Starting tonight, a 12-block section of downtown Portland will be off-limits to cars two nights a week.
It’s part of an effort from Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office to improve safety and reduce gun violence in Old Town Chinatown’s entertainment district. Wheeler hosted a press conference Tuesday at Kells Irish Pub to announce the plan. “As we emerge out from the pandemic, the crowds in Old Town have returned by the tens-of-thousands. The streets are jamming up — particularly on weekends — and people need more room to spread out,” Wheeler said. “We need bigger sidewalks. We need more room for pedestrians. In lieu of that, we’re going to close lanes and streets to give people the elbow room they need to move around more freely and enjoy themselves.”
If this sounds like deja-vu, that’s because the City of Portland first made the connection between crime and cars in this area in 2009 and then expanded it further in 2012 at the behest of former Mayor Sam Adams. Last summer, Adams found himself working on the issue again as a top Wheeler advisor. According to The Oregonian, when the carfree zone and added security detail lapsed during the pandemic, safety in Old Town plummeted. After a back-and-forth with the transportation bureau and local business owners over permitting of barricades to prevent the violence, a temporary solution was found.
Wheeler’s announcement this week marks a more permanent solution to the ongoing concerns.
The new entertainment district will be twice the size of the previous version. Wheeler has given authority to the Portland Police Bureau to ban vehicles between NW 1st Avenue and NW 5th Avenue and West Burnside to NW Everett on Friday and Saturday evenings. The carfree zone will likely be in effect from around 9:00 pm to 3:00 am (I haven’t heard back on requests to clarify the exact times).
In addition to not allowing vehicles into this 12-block area, Wheeler said the PPB will deploy a “small” team of officers to patrol the area and will install additional lighting. It also “builds upon work to remove problematic encampments that block the right-of-way,” Wheeler said Tuesday. They also hope the new carfree zone will encourage people to ride transit into the area instead of driving.
Missing from the story so far is any word of involvement from City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the Portland Bureau of Transportation. The effort seems to perfectly align with several of her top priorities, including the use of street-based interventions to reduce gun violence and the creation of carfree zones downtown.
Back in July, Wheeler’s office validated some aspects of Hardesty’s approach to street-related violence when he announced a new gun violence reduction plan. His new plan also echoes an approach endorsed by the Old Town Community Association in September 2021 to do more public space activations of streets and sidewalks in the area.
Previous iterations of the entertainment district did not allow bicycle riders through the zone. Now that it’s twice as large, and would impact major cycling routes like SW 3rd and 4th avenues, we’re curious if bike traffic will be permitted. We’ve reached out to Hardesty and Wheeler’s office to find out more and have yet to hear back.