Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on December 7th, 2017 at 12:31 pm
“We are still strongly committed to the project. But it is clear that some additional community engagement is necessary.”
— John Brady, PBOT director of communications
After what was described by readers as an “ugly scene” where some attendees acted with “strong hostility and aggression,” at an open house on Tuesday night, the Portland Bureau of Transportation said they now plan to extend the public process for their Lincoln-Harrison Neighborhood Greenway Enhancement Project.
The main sticking of the project are plans for semi-diverters that would prohibit people in cars from turning onto Lincoln from 50th. Dozens of readers who attended the open house said it was taken over by neighborhood residents who are vehemently opposed to the diverters. In comments (that are still coming in) they recount a “mob” scene where people where being shouted down, intimidated, and ultimately silenced by anti-diverter advocates who allegedly took over the meeting.
Asked today whether the project will continue as planned, PBOT Communications Director John Brady told us that, “We are still strongly committed to the project.” However, Brady added that opposition to the diverters means PBOT needs to make some course corrections. “But it is clear that some additional community engagement is necessary,” Brady added. “We believe we can do this engagement and still implement the project as planned by next summer.”
We’ve also come across an email written yesterday by PBOT Project Manager Sheila Parrott where she offers a bit more about what might come next, “In light of the open house event last night.” “We would like to take a step back,” she wrote, “and develop project alternatives that we can discuss going forward.”
From past experience, what will likely happen is PBOT will plan a few more meetings and/or open houses and they’ll be even more well-prepared than usual. They’ll be ready for organized opposition, and they’ll have more data and designs to share. I’ve seen PBOT in this mode before. They are amazingly adept at this sort of thing and many people on their staff have been around this block many times before.
While the project might ultimately end up with the desired result — fewer drivers and a more comfortable environment on Lincoln — we shouldn’t forget what just happened. How did we get here? Why did this blow up so royally in PBOT’s face? Should we simply dismiss what happened with the standard “Democracy is messy” excuse? Or was this meeting the canary in the coal mine of deeper problems at PBOT and Portland’s transportation politics more broadly?
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As often happens, one of our commenters delivered a clear-eyed and accurate assessment of why that open house went sideways.
Someone named “Shoupian” wrote:
“There are a couple of reasons why we see public meetings like this.
One, the planning profession beholds public meetings as the surest way to guarantee that the planning process is democratic, open and equitable, which is not true. It has become an end rather than just a tool. What most planners don’t think about is that when public outreach is open to anyone and not targeted at underrepresented communities, those who show up and provide input are generally white, older, higher income, and more privileged.
Two, planners depend on public meetings especially when a project does not have strong political support. PBOT is not technically required to hold public meetings anytime they want to do a small scale bike improvement. These meetings occur because planners on the project don’t feel supported by the very top level of the agency and they are uncertain that if they face public push back, their agency leaders will stand behind them and push the project through.
Ultimately, it speaks to the political culture on active transportation investments. Our elected officials and top agency leaders still don’t feel confident directing their agency to make decisions to improve health and safety without knowing that neighbors won’t be upset.”
Tuesday night was shocking, but I think we consider it an outlier at our own peril.
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