Guest Article: The Boise neighborhood’s missing traffic diverters

Posted by on January 19th, 2022 at 10:10 am

Outlines of an old traffic diverter are still visible at North Failing and Haight.

(This article was written by Eliot neighborhood resident and transportation advocate Allan Rudwick.)

During the pandemic I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the history of the Boise-Eliot neighborhood and I’ve come across a number of plans from the 1960s and 1970s that impacted inner north Portland.

As Joe Cortright has written in City Observatory, the Oregon Department of Transportation and other state and local government agencies destroyed Albina — the largest cultural center for Black Portlanders at the time — with the construction of several freeway projects and other planning initiatives. At the same time, Emanuel Hospital was expanded intentionally into the area between North Williams and Kerby all the way to the I-5/I-405 interchange. This was presaged by a short study called the Central Albina Study which recommended most of what is now the Eliot Neighborhood be demolished for industry (see below). Warehouses were recommended west of Martin Luther King Jr Blvd and South of N Fremont. This was later amended to west of Williams Avenue.

Pages from Central Albina Study.

The Central Albina Study was very quickly ready to sacrifice most of Boise-Eliot to industrial land zoning and demolish much of what is the largest collection of 1890-1910 homes in the city of Portland. Many of these houses were considered to be “dilapidated” in the 1960s — even though 60 years later some of these same buildings are still standing. Partially in response to protests from residents, the government agencies agreed to embark on a program to ‘improve’ a different part of the Albina Neighborhood, north of Fremont St.

This project would be called the Albina Neighborhood Improvement Project. This project made certain infrastructure and financial improvements that benefit neighborhoods: home improvement loan assistance, improved street lighting, traffic diverters and installing a neighborhood park (a number of houses were removed for this park). The system of traffic diverters shown in the map above were implemented to prevent through auto traffic from taking straight routes in the five by six block area bordered N Fremont, Mississippi, Skidmore and Vancouver streets.

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The large neighborhood park described in the plan (now Unthank Park) was created in part to get a large contiguous parcel for a future school (envisioning Boise and/or Humboldt Schools being relocated). At the time there was a focus on larger sites for schools to give staff more parking than they had at the time. It seems like this was not needed as the Boise School (now Boise-Eliot/Humboldt) is doing fine with a similar footprint that it had in the 1960s. While this was happening, the Eliot school – located where Harriet Tubman Middle School is now – was proposed to be sold off for industrial land. Clearing the residents out of Eliot would make it no longer necessary.

Page from City of Portland’s Albina Neighborhood Improvement Plan showing diverters (circled in red).

Interestingly in this same document scan, the Irvington Community Association was also able to get its own diverter at NE 16th and NE Tillamook which is still in place today. One thing I remember from the City of Portland’s Traffic and Transportation class is that the diverter at 16th and Tillamook was removed during water main construction and neighbors fought to have it rebuilt. I was digging through the City’s records to see what happened to these diverters from the Albina Neighborhood Improvement Project in the Boise Neighborhood and what I found was water maintenance records in 1998. The archival satellite photos show this diverter disappearing between the 1996 and 1998 photos. This leads me to believe that the diverters were removed for construction and were never replaced. Around the same time, the Self Enhancement Inc. headquarters was built at the Unthank Park site in 1997. They may have encouraged the removal of the two diagonal diverters bordering the park at that time.

This project was so popular residents petitioned to add large areas to the improvement district, and some were added to the north, but there was never a southward expansion which prevented homeowners south of Fremont from getting access to loan assistance and other benefits.

This research fascinated me because it shows evidence as far back as the 1960s that City of Portland Planners knew how to improve a neighborhood and make it more welcoming for residents — whether it meant giving money to people to improve their properties, installing auto traffic diversion, or building a new neighborhood park. There is also evidence they knew how to destroy neighborhoods. Building highways through them, using eminent domain to force the nicest housing to be vacated, and creating the conditions for disinvestment.

Citizens are right to push to make things better by advocating for small and large projects. Politicians should be wise enough to know the difference between a project that is going to make life better and one that will make it worse.

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cmh89
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cmh89

I don’t think anyone should make the mistake that PBOT nor ODOT don’t know how to build well designed roads. They know how to make safe, walkable neighborhoods. They don’t want to build well designed roads because part of making them well designed slows down motorist and keeping motorist speeding is their one and only priority.

Chris I
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Chris I
cmh89
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cmh89

I don’t think its really local opposition that stops them. Every city has ‘local opposition’. No other city bows so willingly to the whims of property owners than Portland though. They don’t seem to worry too much about local opposition when they ignored the push to make Hawthorne safer for bikes. ODOT doesn’t seem concerned about local opposition to the Rose Quarter or IB freeway expansions. I think they mainly use ‘local opposition’ to not do things they didn’t really want to do in the first place.

Of course, the original designs of both N Williams and the 7s ‘greenway’ were dangerous by design milquetoast plans that wouldn’t protect or encourage cycling even if they were implemented in their full glory. PBOT routinely wastes social capital on low-value projects that really don’t expand the bike network or make it safer.

I mean, just look at the beg barrels they are currently installing all over the city. They didn’t even bother trying to install evidence-based infrastructure on the greenways. Can we blame ‘local opposition’ for that? Instead, we get some useless beg sign in a concrete barrel that doesn’t do anything as evidenced by PBOTs own data.

I’m of the opinion that if a project inherently makes a street safer, local opposition should have to have an extremely compelling argument to reject it. PBOTs policy of letting landowners decide how safe the public right-of-way near their property is going to be is not sustainable or fair.

EP
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EP

I think we could build 100 diverters around this city and it would only be a fraction of what is needed. Why are they so hard to get installed? What’s the hold up?!

qqq
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qqq

Thank you for sharing all your research.

I hadn’t heard of the 1962 Albina Study. It’s incredibly bad–no concern at all for the lives of people living in the area. Looking at the map (Plate 6 in the study that you linked to) that shows almost all of the Eliot neighborhood (west of MLK, south of Fremont) wiped out for industrial development almost is horrifying. Despite all the ravages to the neighborhood over the decades (freeway, MLK medians, Emanuel, redlining…) a large number of incredible early-20th-century homes remain, many restored. Walk on those streets now, knowing that this plan proposed destroying them all–insane.

The irony is that the lack of investment in the neighborhood that this plan used to justify destroying it was created in large part by plans like this. Who would dare buy a home or build an apartment building or open a business in Eliot after reading a plan that proposed to destroy it? Even bad plans such as this that weren’t carried out served to scare off investment.

The trade-off strategy you mentioned (incentives for residents north of Fremont in return for destroying Eliot south of Fremont) were alive and well during the Albina Plan. Some of the anti-neighborhood maneuverings–especially by PDC–were sickening.

Zach Katz
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Zach Katz

Another interesting story from the late 90s archives: PBOT wanted to decouple inner SE Belmont and Morrison to make them safer and more walkable, but a “citizens advisory committee” of just 12 people vetoed the plan because it would remove parking. https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1794/5189/Portland_Belmont_Morrison_Project.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Racer X
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Just like Jan on The Brady Bunch says now, “Parking, Parking, Parking…”

ivan
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ivan

Excellent research. From the report:

A citizens advisory committee consisting of 12 members was formed
of representatives from the Buckman Neighborhood Association,
Sunnyside Neighborhood Association, Belmont Business Association,
the Central Eastside Industrial District, as well as interested residents
and business owners within the study area.

Of course the Central Eastside Industrial District got their grubby little hands on it, even though they were barely even part of the study area (at the very edge, along 12th Ave). I’m guessing WHO WILL THINK OF THE POOR TRUCKSSSS???! was their position on offer.

Also note on page 14, where impacts to transit were noted as “increased travel time due to congestion” just like in the Hawthorne project, PBOT apparently being unaware of bus lanes and skip-queues back then too.

Do you know if there have been any more recent initiatives to decouple these streets through the residential part of Buckman?

Zach Katz
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Zach Katz

> Do you know if there have been any more recent initiatives to decouple these streets through the residential part of Buckman?

Not to my knowledge, but I do recall hearing that PBOT is planning to redesign inner Belmont next (not sure which section), so decoupling should definitely be on the table again when that happens. It would be such a great street to bike on, cruising from the bridge straight into Tabor.