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Is ODOT’s I-5 Rose Quarter plan compatible with ‘Albina Vision’?


Current concept drawing for Albina Vision show several large buildings and roads over I-5 (lower left) — all of which would be impossible if ODOT’s I-5 Rose Quarter project moved forward as planned.

“Taking on ODOT for buildable caps over I-5. I used to be a nice, middle-aged lady. But, Albina has turned me into a fighter. I’m not backing down.
— Rukaiyah Adams, Albina Vision

There’s a storm brewing over the I-5 Rose Quarter project and it’s not just coming from a growing number of anti-freeway activists.

The Oregon Department of Transportation wants to widen the freeway that slices through the heart of what was a thriving community in the 1950s. The agency hopes to add several lanes and expand the freeway’s footprint in an attempt to speed up traffic and reduce congestion. But there’s another vision for the area that is more about living and less about driving.

As we shared in 2017, the Albina Vision wants to recreate the lost grandeur of dense, walkable and bikeable neighborhood that once flourished before I-5 and other developments destroyed over 700 homes and many businesses. That vision also includes a significant amount of housing — much of which would be built on top of I-5.

One of the main things standing in the way of that vision is ODOT’s I-5 Rose Quarter project.

ODOT concept drawing shows two smaller covers that could only support a park or plaza.

The $500 million project, which is now in a federally-mandated phase of public comment on an environmental assessment, calls for two covers (a.k.a. caps or lids) over the freeway: One over the Broadway-Weidler couplet and the other at Hancock and Dixon streets. ODOT planned these spaces to be merely caps and not a tunnel because the latter would be much more expensive and complicated (requiring them to dig down and lower the existing freeways lanes, build a sophisticated ventilation system, and so on). Because a more beefy, continuous tunnel would trigger more stringent federal engineering and environmental regulations, ODOT’s highway caps would only be able to hold a few trees and benches (for the rare individuals who relish the opportunity to relax above a loud and smelly freeway).

That’s where the disagreement lies.

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Red circle marks map element labeled as, “Infill development I-5 bridges”.

Having “buildable caps” is a central part of Albina Vision’s plan to restore the historic neighborhoods and street grid. Instead of unused spaces, Albina Vision wants to put that new real estate above I-5 to work as infill development. Their concept drawings and show several, multi-story buildings and roads directly above the freeway. A map on the Albina Vision website labels the area above I-5 as “Infill development”. ODOT’s cute little caps wouldn’t be nearly strong enough for those type of structures.

The two key leaders behind the Albina Vision, former Portland Parks & Recreation Director Zari Santner and Meyer Memorial Trust Chief Investment Officer Rukaiyah Adams have been steadfast in their demand for buildable covers.

Santner told a crowd of policymakers on the first day the vision launched, “… If the freeway is there and it’s not removed, it needs to have a lid.”

And Adams has spoken even more strongly about the lids telling Bridgeliner in an interview this week that, “We can’t move I-5, but if we put buildable caps there so that the streetscape is continuous for pedestrians and bicyclists, then that stitches the community back to the eastside neighborhoods, and that’s pretty critical.”

Adams doubled-down on that demand in a in a Tweet posted this morning: “94 acres in cntrl [Central] city on a transit hub. Could build thousands of affordable units,” she wrote. “Taking on @OregonDOT for buildable caps over I-5. I used to be a nice, middle-aged lady. But, Albina has turned me into a fighter. I’m not backing down.”

It’s generally accepted that agencies don’t like to move forward with an element of a major plan if it precludes the fulfillment of another plan. Does ODOT respect the Albina Vision enough to make a compromise here? Would Mayor Ted Wheeler and his colleagues in City Hall allow a major project to move forward if it deals Albina Vision such a serious blow? We’ll be watching this closely.

UPDATE, 2/22: Portland architecture critic and Business Tribune columnist Brian Libby’s latest piece is all about why we should make Albina Vision a reality. Right now.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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