I’ve seen many interesting city meetings over the years, but nothing quite like what transpired last night on the corner of NE 7th and Tillamook.
The Portland Bureau of Transportation was supposed to break ground two days ago on a project to remove the traffic circle at this intersection as part of a larger neighborhood greenway project. But when they sent the construction notice to nearby residents, many folks didn’t like the plan. And that’s putting it lightly.
The opposition was strong and well-organized enough that PBOT agreed to meet with neighbors Wednesday night. And it happened right in the street. Since the street is closed to cars for the imminent construction, it was quiet and calm. It also turned out that the crowd was so big they needed all the space they could get. I counted over 60 people at one point. They walked from their living rooms, and they rolled right up on their bikes.
There were six PBOT staff in attendance (five of which appeared to be on the clock) led by Capital Delivery Division Manager Steve Szigethy. Szigethy and his team — Nicole Pierce, project manager; Nick Falbo, planner; Anthony Buczek, engineer; and Andrew Sullivan, engineer — had to navigate a thorny thicket of issues. As I shared yesterday, the initial public outreach on this project was not only four long years ago, it was also framed with the complex issues of racial discrimination and gentrification in inner north and northeast Portland.
As if that wasn’t challenging enough, the gap between the conclusion of the public process in 2018 and the start of construction today, meant that most people who live near 7th and Tillamook were caught off guard. Right off the bat, Szigethy apologized for the delay. But that wasn’t the only gripe from neighbors. Most people in the crowd simply didn’t like PBOT’s proposal — which for some reason wasn’t made public until the day construction was supposed to start.
The proposal to remove a traffic circle (and large tree in the middle of it) in order to improve safety just doesn’t square with most people. We heard many horror stories from folks last night about dangerous and reckless driving at the intersection. One couple said they won’t let their young child play in the front yard, another guy dropped a broken license plate at the feet of a PBOT staffer and said it’s one of many that’s been knocked off his parked cars after being hit by drivers. Another person said they don’t know their neighbors because the traffic is so stressful no one sits on their porch.
Rose Francis, the woman who organized the neighborly uprising, said she recently saw two middle school kids nearly get hit while biking to school.
Francis read out her concerns from a pre-written speech:
“Cars drive aggressively through this intersection, honking and cussing at cyclists and residents as we try to cross the road or back out of our driveways. Speeding is a huge problem. If you remove the circles, speeds are going to go up. A Black boy was hit and killed on this street by a speeding car 50 years ago. There is a history of neglect in this community. Removing the traffic circle without putting real protective measures in its place, puts our community members at grave risk.
It appears PBOT is not doing enough to protect this neighborhood because it is more convenient for some people living to the north to use 7th Ave as an alternative thoroughfare to MLK which is one block over. That is improperly balancing the convenience for people outside this neighborhood against the life and safety of people inside this neighborhood.”
Many people at the meeting echoed Francis. “Signs and lines are not going to do it,” one person said.
Not everyone was mad at PBOT. Several folks spoke up to say they’re eager to rip out the traffic circle. “I want this thing gone!” yelled one woman. “It’s unsafe! They’re making a good choice.”
But opposers outweighed supporters, so PBOT’s task last night was to defend their proposal. Why? They’ve already hired a contractor who’s just sitting on their hands waiting to break ground. In PBOT’s mind the plan is set and this thing needs to get built. A resident revolt was completely unexpected.
Right now, NE 7th has about 4,000 to 6,000 cars on it per day. PBOT’s dream is to get that down to 1,000 or less. In the meantime, since two neighborhood greenways come together at NE 7th and Tillamook, and it’s a key connection to the new Blumenauer Bridge, PBOT wants to give bike riders the option of riding in dedicated bike lanes without sharing space with drivers. The only way to fit four travel lanes (two 10-foot wide general lanes and two bike lanes), they say, is to remove the circle.
In addition to needing space, PBOT said traffic circle intersections like this one have more crashes on average and they can introduce unpredictable behaviors because many people (including bike riders) will cut through it in the wrong direction. At this location specifically, visibility is bad because of the circle’s vegetation and the grade of the road.
“This traffic circle does improve conditions for some folks crossing the street,” PBOT Planner Nick Falbo said last night, before sharing copies of their new design proposal. “But it also makes it less safe. We think what we’re creating is a design that can maintain safe crossing and can improve conditions on a net level for people trying to navigate this area.”
It’s important to keep in mind that the removal of this traffic circle was initially part of the much more dramatic PBOT plan to put the neighborhood on greenway on 7th. In 2018, PBOT released a plan that would have transformed 7th into a quiet and calm street; but several major community organizations that serve Black Portlanders (church, housing developer, business association, a Head Start program) opposed it. “We got feedback [in 2018] that the plan would not be good for the families those organizations serve,” Falbo recounted, “And it was not something we were going to pushback on.”
So PBOT decided to switch the greenway route to NE 9th and only do minor traffic calming on 7th.
Fast forward to last night and a different subset of neighbors are now upset with PBOT for not pushing forward with that initial plan. One woman who was also involved back in 2018 (and whose name I didn’t get), put it this way:
“I feel like what’s happened is there was a really genuine concern from the African American communities up north and I think that’s important; but there’s no organization here. We’re just people living here. People work late. They don’t have the bandwidth to come out.
The thing is, we need a greenway, we need what you originally conceived of [in 2018]. It’s brilliant. It’s exactly what we need. People come through here, they try to run me over. It’s crazy! No one ‘s sitting out on their front porch because it’s a highway and it feels terrible. This barrier [the current closure and barricades] has been so amazing. People have been out walking more. This is your opportunity to really help us feel more like a community. To be able to feel each other and not just like we’re trying to hide out in our backyards.”
By the end of the meeting it became clear that diversion and traffic calming is what a lot of people really want.
After listening and talking for well over an hour, PBOT’s Szigethy was ready to make a deal. He laid out a three-part plan and asked for support. The proposal was to:
- Allow PBOT to move forward immediately on their redesign plan and remove the traffic circle.
- PBOT will come back to the neighborhood with a plan to add more calming features like speed bumps, concrete planter diverters, and so on.
- PBOT will agree to revisit some of the decisions about the greenway plan for 7th that were shelved in 2018.
Initially folks rejected the proposal because they didn’t trust that PBOT would return with those additional calming elements. At first, Szigethy said they don’t have time for the back-and-forth and must get started right away. But sensing a breakthrough, he ultimately relented and an agreement was reached: PBOT will send neighbors a new plan by this Friday and they’ll have until Monday to sign off on it. (Someone collected names and emails of all in attendance.)
A lot has changed since 2018. PBOT is much more nimble with diversion these days because of all the slow streets and plazas they installed during the pandemic. And it feels like most Portlanders are more open to diversion and traffic calming than in the past. With traffic volumes going down and more people walking and being outside in their neighborhoods, they’ve seen the positive impacts of less car use.
Will this change in public will translate into political will? Will PBOT’s proposal satisfy this group? Will PBOT be willing to dust off that amazing 2018 greenway plan for 7th and restart talks with Black community groups who opposed it?
UPDATE, 6:05 pm: PBOT has released the revised plan to the neighborhood group. Looks like two speed bumps and one concrete planter barricade: