Commissioner Ryan, PBOT differ on Elk statue’s street impacts

Posted by on March 31st, 2022 at 3:13 pm

What the fountain used to look like in relation to the traffic lanes. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

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.

A potential design for Main St with a bike lane and smaller elk statue base.

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.

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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.”

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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.

***

UPDATE: Reader Nic Cota created this graphic of a possible cross-section

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Josh Berezin
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Josh Berezin

I love this post. It’s a totally classic example of how people who lead and live in our city think. That the question is the elk statue vs. the bike lane, while the redundant and unnecessary auto lanes are tacitly sacrosanct, exemplifies why progress is so slow.

rocks
Guest
rocks

was gonna say the same thing

Todd/Boulanger
Guest
Todd/Boulanger

I totally agree that this is a generational “opportunity” – Act While We Can! – to correct a mistake of the 20th Century and remove the excess permissive motor vehicle access through the Parks Blocks by redefining the “true problem” here”…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…”

PLUS let us reconsider the surface of the path way through the Parks Blocks and raise the route level AND pick a surface material that would help slow movement and knit the damaged bifurcated Parks Blocks back together…

Fountains should be a gathering place – especially the Elk Statue – used to be but past City Fathers made it a dangerous and isolated car dominated carbuncle of an street island.

Ryan Sullivan
Guest
Ryan Sullivan

Brian Libby for city council! Great ideas.

Doug Klotz
Guest
Doug Klotz

The fountain base had maybe one piece damaged where someone lit a fire on it, and it cracked the marble. The rest of the dozens of pieces of granite was intact and could have been restored. But soon, the city (PBOT?) sent in workers with jackhammers to destroy the entire fountain base, carved lettering etc.. Seemed like PBOT grabbing an opportunity while people were distracted. Yes, with the fountain restored, the remove car traffic from that block, and route the bus on one side (maybe modify the sidewalk a little for more clearance, and bike lane on the other side!

maxD
Guest
maxD

was PBOT the real vandal?!

Paul Cone
Guest
Paul Cone

Water Bureau maintained it.

maxD
Guest
maxD

100% support restoring the fountain. It is an integral part of the art work, and the dimensions of the base are an important part of the presentation of the artwork. PBOT is just trying to squeeze too many lanes through here. Restore the fountain and close a lane of traffic.

maxD
Guest
maxD
Granpa
Guest
Granpa

Historic preservation is a valid concern. How about having bike lanes and the fountain and reconfigure the road for traffic calming? Simply push the sidewalks into the park six feet and make the curve tighter so cars need to go slower. Jeebus, for a city full of Sim City planning wonks they should have already seen this

Chris
Guest
Chris

You’ll get a lot of push back from park supporters about the loss of trees and probably about converting more of the park from grass to pavement.

Roberta Robles
Guest
Roberta Robles

I disagree. I do not think this is a valid historic preservation concern. David P. Thompson made money off of stolen land. He then bought this statute to name after him. I mean there are Thompson Streets all over town. Does that elk really need to be left in the middle of the road like a p1zz testing contest? Nah I don’t think so. Elk MIGRATE ALL THE TIME.

For those who just showed up to Oregon… there’s always another look at it. And just like I don’t talk about the Oscars fiasco, nobody should be insisting on historic preservation of white people as a priority. Those guys can go to the back of line. Eso es la isla de los tortugas.

Watts
Guest
Watts

The Elk represents something to me quite different than how someone acquired land long before anyone living was born. Some things outgrow their origin stories, and while we shouldn’t forget, we need not be beholden to them.

The Elk can be an important symbol without declaring that its creator led an unblemished life.

zuckerdog
Guest
zuckerdog

In it’s pre-pandemic state, the elk statue and fountain actually did a fairly decent job of traffic calming. As Nic and Brian suggest, there is plenty of room for the fountain, just not enough space for two motor vehicle lanes.

Doug Hecker
Guest
Doug Hecker

I’d be supportive of a lane reduction but I’d guess the rose lane getting expanded would get that space. Making that area like the drawing excludes the bus and I’m not sure the city would desire that idea. I’d add that I received a good old fashioned door job next to the fountain 3 years ago. As far as historical value, it’s so filled with redlines and exclusions that maybe it’s time to move on. As for Hardesty, I sat through a meeting recently and was not impressed with her representative. I think rude, aggressive, and unfriendly summed up the interaction. She won’t be receiving anything from me.

Steven Smith
Guest
Steven Smith

Commissioner Ryan will bring the elk home before he provides homes for people living on the streets. What an ill-informed stance if it prevents a good bike connection.

maxD
Guest
maxD

I like Nic Cota’s proposal! Aa a possible addition, I would raise the whole level of the traffic circle surrounding the fountain pedestal to match sidewalk grade for a midblock crossing between the park and around the Elk.

SD
Subscriber

It’s time we started treating downtown like it is a place for people to live and enjoy rather than treating it like the spoils of suburbia. If we are truly worried about downtown being empty we should realize that people will go where there are other people.

qqq
Guest
qqq

I think any solution that doesn’t allow people to walk right up to the statue is wrong. That’s how it was designed. Isolating it as an island in traffic is wrong. Adding the fountain back but leaving it inaccessible to people is ever worse–the whole point of the fountain historically was that it served as a drinking water source for horses, and a place people could gather.

Brian Libby’s idea of leaving it, but removing the vehicle traffic, seems ideal. People could walk or ride right up to it because there’d be little conflict with people biking through. Bike traffic is similar to the horse and bike traffic that originally surrounded it. If vehicles can’t be removed from the area, the statue should be moved.

Frank Perillo
Guest
Frank Perillo

This is Portland. We can’t have nice things here.

J_R
Guest
J_R

This is another example of the failure of Portland’s commission style of government. Commissioners have near total control over individual departments so they end up looking after “their” departments’ priorities and no one looks after what’s good for the city, its citizens, businesses, and visitors.

I’m not sure what the best solution is for this particular issue, but whatever it is, we probably will have a hard time getting there because it pits one commissioner against another.

Watts
Guest
Watts

Do you really think that, freed from bureau oversight, the commissioners would automatically agree on what to do here?

TheCat
Subscriber
TheCat

I agree that the best option is removing the motorized vehicle lane. However, I have to ask why they haven’t considered widening the entire lane to allow for all the modes plus the fountain?

Roberta Robles
Guest
Roberta Robles

One time on the Oregon Coast I was a passenger in a truck that struck an elk. The elks head smashed against my passenger window as I looked into its eyes as it died. It was sad, we camped by the side of the road with it and helped the USFW and Boys Scout claim the body for disposal. We had a road side memorial service for this majestic animal. 1964 Chevy truck was still drivable.

People for Portland are looking for any wedge they can find between neighbors. This isn’t about historic preservation. This isn’t about respect for elk.

The fountain and elk were choked by traffic. Just like the elk in the coast.

That statute and the fountain have no business being in the middle of the road.

Even if it was replaced, well we know how easily it could topple again. Just like Ryan’s next election.

Matti
Guest
Matti

I’m not interested in the distraction of PfP politics. I do think it is about respecting history, art, and something more profound than expediting traffic. If you want to think about it in utilitarian terms, it was a beautiful traffic calming device, and still can be. Let the road yield, not the other way around.

Sigma
Guest
Sigma

Aren’t all of Dan Ryan’s opponents running to his left? Do you really think that’s a winning strategy right now?

Matti
Guest
Matti

The ensemble of the fountain and the elk symbolized Portland’s celebration of the city’s relationship to its unique natural environment. It is called art. Replacing the elk on a diminished concrete base designed to accommodate traffic would make the sculpture feel more like threatened wildlife caught in the high beams of a 4×4.

I love the idea of dropping the north lane and incorporating a replicated fountain base into a small plaza that accommodates both bikes and pedestrians. Let’s turn lemons to lemonade!

joan
Subscriber

Dan Ryan is committed to People for Portland. What a disappointment and disaster he’s been.

Watts
Guest
Watts

What a disappointment and disaster he’s been.

Dan Ryan is in good company. Which of our city leaders doesn’t fit that description?

VS
Guest
VS

You may not like it, but People for Portland represents the majority view in this city. All they really do is take money from rich people, use it to poll everyone, then hammer on the city leaders on the issues that people support the most.

The reality is that Portland voters are really pissed at the arson/vandal set that took over the BLM protests. Not your cup of tea, but I think you are going to be very surprised on primary night.

one
Guest

I disagree with your post. Your stats are wrong. Please post a link to your claims.

rain panther
Guest
rain panther

Seems like it might be nice if the statue, along with its fountain base, were situated IN one of the park areas that flank Main St. It has always seemed sad to me to have it stranded in the middle of the street, rather than someplace where people can stroll up to it or past it. If it were in a park, there could even be a couple of park benches facing it. People could sit by the fountain with a cup of coffee or whatever. Why not maximize the enjoyment?

Mark Remy
Guest
Mark Remy

Good grief.

Steven Smith
Guest
Steven Smith

Good grief is right.

I’d appreciate if our electeds say something like: the elk is an important symbol for Portland. It’d be good to restore it in its entirety. The world has also shifted. We’re in the midst of a climate emergency. Our goals and policies are to reduce driving. How can we come together and create something meaningful that honors our history and aesthetic while also contributing to the outcome of a low carbon, healthy city as enshrined in our policies and goals?

What kind of a symbol will the elk become if it represents an opportunity lost? Will it be resented as an enduring barrier to our vision? Will it be another line that divides us? Are our electeds leading us to that dividing line? Most of the conversation seems to reflect the taking of clear sides. Pro-Elk or Pro-Bike. Ideally our leaders would lead and not divide us.

The Elk, by providing water to horses and dogs was a wonderful civic gesture, beautifully done. But now, if it literally stands in the way of climate progress then it risks becoming an impediment to our vision for Portland.

Who are we Portland? What do we stand for? The Elk will soon tell us.

Charley
Guest
Charley

People for Portland has picked the most content-free, “all about the vibes” fight it could possibly pick. . . and managed to get Dan Ryan on board. Good grief.

When I read “architecture critic” in this article, I braced for an echo of this culture war drivel, and was pleasantly surprised to read a very good suggestion! Brian Libby! Run for Dan Ryan’s seat!

Mark smith
Guest

Why not? Because mayor zoom is once again…nowhere to be found until he’s sure there is no blowback on him.

Bryan
Guest
Bryan

Bring back the damn elk statue! Any hater against doesn’t really give a damn about Portland, Oregon!

JCB
Guest
JCB

The sidewalks in this spot are wide enough to expand (like near the new courthouse) why not put the bike lanes ON the sidewalk? I’m for doing this anywhere possible. Take the bike lane out of the street & there is less chance to be run over.