(Original video: Better Block PDX)
The widely praised experiment that created a temporary protected bike lane and big new pedestrian areas on 3rd Avenue in Old Town this month seems to be reshaping the way the city sees the street.
“For the last 20 years, I’ve noticed the extraordinary width at that point on 3rd and I should have noticed an obvious use for all that space was ping pong tables,” Commissioner Steve Novick, who had enjoyed a game of table tennis during the demonstration, joked at a city council hearing on the subject Wednesday.
(Photo: Greg Raisman)
Local business owners said that except for traffic backing up in the two blocks north of Burnside — something they thought could be solved by adding a one-block turn lane — it worked like a charm during both day and night.
“Cars slowed down,” said Dixie Tavern owner Dan Lenzen, who spent every night watching the demo on 3rd Avenue. “Police officers were able to interact with drivers. At the end of the night, people dispersed quicker. People were able to cross the street comfortably. It allowed for wider sidewalk access. It did everything that it was designed to do.”
“I think this has gone from management of a liability to an opportunity to take the visions this neighborhood has had for a long time from concept to reality.”
— Charlie Hales, mayor of Portland
After the experiment, Chris Lenahan of the nightclub Dirty, also at the corner of Couch and 3rd, pulled the trigger on something he’d been considering: remodeling his storefront to start food and drink service at 4 p.m.
“I’m putting my money where my mouth is,” Lenahan said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I took my drawings down to the city yesterday. … It’s still going to be a nightclub at nighttime but more of a pub spot during the day.”
Lenahan said he plans to pursue a “street seats” permit from the city that’d let him put tables and cafe seating in what’s currently the parking lane, in exchange for compensating the city for lost parking revenue. In the longer term, he hopes the city will permanently convert auto parking or travel lanes to pedestrianized or cafe space.
At Wednesday’s council hearing, Commissioner Nick Fish praised the experimental design, which was created by volunteer group Better Block PDX in collaboration with the Old Town Hospitality Group, Portland Bureau of Transportation and Portland Police Bureau.
“It reminded me of Times Square,” Fish said. “They turned it into a plaza right at the intersection where you had more traffic than any other place in the city … and it created a calming effect and a different experience. … I’m guessing when that was proposed there was a lot of opposition, but in the end it’s working.”
(Photos by J. Maus/BikePortland)
Lenzen said he and most other businesses had hoped the council would approve immediate changes and end the weekend evening street blockades that have reduced police calls in the area but reduced sales at some businesses by preventing all car and bike traffic on a few streets after 10 p.m. Instead, Mayor Charlie Hales advanced a plan on Wednesday that shrinks the blockaded area and introduces a provision that will allow for further real-time testing.
“We’re going to move into the experimental stages,” said Howard Weiner, chair of the Old Town Community Association of businesses and residents in the neighborhood. “We’re going to try different ways of closing the streets.”
Commander Bob Day of the Portland Police Bureau Central Precinct praised the existing street barricades Wednesday for having reduced police calls by blocking auto traffic completely, but said he invited further changes.
“I’m not married to this,” Day said of the existing barricade plan. “I’m always open to new ideas, and I know this plan allows that.”
Commissioner Amanda Fritz said Wednesday that “activating the street could make it a safer street … but as we know from Last Thursday it can create some other challenges that need to be addressed and paid for.”
Hales said the “next phase of this” is likely to involve the Portland Bureau of Transportation and “also brings up conversation about future capital projects.”
Lenzen said his plan is to push for part of $6.1 million that the city has lined up for protected bike lanes and pedestrian improvements downtown. That money will come available in 2015 or 2016.
Hales was particularly enthusiastic during Wednesday’s hearing about the possibilities for 3rd Avenue.
“I think this has gone from management of a liability to an opportunity to take the visions this neighborhood has had for a long time from concept to reality,” the mayor said. “I’m very excited about this, looking forward to next stage of the work and learning new things … I hope that you have my enthusiatic cooperation to continue experimentation and collaboration. … Great work. More to come.”
Update 10:30 pm: If you didn’t get to stop by the demo, check out this video by Adron Hall that features interviews with spectators and retail business owners nearby. It was played for the City Council Monday.
Editor Jonathan Maus contributed reporting.
Michael Andersen was news editor of BikePortland.org from 2013 to 2016 and still pops up occasionally.
Great news that (at least) three commissioners are praising the experiment, and hopefully in favor of making some permanent changes.
wow, Better Block has finally found an effective way to advocate for street designs. This kind of activism won’t work everywhere (like Barbur) but we definitely need more of it.
I would love to see the BTA team up with Better Block to do this to NE Broadway next summer.
This was a great simple way to show lawmakers, business owners, and others that these designs work. Let’s try this in other places around the city.
All of this is meant as analysis of what worked here, not criticism of anything else. But:
1) It would have been a very different situation if the basic idea for the new design hadn’t originated from the businesses in this area. A few very bike-friendly businesses in the area have spent years building trust and making friends among their neighbors.
2) Another factor was the two-blocks-away model of Ankeny Alley, making the economic advantages of daytime street cafes crystal clear.
3) The other really unusual thing here, maybe the most important factor of all: the city had completely shifted the terms of debate a few years ago when, working in a sometimes tense partnership with the businesses and neighborhood association, it imposed a severe restriction on street movement by creating the weekend nighttime barricade system. The fully pedestrianized (but temporary and heavily police-supervised) space wasn’t commercially successful. The decline in their sales gave many businesses a big incentive to support change rather than support the status quo.
It’s not normal for any profitable retailer to be in favor of change, and I can’t blame them! Profitability is hard and change is risky. IMO it’s awesome that businesses here happen to be in favor of change, but people who support changes like this will be waiting a long time if they wait for businesses to lead the way in every similar situation. The alignment of stars here was pretty unusual.
That said: as long as we don’t forget that this was a special case, absolutely. Ankeny Alley proves that good ideas are infectious!
Hopefully this will become a model for future changes in other parts of town (and other changes on downtown, too). Build support. Come up with a plan. Launch a pilot, with lots of invitations to City officials. Convert the pilot into permanent changes.
It’s really encouraging to see the big night club owners behind this effort. I was rather surprised due to my own bias towards those sorts of places. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover I reckon.
It’s exciting to imagine a 3rd ave. full of street life in the daytime. Best of luck to Old Town.
He must be bipolar.
This is how you make Old Town into a place that’s not just drug dealers by day and party bros at night. Make it an attractive place – the presence of people will do what the actions of police and Clean & Safe couldn’t. The seedy elements will go elsewhere.
Incredibly well said, Michael!! We really need to take ALL of those points to heart.
Also, notice how the massive quantity of PEOPLE in the short video outnumbered CARS; it had to be a 10-1 ratio. And if we had a downtown cycling network that didn’t completely suck (especially compared to just about everywhere I’ve traveled this year), there would have been MANY times the number of cyclists that were witnessed that weekend.
I’m sure that many of you have seen the awesome people-moving stats that compares the Champs-Elysees and I-345 in Dallas (for reference, the famous Parisian street is 1.2 miles, and I-345 is 1.4 miles). The Champs-Elysees moves WAY more people (at least 4 times when you count cars, peds and a few going by bike), and guess which has seemingly infinitely higher value? 🙂 It had the highest rents on Earth (until very recently), in fact. I-345? Ick!
Check out this great article (and the entertaining comments below it):
Let’s keep pushing for people-friendly streets!! By that I mean: push our very, very stuck-in-the-muddy-car-tire elected officials!! 🙂
Only in the US is the car given so much space. having just spent two weeks in Tokyo ( a city 20 x the size of Portland), I was amazed at how safe, and comfortable it was to ride and walk in the city as opposed to Portland which feels like frogger going to and from work. This is an excellent use of street space for people (which our public spaces should be catered to).
On the flipside, as a pedicab operator working in the area during the experiment, I found the new layout to have a number of drawbacks, as did most or all my coworkers. We made less money. It was difficult and even dangerous (for us and for potential cyclists behind us) to cross the barricades between the lanes, as well as the condensed traffic in the auto lane (especially between 3rd/Burnside and 3rd/Ash), in order to reach businesses on the left side of the street. Pedestrians in the entertainment district and just outside of it ignored the bike lane, and broke glass in it – normally, one would be able to go around these obstacles, but not with the barricades. I also have to agree with the police commander in that the completely blocked streets with police presence seem to result in fewer fights and easier access for police to break up any that do occur. Overall, I think a change in the direction of more room for people, all the time, would be beneficial, but that this layout still needs a lot of work.
Thanks for your feedback.
We’ll make sure and keep tweaking things to get it right. We’re already scratching our heads about a different bike lane divider design that’ll make it easier for pedicabs and emergency vehicles.
Better Block PDX