Nearly one month has passed since the City of Portland announced plans to remove the traffic circle on NE 7th and Tillamook. And while the large tree that once stood in the middle of the circle is now gone, the frustrations from many neighbors about how this project has transpired are not.
In the past few weeks, a small army of nearby residents have coalesced as Safe on 7th, an ad hoc advocacy group fighting to make sure the Portland Bureau of Transportation doesn’t end up making traffic dangers outside their homes even worse. On September 14th, they met directly with PBOT staff in charge of the Lloyd to Woodlawn Neighborhood Greenway project to share their concerns that removing the traffic circle would only exacerbate dangerous conditions. At that meeting PBOT heard that not only did many residents want the traffic circle to remain, they wanted much more drastic diversion in order to reduce the number of drivers who speed through the streets.
PBOT responded to some of their concerns and added additional traffic calming elements to the project, but so far the city’s action have only caused more frustration and anger among some residents.
On September 19th, PBOT announced construction of the project would move forward. On September 25th, the same group of neighbors who called the meeting with PBOT and who have placed signs on the intersection that read, “Our Neighborhood Does Not Support this PBOT Project!,” held a block party.
One of those residents, Randy Haj, told us the vibe at the block party was upbeat and positive. “Neighbors got chance to meet each other, often for the first time in person, and finally had some common space to gather without vehicle traffic ruining the atmosphere,” he shared in an email to BikePortland on Tuesday. Haj was referring to another revelation PBOT will have to grapple with eventually: This neighborhood loves their new carfree street that’s been barricaded off for the construction project for several weeks now. They don’t want drivers to return to this corner of their neighborhood. Ever.
Here’s more from Randy about what it felt like at the block party:
“Kids that were usually confined to their houses were out in droves — most of us had no idea there were this many kids in the neighborhood — and parents who usually need to have their heads on a swivel could sit back and relax into a conversation with their neighbors. In a working class neighborhood that was used to having their community cut in two by a noisy and dangerous street, there was a feeling that our families could enjoy the peace of mind that so many others enjoy in Portland every day. The steady stream of bikers crisscrossing the intersection and stopping to sign the neighbors’ petition and shouting words of support boosted the mood. The handful of drivers going around the party or through gaps in the temporary barricades was the only reminder of what the street used to be like, but they were so infrequent that everyone just laughed them off .”
Randy added he and many others were disappointed that Commissioner Jo An Hardesty’s community justice coordinator Andre Miller didn’t show up — despite saying he would.
The day after the party, two things happened: PBOT contractors arrived on the scene to cut the tree down, and Eliot Neighborhood Association (ENA) Co-chair Allan Rudwick fired off another letter (PDF) to PBOT detailing his concerns about conditions on lower NE 7th and why he feels more diversion is critical.
According to a story just posted on the ENA website, there was a tense confrontation with neighborhood activists who planted themselves on the circle and demanded that contractors and a PBOT staffer show them a permit for the tree’s removal. When the resident refused to leave, the PBOT staffer called a Portland Police officer to the scene:
And then… the community response team of PBOT showed up in the guise of a Portland Police sergeant all dressed in black with a bullet proof vest and a 9 mm pistol on his belt.
The sergeant said, “You have the right to protest, but not on this circle. If you do not move from the circle, I will arrest you for misdemeanor trespass. It may not be a serious charge, but I will take you in for booking and it may not look good to your employers or any future employment you might seek.”
While that tussle was going on, Rudwick’s letter was bouncing around email inboxes at PBOT and Commissioner Hardesty’s office. The ENA wants to convince PBOT to install much stronger traffic diversion measures in order to dramatically reduce the number of daily drivers on lower NE 7th Ave from the 6,000 or so today, to a more livable amount of less than 1,000. Rudwick shared a GIS map created by the ENA (using publicly available traffic data) that showed all the local streets in Portland that have way more average daily car traffic volume than they should. They found 10 streets that shared this trait with NE 7th. “Four of the streets on the list have a parallel, non-local street where traffic should be routed according to the city’s policy documents,” the letter states. “Of those, two — SE 52nd at SE Division and SE Clinton at SE 31st Ave — have had vehicle diversion installed. The other two — Lower 7th Avenue and N Columbia Way/N Smith St — are in historically marginalized and politically disconnected communities.”
“We are proposing to keep Lower 7th closed to vehicles until at least one diverter is installed on Lower 7th,” the letter states.
PBOT hasn’t responded to the letter, but work at the intersection is moving along at full speed. City contractors are busy this week removing the circle and prepping to restripe the street with dedicated bike lanes, new crossings, new speed bumps, and other features aimed at allowing NE 7th and Tillamook to live up to its stature as the intersection of two major neighborhood greenways.
What happens once the project is done and the “Road Closed” barricades come down is what we’re anxious to see.