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Misleading opposition campaign claims South Park Blocks Plan will lead to mass tree deaths

Riders in the South Park Blocks.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Does the City of Portland want to swap dozens of historic trees for cycling access in the South Park Blocks?

According to a campaign launched by critics of South Park Blocks Master Plan, that’s exactly what Portland Parks bureau has in mind. But is their opposition really about protecting trees? Or is it rooted in anti-cycling bias and a desire to maintain a status quo that includes ample space for cars?

A Change.org petition (right) started by a downtown art gallery and a blog post from a board member of the Architectural Heritage Center have raised the spectre of the death of 86 trees in order to build out the designs in the plan.

The issue is coming to a head because Parks released a recommended draft of the plan on June 1st and council will host a hearing on it July 7th.

The blog post, written by former reporter for The Oregonian, Fred Leeson, refers to a study by concerned citizens that found the plan would eliminate 26% of the parks 325 trees. “Many [trees] would be sacrificed to make way for the ‘Green Loop’ two-way bicycle lanes along 10 of the 12 blocks,” reads Leeson’s piece. “From its earliest planting of deciduous trees in 1877, the park has never been considered as a thoroughfare for any kind of vehicles.” (The Park Blocks are currently a thoroughfare for both driving and parking cars, but Leeson doesn’t mention any concerns with that.)

“Many [trees] would be sacrificed to make way for the ‘Green Loop’.”
— Fred Leeson, Building on History blog

“No trees would be sacrificed for the Green Loop.”
— Tate White, Portland Parks

Leeson’s claims are echoed in a petition started Sunday by the Pearl District-based Elisabeth Jones Art Center, a gallery that also sponsors a Tree Emergency Response Team program. 137 people have signed the petition in the past 24 hours. The petition’s creator claims it’s the work of “bicyclists,” but at least one cycling activist in Portland says it’s part of a disinformation campaign. Iain Mackenzie, a Portland Bicycle Advisory Committee member and founder of Next Portland, a blog about architecture and development, used his Twitter account to urge bicycle users to not sign the petition.

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The plan calls for using existing street right-of-way. (Source: South Park Blocks Master Plan)

Mackenzie also says the Building on History blog post, “Is not an accurate or honest description of the plan.”

It’s worth noting that earlier in the South Park Blocks Master Plan process, some of these same critics — many of them attached to the Downtown Neighborhood Association — vehemently opposed the bikeway alignment through the park. It’s also important to note that a better bikeway through the park blocks isn’t just a random idea: it’s binding city policy passed as part of the Green Loop alignment adopted in the city’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan. Despite that, the Downtown Neighborhood Association fought to move the Green Loop to Broadway. When that request was not granted, they advocated to have bicycle users dismount while riding through the park and asked the city to create a “cyclist licensing and bicycle registration program.”

The plan itself takes tree health very seriously. It includes a “Tree Succession Strategy” that Parks Director Adena Long references in her introductory letter: “The tree succession strategy
provides a long-term guide for replacing trees when they naturally reach the end of their life spans.” The removal of trees is also clearly addressed in the plan: “This master plan does not advocate removing any mature healthy trees.”

I asked Portland Parks Senior Planner Tate White if these concerns over tree removal were legitimate. She said, “No.”

Graphic from a blog post that claims Parks will remove the trees marked in red (they won’t).

“No trees would be sacrificed for the Green Loop,” White clarified. “Anywhere it’s proposed it’s proposed on existing pavement.” White added that they respect concerns about the new bikeway being close to tree roots, and that when any construction takes place the Urban Forestry department will be on the scene. “If we found the trees were going to be harmed, we would make changes. Trees are supposed to be part of the Green Loop, we want to have mature trees along it. That’s the goal,” White added.

The reason for the discrepancy between Leeson’s tree removal claims and Parks’ denial of it comes down to where the park boundary is drawn. Portland Parks uses the legal tax lot boundary, which does not include trees that are “in the park.” Critics of the plan consider these edge-line trees part of the park, but Portland Parks does not. “Those are essentialy street trees” is how White put it. Even so, as conceptual drawings clearly show, the designs in the recommended draft adopted by council do not encroach on any trees — which makes the claim and graphics on the Building History blog post (at right) very misleading.

This debate is happening in part because cars currently take up so much space. If the City of Portland had its way, both streets adjacent to the Park Blocks would be completely carfree and the issue of being too close to trees would be moot.

The Connected Cultural District (Appendix B) concept adopted with the master plan will be presented at a city council hearing July 7th. It calls for a “traffic-free Green Loop”.

Check out these wonderful before and after images:

Keep in mind, this is just a master plan and there’s no dedicated funding to build out this $23-$46 million vision. Not yet at least.

A spokesperson for Parks Commissioner Carmen Rubio said they welcome feedback on the plan at the July 7th council meeting, “That are based on actual facts.”

CORRECTION, 6/15: This article originally stated that city council considered the recommended plan in May. That was incorrect. The plan has not be in front of council yet. I regret the error. – Jonathan

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