‘Carfree Keller’ pop-up coming to downtown Portland this fall

A rendering of the PSU students’ carfree Keller plan. (Source: Better Block PSU)

In an area of downtown Portland currently heavy with car traffic, planners see the potential for a place comparable to the great European city centers, with pedestrian-focused plazas and plenty of green space.

A project designed by four Portland State University students – Emily D’Antonio, Ryan Martyn, Michel Rojas and Aidan Simpson – aims to turn the streets surrounding the Keller Auditorium into one of these carfree plazas.

The ‘Carfree Keller’ plan will be implemented this fall as a pop-up project as part of the Better Block PSU program – a partnership between tactical urbanist group Better Block PDX and Portland State University. Students worked with urban design expert Cathy Tuttle, a downtown resident who has detailed her aspirations for a city center with less cars, to create a proposal that would put into motion some of the traffic-free goals outlined in 1972 Portland Downtown Plan.

Currently, SW 3rd and 2nd streets adjacent to Keller Auditorium and the Keller Fountain Park are typical downtown streets. Both are one-way and allow on-street car parking. The PSU students’ plan will prohibit through car access both streets while adding planters and other elements to create a plaza, while still allowing for some car drop-off at Keller Auditorium events.

The plan also includes closing portions of adjacent SW Market Street and replacing the stairs in the traffic-free blocks south of Market with ADA-compliant ramps so various modes can “move freely throughout the traffic-free blocks, inducing demand for active transportation.” Nearby Pettygrove and Lovejoy Fountain parks are also part of the plan, which proposes to “activate them with food and beverage services tables, chairs, and benches as well as increasing green space and tree canopy at Lovejoy Fountain Park.”

To develop the project, PSU students spoke to experts like Portland Bureau of Transportation Senior Planner Nick Falbo and Executive Director of Friends of the Green Loop Keith Jones, and gathered community input. In their report, they say they had four goals with the plan, all of which are met in their final proposal:

  • Reduce Emissions within the Portland Downtown Area
  • Improve the Walkability of the Downtown Area
  • Provide better connectivity for the Portland Open Space Sequence
  • Create a reason for people to come and interact with the space
The 13 proposed traffic free areas in the 1972 Portland Downtown Plan.

While it might seem radical to close downtown streets to car traffic, the city of Portland had a comprehensive plan to do so in their Portland Downtown Plan way back in 1972. Within that 50-year-old roadmap, city planners outlined their goal to “create a pleasurable human environment” by providing safe routes for people to walk and bike from nearby neighborhoods to downtown amenities, as well as with public-use spaces where adults and children could “talk, play, look, think and enjoy.”

In order to do this, the plan sought to develop a “traffic free” environment across essentially the entire downtown corridor, from the South Waterfront to the area now known as Slabtown to more residential areas west of 10th Ave. Closing off parts of a few streets around Keller Auditorium is just a small piece of what advocates see downtown Portland could become.

The development of this plan is still in process, but it will be part of Better Block’s 2022 line-up, so we can expect to see work on it this fall. We’ll keep you posted.