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Citizen urbanists launch ‘Better Block PDX’ to perk up public spaces

Posted by on November 26th, 2013 at 10:19 am

Southeast Clinton and 26th could be Portland’s next great public space.
(Photo by Nevan Mrgan)

The team of indie planners who two months ago reimagined a block of downtown Portland parking spaces as a public lounge have made plans for a sequel.

Or maybe an ongoing franchise.

“The key that we’re looking for is intersections where not too much effort can lead to a big reward.”
— Boris Kaganovich, Better Block organizer

On Monday night, the organizers of the city’s biggest-ever PARK(ing) Day announced that they’re forming a new organization to continue the work: Better Block PDX, inspired by a hugely successful “tactical urbanist” model that emerged a few years ago from Dallas, Texas. They also announced the next place they hope to (at least temporarily) rethink: the big expanse of underused pavement at Southeast 26th and Clinton (map).

“The key that we’re looking for is intersections where not too much effort can lead to a big reward,” Better Block organizer Boris Kaganovich said Monday.

What’s in store with their plans for a temporary plaza? Organizers plan to start by talking to neighbors and businesses in the community, maybe at an upcoming meeting at the Clinton Street Theater, which sits right on the intersection.

Sketching plans.
(Photo by M.Andersen/BikePortland)

In the meantime, the 15 or so believers in human-friendly streets who came to Monday’s get-together at Velo Cult crowded eagerly around a translucent map of the intersection that they laid out together with magic markers, discussing details like the angles required for successful bus turns and the possible spots that might work well for tables and furniture.

Kaganovich’s fellow ringleader Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman said she’s spoken with both Jason Roberts of the original Better Block organization, who gave the group his blessing, and to several officials at the Portland Bureau of Transportation, who clapped at her presentation about the success of PARK(ing) Day.

Johnston-Zimmerman was straightforward about her goal: to show Portlanders, as Better Block projects have in other cities, that many particular urban spaces can be used in more vibrant, pleasant, and socially and economically productive ways than they are today.

“We were hoping to inspire the city to make something permanent,” she said. “PARK(ing) Day isn’t enough.”

Eric Van Dyke, one of several people who brought grayer hairs and longer memories Monday night, said he was interested in a project only because it might lead to permanent changes. The key to that, he said, would be support from the city government — and the key to support from the city would be showing local business owners that a block that’s better for people would be better for business, too.

“They’ll be for it if the businesses are for it,” Van Dyke predicted.

Organizers aim to prepare their demonstration over the next few months. To help out, learn more, share ideas or just stay up to date with their activities, send an email to

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  • Ron H November 26, 2013 at 11:16 am

    I live and commute through this intersection both by bike and by automobile. A Better Block seems to have its heart in the right place. And, while this may be a touch off topic, I’d like to say that I’m a bit concerned that we’re making inner SE Portland very difficult to drive through. Inner SE Division is becoming the new NW 23rd – trendy shops, restaurants, glacially slow traffic and little parking for all the visitors those interests will attract. Essentially making Division a “slow go” zone for cars means some are shifting over to adjacent streets to move East and West and this will affect cyclists as cars migrate to bike boulevards like Clinton St to detour around the slow-going on Division. Making a neighborhood less car centric is something I heartily support but for the caveat of being respectful to those who must commute by automobile. Not everyone has a choice. I know I can only commute by bike two days a week due to the nature of my work. Public transit is not an option at all for me — again, because of my work schedule. So, making roads less hospitable for car commuters isn’t always a zero sum game.

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    • Indy November 26, 2013 at 11:58 am

      Count me as a new customer of the slow-go lifestyle.

      I am in no rush to go anywhere, and if my lifestyle needs are met with this location, you have my $$$.

      “Inner SE Division is becoming the new NW 23rd – trendy shops, restaurants, glacially slow traffic and little parking for all the visitors those interests will attract.”

      Sounds @&^%^@ fantastic!

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      • Mossby Pomegranate November 26, 2013 at 5:34 pm

        NW 23rd is Hell.

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        • kittens November 26, 2013 at 7:05 pm

          There is almost nothing redeemable about 23rd

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    • Chris I November 26, 2013 at 2:20 pm

      Slow cars are safe cars. When you increase the multi-modal usage of a street (be that pedestrians, cyclists, or both) you need to reduce car speeds, because collisions are inevitable. Not reducing car speeds will result in injury and death. What do you propose we do on Division? The market demand is there, so businesses and housing are going to continue to grow and prosper. Is there a way to make Division “easy to drive through” while ensuring safety for all users?

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      • Plinssen November 27, 2013 at 9:55 am

        Frustrated and pissed off cars are by no means safe. Pitting cyclists and pedestrians against other forms of transportation only creates animosity.

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        • Chris Anderson November 27, 2013 at 10:02 am

          I’d rather have a frustrated, pissed, slow car than a happy-go-lucky fast car… But I think this is a false dichotomy. Look at the traffic in the second half of this shared space video (also linked downthread) and tell me if the drivers look resentful or angry.

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          • Chris Anderson November 27, 2013 at 10:02 am

            Sorry forgot the link, although it is linked elsewhere. This really is a good one, a bit long, but looking at a few seconds of the before and after is an eye opener.

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            • Charley Gaul November 27, 2013 at 3:05 pm

              I wish PBOT had seen this video before doing their redesign of 21st & Division…

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        • Chris I November 27, 2013 at 1:13 pm

          The vast majority of injuries and deaths in this country are caused by cars traveling at high rates of speed, distracted driving, and careless driving. Aggressive road rage incidents are a relative anomaly. It is much more dangerous to cross 82nd ave during rush hour than to slow down a bunch of cars behind you on inner Division street. Speed kills.

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    • gutterbunnybikes November 26, 2013 at 4:23 pm

      Thanks for thinking of us that live near Divison.

      I live a block off Division in the recent “right sized” section, and your concerns of through traffic going to side streets hasn’t been a problem at all. My street is one of the cut throughs and traffic hasn’t noticabley increased in front of my house, and honestly no side east/west street that runs near Division is a good choice for through auto traffic – feel free to try it and you’ll gladly return to slow Division. (Though I got to wonder, Division is only 6-8 blocks off Powell which moves much faster feel free to use it instead.)

      Those of you that are just passing through shouldn’t have any say in what happens in our neighborhood. We’re the ones that drive the roads more often, were the ones who frequent the businesses, the ones that jog and bike and walk our dogs on the streets. And you’re saying that those of us that actually live there need to give in so you can save 5 minutes on your commute.

      Too bad, you choose to live out where you feel you have to commute through and you think we who live here need concede to your desire which only last a few minutes a day through here.

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  • Kiel Johnson
    Kiel Johnson November 26, 2013 at 11:23 am

    i think this has the potential to turn into an actual business model. I hope they can find a way to become sustainable. It is a great idea, we have a lot of wasted urban space!

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  • SilkySlim November 26, 2013 at 11:25 am

    This one of my favorite intersections in town (mainly thanks to Dots…), and I pass through it frequently on bike and foot and occasionally in a car. The photo above really illustrates my feelings about this little hub of activity – it feels like the center of a one stoplight town!

    And little town centers should have public accessibility options. I’d love to see a chunk of pavement turned into a parklet with a few benches for general use.

    Right now traffic is light but very consistent at 26th, and I only expect it to grow for the reasons Ron mentions above. Would love to see them get out ahead of the increased flow with a design that works for all parties. But mostly me, a guy who likes Dots a lot, and sometimes sitting outside waiting for a movie!

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  • Mabsf November 26, 2013 at 11:45 am

    I heard one of the founders of Better Blocks speak at the bike summit –> Best 2 hours of the summit!

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  • ChamoisKreme November 26, 2013 at 11:50 am

    how sick would it be if this is what Clinton looked like in between Clinton St. Theater and Savoy…

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    • SilkySlim November 26, 2013 at 11:59 am

      With Hammy’s down the street, I don’t know how that Parakeet Pizza would fair…. But otherwise, yeah!!

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      • ChamoisKreme November 26, 2013 at 12:15 pm

        LOL, that little guy’s cute… That’s Zagreb, Croatia. The beer on the umbrellas is Karlovačko, which you can get in a couple stores around here.

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  • Chris Anderson November 26, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    I think Spare Wheel shared this in the comments to another story. It illustrates what would be a great shared space treatment for this Division St intersection.

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  • Maren November 26, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    I attended a meeting on this exact topic at the Clinton Street Theater back in 1999, I think. It didn’t go anywhere then, unfortunately, but it was a great idea and I’m glad it’s being revived!

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  • Puddlecycle is the Frogger Champion November 26, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Clinton and 26th is right in my neighborhood and I can count 12 people off the top of my head that will be interested in this – I salute you, and will be in touch.

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  • Granpa November 26, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    Many is the evening I stopped by the theater/tavern for a beer after work. It seems like it is already a human friendly neighborhood.

    You look at how NE 28th & Glisan spontaneously gentrified, or the Alberta neighborhood. Then look at how Lents is trying and trying to make it happen with the best intentions of clever urbanists (lets invent new titles because “Urban Planner” is so 2005) The improvement happens where it happens. The corner of 20 & Clinton and the corner of 26th & Clinton are spontaneously pulling themselves up. If I were an urbanist I would want to throw a plan down and take credit for the improvement. It would look great on my resume.

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    • kittens November 26, 2013 at 7:14 pm

      I think the serendipity of the intersections of 20th and 26th are precisely why they are interesting. Whereas those of the Pearl or SoWa are as contrived and boring as Disneyland.
      They may not have matching street furnitures designed by ZIBA and ZGF (think downtown bus mall) but they have soul and grit.

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    • Cora Potter November 29, 2013 at 12:22 pm

      My attempt at tactical urbanism (The ‘Light up Lents” project that filled vacant storefronts with holiday light display/local crafts and art for a month) netted us a Community Acupuncture clinic, a new bar owner that cleaned up Rileys, and 5 storefront renovations. Two of the storefronts are still vacant, but I get at least one inquiry a month and I know the owners been negotiating with more than one tenant.

      So, it does work in Lents Town Center. And Lents Town Center would/will benefit from more projects. Lents Town Center would benefit from some help designing street seats for 92nd. Lents Town Center would benefit from about 7 Depave projects. Hell, we’ve got a three vacant lots on the market – where PDC will PAY up to $7,500 for a temporary improvement project that has a 1-3 year lease – which will likely be free or very low cost. What we don’t have is enough people with time and organizing skills to address all of the possibilities.

      I’m not sure what it’s actually supposed to accomplish on Clinton and 26th, since they don’t really have anything but aesthetic preference issues to solve. There’s a good bedrock of small businesses there and the streets are already walkable, bikeable and activated.

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      • Chris Anderson November 29, 2013 at 1:23 pm

        That sounds like a great success. Lents is lucky to have you and hopefully your story inspires people around Portland to do something similar.

        I’ve always enjoyed the neighborhood of 26th / Clinton, but found the intersection inhospitable. So I’m in favor of activist interventions, even if it’s low-hanging fruit. Early success will make future citizen powered shared streets projects easier.

        I don’t buy into the narrative that there are only so many resources to go around, forcing us to judge projects that aren’t inline with our priorities. The amount of change we need so overwhelms the amount of resources available today, we should applaud any step in the right direction, especially when it’s citizen initiated.

        I’m in bike-friendly inner NE and there’s still a TON that could be done to bring it beyond it’s current “barely works” level of service. We had the option to choose our neighborhood for bike access, and I know not everyone can do that. I’d prefer public money be spent bringing connectivity to Lents, than improving places with ridership already. But when places with ridership try to improve aesthetics, we should cheer them on.

        In my view, if 26th and Clinton becomes a new showcase, it only makes it easier for real change in other places. There’s more to a bike friendly city than showcases, but a citizen-powered showcase outside of downtown isn’t something we should knock.

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        • Cora Potter November 29, 2013 at 1:33 pm

          In my view there’s a disparity, and the historic Portland narrative has been to maintain it. Every time there’s additional improvement to an inner neighborhood, every other inner neighborhood then has a higher bar set, and the bar just gets higher for getting around to finally working on the areas that are lagging far behind the inner neighborhoods.

          The idea that doing something in inner Portland makes it easier to do things in East Portland later is a false narrative. What it does is create more reasons and projects and ideals to be met that allow for postponing the hard job of correcting the disparities that exist between inner and outer neighborhoods.

          And, there is a limited amount of capacity – and East Portland has less of that capacity than other areas, due to socio-economics, language barriers that make our “low hanging fruit” hang higher than other trees, and a lack of politcal will and monetary capital. If you’re truly progressive and being selfless, you donate your time, energy, support and spending allowance where it’s needed.

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        • Cora Potter November 29, 2013 at 1:44 pm

          And just for reference, I lived near Clinton and 26th between 2002 and 2006, walked and biked to the (now closed) Henry’s and Dot’s and Xtabay and New Seasons and People’s Co-Op all the time. It was fine then, and it’s still fine- and from what I can tell better now.

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  • Katrina November 27, 2013 at 9:13 am

    The other thing to remember is that this is totally and completely the preliminary idea that we thought up during the course of one night – while we had dreamed about improving it for some time, it got traction during the meeting we held and so the idea of using it as a pilot project was reinforced. What should be understood, and will certainly be clarified on our future website (we’re *that* preliminary here!), is that this is an open source project and none of this is meant to be something that will swoop in and make alterations without consent or already existing personal stake in the area. Many people involved live on the east side and either live in this neighborhood or are frequently there for one reason or another.

    The goal, ultimately, is to start a Portland grassroots urbanism project that can start making the improvements we’ve always wanted without the lengthy formal processes that otherwise dominate planning and so forth – to the extent that it is possible and successful to do so. Like our PARK(ing) Day project, it won’t be entirely tactical, nor will it be entirely formal. And more importantly, it is open source. Anyone can start a project and begin this citizen placemaking movement under the umbrella of Better Block or become as involved in it as you so choose. And then if it sticks, it sticks, and we get a new public space or wider sidewalks or safer crosswalks or whatever – things I think most people can get behind!

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  • PJ December 1, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    What I fail to see mentioned in this article and in others like it are the locals. Has anyone contacted and asked the people who live directly in the area if they want their neighborhood “improved”? Hosting a public meeting tends to fail in this regard as most people have neither the time nor inclination to attend an event where people want to force change on them. In almost every neighborhood I’ve lived in where people came to “improve” the area (see: raise rent/taxes and force locals out) most of the local population grumbled while the places they liked were mowed down one by one.

    I’m not anti-progress by any means, but one man’s progress is another’s eviction notice. I would like to see more pavement pounding in these situations with door to door interviews and not just planners meetings. Portland just isn’t much like Portland anymore and I think these improvements have a lot to do with it.

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