sits in her usual perch at the front of the bike. But the last couple minutes of her ride are as reliable a case as anything I’ve seen that this weekend’s project briefly changed a little piece of Portland in a truly fundamental way:

Correction 10/7: An earlier version of this post misstated the lender of the hay bales.

NOTE: At BikePortland, we love your comments. We love them so much that we devote many hours every week to read them and make sure they are productive, inclusive, and supportive. That doesn't mean you can't disagree with someone. It means you must do it with tact and respect. If you see an inconsiderate or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan and Michael

27 Comments
  • Steve Hoyt-McBeth October 6, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    I think Greg got Linnton Feed and Seed to donate the hay bales. It would be nice to give them a shout out in the article.

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    • Greg Raisman October 6, 2014 at 6:12 pm

      While I sometimes make a lot of hay, Beth will not let me keep it all in the house! Steve’s right.

      Linnton Feed and Seed were totally amazing to work with and supported this project by lending the bales of straw.

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  • Todd Boulanger October 6, 2014 at 5:29 pm

    I took my family down there to check it out on Sunday. It was great especially down by Ankeny where the street grid has a lot of opportune space AND natural vitality. Good jobs everyone!!

    [The other blocks north struggled on Sunday (my data points were a 2x walk) …other than AirB&B which seemed to be the lone effort then.]

    There should be an immediate implementation of a plaza at Ankeny along with multimodal improvements along the entire corridor…plus a demonstration to allow cafes to serve in the parking lane (to open up the sidewalks) much as Mountain View CA has been doing for 15 years, and more recently parklets in Long Beach/ Portland/ NYC/ SF,…

    PS. Lessons learned…perhaps in the debrief it might be good to ask the working staff about how much notice they had this was about to happen…I asked one manager and he said 3 days. I hope this was not the case…as it would be pretty risky to wing things like this in other parts of town.

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  • Hawk00eyed October 6, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    Went out of our way to test this out, riding from 5th & Couch to the SW Oak bike lane. It was very pleasant, but of course there was a Radio Cab parked in the protected ‘bike lane’ forcing us into the one lane of car traffic. Then it dumped us out into three car lanes of SW 3rd; get rid of one lane and extend the protected bike lane all the way down 3rd, and it’d be fantastic

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  • Dwaine Dibbly October 6, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    Another reason to ignore KOIN.

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    • Twilliam October 7, 2014 at 5:00 am

      Not just KOIN, but I stopped consuming mainstream/corporate media altogether. I admit to not being up to speed on the latest fiery car crash or killing, but the Sun still rises and my day is the same as it ever was. Something that is missing is that little spike in blood pressure when I thought of the news that was mis-reported, like from the KOIN story.

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      • According to Mr. Brown... October 7, 2014 at 12:22 pm

        I get all my news from Bike Portland!

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      • Dwaine Dibbly October 7, 2014 at 5:59 pm

        I’ve pretty much done the same, but I’ll admit to watching the KGW local news, even if it’s mostly for the weather. They seem to be much less incendiary than their competition.

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  • John Liu
    John Liu October 6, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    It sounds like the traffic backup on 3rd north of Burnside could be addressed with two traffic lanes on just that block. Maybe one being a left turn lane to get on the Burnside Bridge, and one being a straight-or-right turn lane, that would feed to a single traffic lane south of Burnside.
    (Or maybe the light cycles could be adjusted, but Burnside is congested already.)

    This is exciting. I agree the new pedestrian / public space wasn’t being used for much north of Burnside, but the activity on the Voodoo donuts block is illustrative of what would happen (and much more) on the other blocks, in a permanent installation.

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    • Dan October 7, 2014 at 8:44 am

      It’s ironic when a driver accuses you of ‘taking up the whole road’, ha ha.

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    • Chris Anderson October 8, 2014 at 3:07 am

      One traffic lane is all we need. If there is backup during peak hours, so be it. Induced demand means that a properly engineered street system will have delays at rush hour.

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      • Chris Anderson October 8, 2014 at 3:09 am

        Oops. Didn’t mean to imply that bikes / peds aren’t traffic.

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  • Jeff October 6, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    Neither surprising nor controversial. Not even novel. Which means Portland should adopt this more as a permanent feature.

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  • danny October 6, 2014 at 10:18 pm

    Areas of the central city closed to auto traffic (with a few exceptions for deliveries and such) and with a focus on pedestrians, bikes, and transit are not “radical” in lots of other cities around the world — they are the norm. Places like Munich have major portions of their central business districts closed to cars. Guess what are the most popular places in these cities? Guess where the most valuable commercial real estate is located in these cities? We’re only about three or four decades behind the times here in Portland, but let’s hope projects like this make headway in convincing the powers that be…

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  • maccoinnich October 6, 2014 at 11:36 pm

    Congratulations to all involved. It seems almost inevitable that something permanent will happen. The conditions are perfect:

    * Instead of being opposed by businesses, it’s being championed by them.
    * The Old Town Chinatown Community Association supports it.
    * Charlie Hales publicly came to see it, multiple times, and tweeted positively about it. He could have very easily ignored the event had he wanted to it.
    * The impacts to cars was minimal, and can be resolved in a finished design.
    * There’s a great local precedent in Ankeny Alley.
    * The BTA is campaigning to get a good north-south bike route through downtown.
    * There seems to be (finally) some movement to bringing some of the older buildings in the area back to life. The Society Hotel, in the old Seaman’s Bethel building, is under construction, as is the conversion of the Ericsson Saloon / Fritz Hotel buildings into apartments.
    * PBOT has that $6 million to spend on improving transportation downtown.
    * Much of NW 3rd is in the River District Urban Renewal Area, often described as being “flush with cash”.

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  • Jonathan Gordon October 7, 2014 at 7:14 am

    That Cordi video is pretty darned adorable!

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  • Dan October 7, 2014 at 8:45 am

    I have the urge to eat a donut that is bigger than my head.

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  • Rob Chapman October 7, 2014 at 10:36 am

    It’s amazing what Portlanders can do when the city government stays out of the way. Great job to everyone who put this together!

    If a few individuals in cars were inconvenienced by this experiment so what? We are growing into a big city and projects like this will help us remain a humanely scaled and livable one if we make them a priority (and we should).

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    • davemess October 7, 2014 at 12:03 pm

      Yes, I don’t really know how to feel about Hales and Novick showing up. On one hand it’s nice that they got to actually see this and show some level of support by showing up. On the other hand, they did virtually none of the work or picked up the expense for this and now get to reap the PR benefits and win points with the “bike/ped crowd”.

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      • Jonathan Gordon October 7, 2014 at 2:22 pm

        What do you propose as the ideal response from Hales and Novick?

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        • davemess October 8, 2014 at 12:26 pm

          I don’t know, that’s why I said I don’t know how to feel.

          I guess I just still view Hales (and somewhat Novick) as only showing up for the bike/ped successes, and not really wanting to do any of the heavy or dirty work themselves.

          Good point maccoinnich. That also makes sense.

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      • maccoinnich October 7, 2014 at 2:37 pm

        It was a demonstration project. Why on earth wouldn’t you want policy makers to see it?

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      • John Liu
        John Liu October 7, 2014 at 4:37 pm

        I think it was very good that they came, and they spent a lot more time than a mere photo-op moment.

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  • paikiala October 7, 2014 at 11:16 am

    While the need for a southbound left turn lane was predicted, clearly there are many places in Portland where the imbalance of space dedicated to automobiles over all other forms of transportation can and should be reallocated sooner rather than later (particularly storage of private vehicles in the public rights of way). Finding inexpensive short-term solutions, similar to the NYC and LA experiments is key. We need interim steps, like this, and to move away from the all or nothing paradigm. All or nothing generally insures nothing will be the outcome.

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  • Adam October 7, 2014 at 11:52 am

    Love it!!! I think the space outside Voodoo downtown is crying out for something like this. It’s Portland’s #1 tourist attraction, for crying out loud. And the sidewalk outside it is crammed with a line full of people. Clearly, some kind of plaza is needed.

    I think one lane of auto-traffic is a little constricted, but reducing it to two lanes would leave a ton of adequate space for vast improvements to this stretch of roadway. If nothing else, crossing it wouldn’t mean dicing with death each time I leave Voodoo to get to the Keep Portland Weird mural!

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  • KristenT October 7, 2014 at 5:02 pm

    That was some serious wagging.

    As I watched the video, I found that I was tensing my shoulders– until they pulled into the Better Block, then my shoulders untensed. Purely unscientific, of course, but my single datum says Better Blocks makes for untense people.

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