A wild elk may look friendly from afar, but those in the know will tell you to be wary – they can be aggressive. This seems to be the case for the saga of downtown Portland’s Thompson Elk Fountain: you might think the fate of this bronze creature seems like small potatoes, but it’s sparked quite a debate that might reflect deeper political tensions within the city.
In February, we reported the news that Elk would be returning to its podium on Southwest Main Street between 3rd and 4th after being removed to repair damage it sustained during protests in 2020. However, the plan was to reinstate it without its large fountain base, to make room for the new bike lane (see graphic at right).
Several weeks after the city announced the plan, lobby group People for Portland tweeted its outrage that the elk statue’s homecoming wouldn’t include the old fountain. People for Portland called on the city to decry “lawless vandals” (AKA, the 2020 protesters) and put the statue back in its entirety. They even started a petition, encouraging people to write to local lawmakers and demand full restoration.
In the description for this petition, People for Portland says the city of Portland is “about to demolish and never rebuild” Elk, and city officials are “trying to sneak their decision by Portlanders by distracting us with their recently announced plans to return the elk statue to someplace else downtown in the next two years.”
This is a misleading statement. Though the fountain base may or may not be included, the city has no plans to move the elk itself to an entirely new location. The antlered creature may only scoot a few feet from its original home to kindly make room for people biking and taking the bus.
After People for Portland made their desires known, Portland Commissioner Dan Ryan made an announcement that he, too, was taking a historical preservationist stance.
“I am committed to delivering the Thompson Elk — with the fountain intact… a new bike lane does not prohibit the return of the elk.”
— Dan Ryan, City Commissioner
“If it’s the elk with the smaller base, we could accommodate a bike lane.”
— Hannah Schafer, PBOT
“We all have a list of items that help define the soul of our City. The Elk is part of our soul, and I will advocate restoring it and placing it back in the same spot. Simply put, the restoration of The Elk and fountain is connected to the healing of Portland,” Ryan tweeted March 25th.
People for Portland has derided some Portland city officials, saying they’re “doing too little, too slowly, to rescue our broken city.” Ryan has caught significant flack from people across the ideological spectrum for lagging on his Safe Rest Villages project that aims to move homeless people off the streets and into tiny home-style shelter pods. Given that he’s up for reelection this spring – and has been polling dismally – this could indicate a last-ditch effort to appeal to the People for Portland set.
In an emailed statement to BikePortland, Ryan said he welcomes innovative options for including both the fountain and a bike lane on Main St, and that “a new bike lane does not prohibit the return of the elk.”
“I am committed to healthy transportation in Portland, and I am committed to delivering the Thompson Elk — with the fountain intact — to Portlanders,” Ryan wrote.
According to PBOT, however, restoring the original fountain base would prohibit a new bike lane.
PBOT Interim Communications Director Hannah Schafer tells BikePortland that if the fountain is fully restored, there won’t be enough room on Main St for a bike lane – at least not a comfortable one. PBOT maintains the lane would provide an important fix to a gap in downtown bike infrastructure. The transportation bureau also says a smaller Elk base would provide more room for TriMet buses to pass.
“It’s only one block, but it’s a really important one,” Schafer says. “If it’s the elk with the smaller base, we could accommodate a bike lane.”
This isn’t something PBOT decided spur of the moment – it has been a missing piece of central city bike infrastructure for some time, but with the elk statue still there, it wasn’t possible to change the streetscape. There is currently a bike lane on Main St between 1st and 3rd Aves, but people biking have to share the road with vehicle traffic west of 3rd, which includes the narrow road around the elk statue base.
PBOT is currently working on protected bike lanes on SW 4th Ave as a part of the $3.4 million SW 4th Ave Improvement Project scheduled to break ground this summer. A bike lane on Main St in between 3rd and 4th Aves would help connect people cycling from the Hawthorne Bridge to this protected bike lane on 4th, and thus, into the rest of downtown.
Of course no one in City Hall or the Portland Building are thinking outside the box when it comes to street space. But Portland architecture critic Brian Libby is.
In a story published March 1st in Oregon Artswatch, he wrote,
“The whole problem has been the City of Portland’s reluctance to restore the full fountain due to its interference with a bike lane. But it’s not necessarily the bike lane that’s a problem here: it’s the desire for a bike lane and two lanes of automobile traffic… Considering that this stretch of Main Street is between two continuous park blocks (three if you count the federally-owned Terry Schrunk Plaza immediately south), why not consider keeping the intended bike lane but losing the cars? It would allow the original fountain, the original location, and the bike lane. And it would make the very leaders nervous about this decision look smart and on-trend.”
With Commissioner Ryan standing up for preservation, PBOT Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty standing up for more carfree spaces downtown, and PBOT themselves recently singing praises of plazas, perhaps Libby is onto something.