This morning, two programs started in May 2020 as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic took another major step toward becoming permanent.
Standing in the middle of carfree Pride Plaza on SW Harvey Milk Street in downtown Portland this morning as bike riders streamed through a live press conference, Transportation Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty took a look around at the colorful pavement, benches and tables and said, “If we all work together we can keep this going. And I have to say, this is one of the most beautiful plazas, carfree areas and meeting spaces in the city!”
“Every neighborhood should have a welcoming place where community members can get together and enjoy each other,” Hardesty continued. “I am directing PBOT to extend these two programs and work to make them permanent, so that we can use our streets for people, not just for automobiles.”
Hardesty called the press conference to announce that she and her Portland Bureau of Transportation want to make the Healthy Business program an ongoing part of the agency’s work. As we shared back in November, the program that gives business owners a free permit to operate in the street has been very successful. A PBOT survey found that not only do over 90% of respondents like the spaces, a whopping 74% of them walked or bike to get there. So far PBOT says over 1,000 businesses have applied for and received a permit.
PBOT announced today those permits will remain free through August 31st. Permits issued after that date however, will require a fee to “to offset administrative costs and to partially recoup the value of the right-of-way that is being privatized.” PBOT has not yet determined the fee amount. Asked about the fee at the event today PBOT Interim Communications Director Hannah Schafer said they’ve already signaled to business owners that a fee was coming, so they don’t expect much shock or opposition.
The pandemic normalized carfree spaces over the past two years, Schafer said. “I think people are going to be really hoping to see more of these on the street, and continue to see them on the street, whether we’re in a pandemic or not.”
That sentiment was echoed by three business owners who spoke at the event.
Neil Mattson, president of the Montavilla/East Tabor Business Association said there are currently 24 business with outdoor seating in his neighborhood and that, “If we hadn’t had the ability to have the healthy businesses permits, those businesses, I’m pretty confident would all be gone today.”
Same for Atlas Pizza, 5 & Dime, and Dots Cafe co-owner Eli Johnson. “These places are really important for everyone to meet and have a good time,” he said. “And all five of my businesses would have been closed without this help from the city.”
Chef and restaurant owner Naomi Pomeroy also sang the praises of PBOT and credited staff for helping her survive the pandemic.
PBOT will need support from business owners and the public if the program is to survive and flourish into the future. Since the permits have been free, PBOT has relied on state and federal grants to cover overhead costs of the program thus far. The program is funded only through the end of the current Fiscal Year (July 2022) and PBOT will need more funding while they phase in the new fees and build up the staff to support a more robust and institutionalized public space division within the bureau.
It’s all part of a big vision at PBOT, according to Director Chris Warner. During his remarks he said, “We really want to keep this going and create a new Portland.”
PBOT’s 2022-2023 budget request includes two separate asks for the Healthy Business Program; $5.125 million to keep the permits going and $950,000 for customer service staff to support the businesses who ask for them. The budget also asks for $2 million for the related Vibrant and Inclusive Spaces program that will help build and maintain plazas in neighborhoods through 2025.
“So please, if you like these ideas,” Hardesty said during her speech, “write to me, write to my colleagues, write a letter to your local newspaper, talk to the media, tell everybody! These are good things. We want this. We can do this together! … This is a big win for Portland. And I’m hopeful that my city council colleagues and a community will help us make this happen.”