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PBOT director clarifies position, says Multnomah St project could be “transformative”


PBOT Director Tom Miller is juggling
two major projects in the
Lloyd District.
(Photo © J. Maus)

Back on Friday, we shared a major update on the City of Portland’s NE Holladay Street project.

Here’s a quick rewind: After a stakeholder advisory committee (SAC) spent almost a year debating, refining and compromising a proposal to vastly improve bike access on Holladay, the committee voted 12-1 in favor of moving forward with it. However, after being approached by a major business owner in the Lloyd District (the same person who voted no), the Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) decided to hold off on the Holladay project and take a look at Multnomah Street instead.

Now there’s an effort afoot to consider major changes to Multnomah Street which could include a road diet and the return of on-street auto parking.

On Friday I reported that the Holladay project was essentially dead in the water. I was told by PBOT spokesperson Cheryl Kuck that project manager Ellen Vanderslice said they wouldn’t move forward on Holladay due to a lack of consensus by the SAC.

“Yes, there are major property owners who have concerns about the proposed changes on Holladay… We realized that we have mutual interest in looking at something with more magnitude.”
— Tom Miller, Director of PBOT

However, I have since discussed the projects with PBOT Director Tom Miller and have learned that, according to him, the Holladay project is “alive and well.” “This notion that Holladay is dead is inaccurate.”

“Yes, there are major property owners who have concerns about the proposed changes on Holladay,” Miller said via telephone earlier this week. Miller said he feels Holladay is a “good project” and one that his bureau could “advance in short order.” So why is Miller supportive of shifting attention to Multnomah? He feels it has much more potential in the long term and he’s excited to have the support of major Lloyd District property owners.

“We [PBOT and property owner and project stakeholder Ashforth Pacific] realized that we have mutual interest in looking at something with more magnitude.” Multnomah is a “much bigger prize [than Holladay] for those who consider themselves advocates of livable streets” says Miller.

Multnomah Street

He also feels Multnomah has “underperformed” from a transportation and planning perspective for decades. The street, which currently has five standard lanes and bike lanes in both directions, “hasn’t come together” despite its attributes. Multnomah has bike lanes, it’s just one block away from two light rail lines, and it’s close to downtown. However, in Miller’s words, Multnomah is “still too auto-centric” and therefore it doesn’t encourage the presence of people — a major ingredient of a vibrant street.

Miller feels that the proposed bike access improvements on Holladay “wouldn’t materially enhance the street-level vitality every agrees it needs.”

“Right now we have this auto-centric corridor and the major property owners have said we’re willing to rethink Multnomah in a radical way if PBOT is willing to do so.”
— Tom Miller

With powerful property owners supporting the project from the outset, Miller sees a rare opportunity to make significant changes to a major east-west arterial through the Lloyd District.

“Right now we have this auto-centric corridor and the major property owners have said we’re willing to rethink Multnomah in a radical way if PBOT is willing to do so.”

Central to Ashforth Pacific’s success in getting Miller and PBOT to even consider Multnomah is that they refuted PBOT’s old traffic counts. Initially, PBOT was operating under the assumption that there was too much auto traffic on Multnomah to have it be put on a diet. But after further analysis by City Traffic Engineer Rob Burchfield, PBOT decided it would be possible to reconfigure the street.

“On-street parking is crucial to the success of major, at-grade retail… Retailers need those [parking] stalls. Whether people like it or not, we’re not going to put retail out of business. It’s just not what we do.”
— Tom Miller

It remains to be seen what shape the Multnomah project will take (there will be a public process if it moves forward). But one change is almost certain: On-street auto parking would be added onto the street. Miller feels that “on-street parking is crucial to the success of major, at-grade retail… Retailers need those [parking] stalls. Whether people like it or not, we’re not going to put retail out of business. It’s just not what we do.”

Adding more car parking is also likely a key enticement for property owners who see a direct value connection between parking, property values, and retail success.

Along with the addition of on-street parking, Miller says he’s been “explicit” with property owners that any major changes to Multnomah must come with a “world-class bikeway” — especially if nothing moves forward on Holladay. By “world-class”, Miller is thinking something along the lines of a physically separated bikeway similar to what PBOT built in the Cully neighborhood or a buffered bike lane line the ones on SW Stark and Oak downtown.

In addition, Miller says he would expect that improvements made to Multnomah would be paid for by Lloyd District businesses and property owners (probably through a new local improvement district (LID) tax)

While he’s bullish on Multnomah, Miller maintains that he isn’t forgetting about Holladay. In fact, he sees the ultimate outcome being both projects being implemented. “Down the road I can imagine where we have a world-class cycle track on Multnomah and the improvements on Holladay.”

Miller compared future Multnomah-Holladay bikeways as similar to SE Hawthorne and Clay. Hawthorne (west of 12th) is a major bike street with a wide bike lane and bike boxes while Clay is the parallel, lower-stress neighborhood greenway option.

“We have a good opportunity in Holladay, and we have a potentially transformative opportunity with Multnomah… I can see a day when we can do both.”

Stay tuned. It will be very interesting to see how all this shakes out.

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