PBOT wants to make carfree ‘Healthy Business’ plaza program permanent

PBOT Director Chris Warner at Pride Plaza this morning. Behind him (L to R) are chef and business owner Naomi Pomeroy, neighborhood business advocate Neil Mattson, and City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. (Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

This morning, two programs started in May 2020 as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic took another major step toward becoming permanent.

PBOT Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.

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.

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Left: Eli Johnson, co-owner of Atlas Pizza, 5 & Dime and Dots Cafe. Right: Neil Mattson, president of the Montavilla/East Tabor Business Association.

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.”

PBOT sign at the event.

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.”

Learn more about the Healthy Business permits here.

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3 months ago

How about a demonstration program to install mid-block retractable bollards for sidestreet residents who can get a supermajority on their block?

Tom Howe (Contributor)
3 months ago

A side benefit of the Carfree Plazas is traffic diversion on neighborhood greenways. The plaza at SE Clinton and 25th provides another diverter between the ones at 17th and 32nd. And the plaza at SE Ankeny and 28th has a similar effect.

Jack S.
Jack S.
3 months ago

Love love love love love the healthy business streets!!!!!!! Can’t wait to see dozens more!!!

SolarEclipse
SolarEclipse
3 months ago

Wow, must be getting close to the election.

Frank Perillo
Frank Perillo
3 months ago
Reply to  SolarEclipse

Too bad that doesn’t help clean up the city as well.

maxD
maxD
3 months ago

This is great! I hope they continue this program and don’t charge too much. I appreciate the acknowledgement that this is a privatization of a public space and I hope they make at least one tweak: These space should not exclude people under 21 years old. If it is in public, a young person or family should be able to go there at least until 8 or 9 pm. I saw a “street seat space on Shaver near Mississippi that straight-up excluded anyone younger than 21 years old.

hamiramani
3 months ago

Glad to hear this is happening.

I hope to see activation of these spaces year-round and beautification of the spaces with native plantings. It’s very sad to see public plazas close to people during the winter (see Montavilla Plaza as an example). Let’s foster an ethos and built environment that encourages folks to enjoy the outdoors all year.

EP
EP
3 months ago

It would be great to have year-round versions of these scattered throughout town and be able to bike from one to another, or use them as hubs/destinations for a ride. This is the kind of stuff we need to get built quickly, and cheaply, while they have momentum. Bring in the jersey barriers, barrel planters, some native plants, and a bunch of picnic tables and benches and you’ve got a good start. Traffic diversion is a nice, added benefit.

Douglas Kelso
Douglas Kelso
3 months ago

Hear, hear! I’d love to see Montavilla’s temporary plaza next to Bipartisan Cafe become permanent.

EP
EP
3 months ago
Reply to  Douglas Kelso

Montavilla really needs a space that isn’t car-centric. The stark st drag strip right through the heart of it doesn’t help, but a permanent side street car free plaza would be great.

Steve B
Steve B
3 months ago

You’re telling me we can have more permanent carfree spaces, that the city can earn revenue from them, and we are improving the standards for how they are placed and constructed? Sounds like a win-win-win. Thanks PBOT and Commissioner Hardesty for your leadership!

ActualPractical
ActualPractical
3 months ago

An actually productive use of public space. Builds wealth and community.

Sets us apart from many other places in the country where people are much lower priority (if even considered) and car storage and/or unlimited high speed throughout are laughably considered economic development.