How a young urbanist turned a slip lane into Portland’s newest plaza

On April 14th, just 10 days before the Shake Shack opened on West Burnside and 10th in downtown Portland, I walked past it and was very disappointed. The new place itself looked amazing and I was so excited for how this fast food joint would activate this very popular and busy corner of our city. The one thing dragging this space down has always been the slip lane that separates it from a large median with a bus stop and huge public art sculpture where thousands of people a day wait to cross Burnside to get to and from Powell’s City of Books and other destinations.

Xavier Stickler. (Photo courtesy Xavier Stickler)

Slip lanes are terrible and should be removed everywhere. And I assumed, given this redevelopment and the context around this location, that the Portland Bureau of Transportation would do the right thing. But not only was the lane still there, the lane markings had just been repainted! I figured we’d missed a perfect opportunity to create a human-centered space in the heart of downtown.

Little did I know that a behind-the-scenes effort to create a plaza on the lane had been going on for about eight months. And by the time Shake Shack opened, that lane was transformed into a relaxing green space with picnic tables, astroturf, and planters.

I’ve since learned this wonderful new space would not exist if it wasn’t for the activism of 23-year-old Portland State University architecture and urban planning student Xavier Stickler. From September to April, Stickler navigated red tape and the politics of two neighborhood associations (both of which are typically dominated by people a half-century older than him), to see his vision through. Turns out, the idea first came to him on a visit to Powell’s.

Here’s the story…

Stickler was at Powell’s with his friend (and fellow urbanist) Bradley Bondy in September 2022 and they noticed the slip lane was closed for Shake Shack construction. Bondy, who co-hosts a podcast about Portland with Stickler, said he felt it should stay that way. “I kind of thought, ‘Well, I don’t think the existing political establishment will be in favor of that. I think that’s a little too extreme’,” Stickler recalls. “But then the more I thought about it, I realized it’s a really bad design.”

(Graphic: Xavier Stickler)

Used by drivers to make a two-stage left turn (since left turns are not allowed off Burnside), the slip lane (which is actually SW Oak Street that sets off diagonally and creates a triangle-shaped cutout at Burnside) dumped drivers into the far left lane of SW 10th Avenue. And since the left lane is left-turn only, anyone wanting to go north on 10th had only 19 feet to merge across the lane. Making matters worse is that many drivers would nudge into the crosswalk in order to encourage cross-traffic to stop. Backups at this intersection were common, and they would often cause delays in the streetcar which runs in one of the middle lanes. “I just remember it being a disaster,” Stickler said. “It’s dangerous and ineffective.”

So Stickler dove head-first into researching the issue and before the end of the month he’d created a presentation that laid out the problems and his solution: a new public plaza he called the Burnside Pocket Park. He then used his position on the Land Use & Transportation Committee of the Downtown Neighborhood Association to curry support and the group ended up endorsing his plan. In a letter to City Council, the DNA wrote that the plaza would, “Greatly improve pedestrian safety, create a vibrant public place near one of the central city’s foremost destinations, and improve traffic flow at this key intersection…. Pedestrianizing this prime corner is everyone’s interest, and we request that the city do so as soon as possible.”

With wind in his sails, Stickler then crossed over Burnside into the Pearl District and presented to their neighborhood association. They loved it too. In their November 8th letter, the Pearl District Neighborhood Association wrote, “We are hopeful that implementing this plaza will provide a key placemaking opportunity at a time when the City is strongly encouraging visitors to return downtown, and will further bridge the divide between the Pearl and Downtown neighborhoods.”

“If I died today I accomplished nothing else in life, I will have at least made that one intersection suck a little bit less.”

– Xavier Stickler

Luckily for Stickler, the idea already had some momentum before he got involved. Closing the slip lane has been in various city plans going back as far as 2007. The 2015 West Quadrant Plan called on the city to, “Explore opportunities for consolidating and/or redeveloping Burnside’s ‘jug handles’ (triangular shaped spaces) into public spaces.”

With both neighborhoods in his corner, he fired off a letter to Portland City Council and by April he had confirmed with the PBOT project manager that he won: The slip lane would not be reopened to cars and would become a plaza! PBOT spokesperson Dylan Rivera says it’s called Pod Plaza (after the name of the sculpture nearby) and is part of the city’s growing Street Plaza Program. Rivera added that they expect to make this project permanent with more significant capital enhancements coming in 2024.

It’s a great victory for Stickler and his friend Bradley Bondy, both of whom are part of a youth movement in the urbanism scene who first connected in the Portland chapter of the “NUMTOT” (New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens) Facebook group which is known as MAXed Out Memes for Overcast Teens. “This was a flatly bad intersection, so it was admittedly low-hanging fruit,” Stickler acknowledged. “But I am extremely pleased. If I died today I accomplished nothing else in life, I will have at least made that one intersection suck a little bit less.”

And he hopes it will lead to more transformations. “I hope this can be a good reminder to downtown interests and neighborhood associations that active transportation and public places are not the enemy — they’re our greatest asset. Projects like this are what draw people to Portland: goofy-little pockets of charm and street life. We need more of them, not less!”


@bikeportland Let’s go #Portland! This is the type of advocacy and PBOT action we need. Instead of a slip lane at W Burnside & 10th, we now have this plaza filled with beautiful people. #numtot #urbanism #publicspace #portlandoregon #shakeshack @SHAKE SHACK ♬ original sound – BikePortland
Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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Matthew
Matthew
9 months ago

Xavier and Bradley,

Well done.

Daniel Reimer
9 months ago

This is great to hear but sad to see just how much time and effort it takes to make these small changes with big positive outcomes. There are small slip lanes dotted all around the city that have no business existing in urban areas. The Multnomah Village transportation chair is currently trying to get a slip lane at SW 35th and SW Falcon St (https://www.google.com/maps/@45.4660367,-122.7125125,351m/data=!3m1!1e3) closed and is becoming a much bigger lift than it needs to be.

maccoinnich
9 months ago

Huge congratulations to Xavier for making this happen… but I can’t help but feel we could have gotten a better outcome if only PBOT development review and planning were better integrated.

PBOT development review is very good at getting private developers to rebuild sidewalks to a higher quality. Comparing before and after, the Shack Shake development replaced existing concrete and removed curb cuts for the parking; replaced a catch basin; added new street trees; rebuilt the corner to be ADA accessible; added ornamental street lighting and partially repaved the SW Oak slip lane.

However, I’m not entirely sure that these new elements are in the places we’d want them to be, if we’d known the SW Oak lane was going to close. Rather than laying down new asphalt on SW Oak, for instance, it might have made sense to put down concrete at the same elevation as the sidewalk. An upgrade of the corner at Burnside / 10th would probably provide more utility than where it was rebuilt. Street trees could have been place to line Burnside, rather than a now closed slip lane.

There probably would have been some extra cost to that, that the city could have helped with. But because the decision to close the slip lane was made so late, that opportunity has passed.

Atreus
Atreus
9 months ago
Reply to  maccoinnich

Where would the funding have come from, though? There wasn’t really a funded plaza program until partway through the Covid pandemic, and by that time it was probably too late to partner with the developer. I get the frustration, but I don’t think PBOT has ever really had much funding for plazas, and even these days it seems limited to planters and paint and tables. What they need is a well-funded program that can strategically add money to these developer improvements, to expand beyond the sidewalk zone that is usually all that can be legally required. Another option would be to liberalize the use of TSDC credits and proactively use them when there is a good opportunity. This provision currently seems to be rarely used or approved.

Dan R
Dan R
9 months ago
Reply to  Atreus

It’s wild how the question of funding always comes up with pedestrian and cycling centric projects, but never when it’s billions of dollars for a massive highway expansion nobody wants, to name a local example

maccoinnich
9 months ago
Reply to  Atreus

I don’t think the design changes I’m suggesting would have added that much cost, although I accept that it wouldn’t have been zero. It’s too late now, of course, so the question is how do we get better outcomes in the future? In terms of where to get funding when it’s needed, I’d argue that public realm improvements might also be a good use of transient lodgings tax once and Parks’ giant pot of SDC money.

maxD
maxD
9 months ago
Reply to  maccoinnich

It may have saved money. Fussy asphalt work and painting is relatively expensive, and ADA ramps are complex and costly. If the street was infilled with concrete, it is just simple formwork, only one contractor and one material. Even if the volume was larger, the cost would likely be close.

Randi J
Randi J
9 months ago

JM:
“(both of which are typically dominated by people a half-century older than him),”

Fact check please Jonathan.

Yes my NA core group definitely is older than 23 but nowhere near what you state in your blog post. Plus the NA’s here seemed to support his efforts.
Definitely picking up an ageist vibe from your “reporting”. BTW you’re getting pretty old yourself….would some say are you no longer relevant? That doesn’t feel so good does it?

Melly
Melly
4 months ago
Reply to  Randi J

There’s really nothing but identity politics with Gen Z. They really don’t care that you’re 45 not 73 (as would be a ‘half century’ older than Xavier in his noble fight against the evil PBOT)

Fight them back with identity politics or prepare to lose.

Also his brilliant plan changed lots of transportation, including my bus route (thanks for adding 20 minutes and a hard walk to my already 2 hour bus commute, O prince of the urban privileged).

I hope you get food poisoning when you don’t tip at my restaurant. I’m young like you and so far away from having anyone actually care about the urban working class.

dwk
dwk
9 months ago

I pay a lot of taxes to this city with it’s work for home work force and all its crappy decisions and bureau’s and departments like PBOT so College kids can raise an idea that everyone goes “DUH”, what a good idea!!!!
Congrats to Strickler for his excellent work but seriously it just reinforces what a bunch of useless overpaid bureaucrats we pay for in this city.

Amit Zinman
9 months ago

Portland, like other such cities, should lean into its strength. It’s known for being a bikeable, fun and often quirky city. Even if the magic that was once everywhere in Portland is somewhat gone, the city should be able to still make a lot of money from the things that still make it appealing for tourists and people migrating from other cities.
Other cities in the world spend millions, even billions of dollars on infrastructure that improves whatever is already attractive in that city. Portland doesn’t need more mediocre chains and stores or additional SUV lanes for its highways and bridges. It should have more of whatever attracted a person like me to move here from halfway across the world.

Mark Remy
Mark Remy
9 months ago

Amazing story. Hooray!

Timur Ender
Timur Ender
9 months ago

Great cities stand on the shoulders of advocacy. Thank you so much for all your efforts!

Doug Hecker
Doug Hecker
9 months ago

This makes it sound like it’s easy to twist the heavy arm of PBOT. Tbh, I don’t recall that lane being used as much as the one off of Woodstock. Too bad there’s is literally nothing near the Woodstock one to draw anyone to it. I guess I’d call this an easy win. I’d also prefer the city to install some real barriers to prevent some google mapped driver from running into all the tables that are there. As easy as this one was to install, I’d like to see some of the dead plazas either removed or reimagined for better use like the one on NW Couch between3rd-4th. Anywho, I’m glad this happened but have reservations on anything getting done quickly. ***Editor: deleted last phrase***

mh
9 months ago

And how ’bout getting DePave involved and replacing asphalt and Astroturf with something permeable?

SteveBinEugene
SteveBinEugene
9 months ago
Reply to  mh

I’ll come up from Eugene for the demolition! Inspirational work, Xavier and Bradley!

Matti
Matti
9 months ago

A brilliant solution! The transformation of the slip lane to “park” integrates the previously isolated sculpture “porkchop”. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Dave Fronk
Dave Fronk
9 months ago

Sorry, I know the feelings I’m “supposed” to have about projects like this, but this just feels like a giveaway to Shake Shack.

Lou Fus
Lou Fus
9 months ago
Reply to  Dave Fronk

Once folk experiencing homelessness find this new open area; it will become the newest mini “Dignity Village”; complete with a nearby Shake Shack…

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
9 months ago
Reply to  Dave Fronk

The use of public funds to subsidize private (and, often, deeply amoral corporations) is an intrinsic part the urbanist belief system.

It’s also darkly comical that people who ride around with “this bike fights climate change” signs are celebrating a restaurant that serves GHG-spewing beef (some of which likely originates from ranches created from clearcut amzonian rain forest).

PacificSource
PacificSource
9 months ago
Reply to  pierre delecto

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