Report on Burnside Town Hall

Commissioner Adams listens to Joe Zehnder
from the Bureau of Planning

Last night Commissioner Sam Adams hosted a town hall meeting on the Burnside Transportation and Urban Design Plan. Perhaps the first thing of note was the meeting and Sam’s style of running it. I don’t think either of the two previous Commissioners of Transportation would have personally MC’ed an event like this. His “call me Sam” casualness and seemingly boundless energy made sure the evening was lively, even if advocates on both sides of the issue would have preferred that he was clearer about his own position.

Battle lines drawn

About 125 people participated in the town hall and the group seemed about evenly split between advocates for the project and opponents.

The advocates included many stakeholder committee representatives (including your correspondent) and members of the organizations they represent.

The opponents consisted of Gerding/Edlen (the Brewery Blocks developers) and “residents of buildings on Couch”. While buildings were seldom mentioned by name, one observer described it as “a condo association meeting for the Henry”. A more cynical observed noted some of the Henry’s residents

  • The City’s ombudsman
  • The mother of the Planning Director
  • A past chair of the Housing Authority
  • The most recent City lobbyist

[For my own part I know some of these individuals and believe them to be people acting in good faith – but the concentration of clout in that building is nonetheless remarkable.]

Questions-Info-Opinions

The format of the meeting was to first gather questions from the audience, then have an ‘expert’ panel describe the project and attempt to answer the questions, then allow the audience to state their opinions.

The panel consisted of Bill Hoffman, PDOT project manager for the project; Lloyd Lindley, the urban designer on the project; Lew Bowsers from PDC dealing with questions of redevelopment opportunities created by the project; Joe Zehnder presenting the Planning Bureau’s view (they have a review study of the project under way, due out on October 31st) and Doug McCollum, the project traffic engineer.

The questions were varied, but the main points of contention were:

1) Is there really a problem that needs to be solved?

2) What will the impact be on Couch?

The star witness for the opposition was a traffic engineer from Kittelson, who had been hired by Gerding/Edlen to do a study of current conditions at and around the Brewery Blocks and to assess the impact on Couch (I apologize that I did not get his name).

His conclusion was that traffic at the PM peak period would go from a few hundred cars per hour to 1200 or 1300, a four- or five-fold increase. Interestingly, Kittelson’s recommendation for the area is to create a North/South couplet on 12th and 13th and to make Couch one-way from 10th to I-405, so the traffic pattern (if not volumes) would be very similar to what is proposed for the Burnside/Couch project.

Project team members did not dispute the change in traffic volumes on Couch but did counter that the traffic would be much calmer than the current traffic on Burnside and would still be safe for pedestrians. In my own admittedly biased opinion, the panel also made a very clear case both for the reality of the problems the project is designed to solve and the thoroughness and grounding in the community of the process that designed the project.

Analogies

Part of the Kittelson report was a list of streets that have a similar cross-section to Couch and a similar traffic volume to what is projected. These include Alder from 3rd to 5th and Washington at 2nd (slightly different because it has 3 lanes).

Backs to Burnside

A representative from Unico, the owners of the U.S. Bank Tower (where the meeting was hosted) made the point that many buildings have turned their backs to Burnside, closing doors that face the street. He said that their tenants do not go to Burnside at lunch for example, and that none of the tenants complain that the doors on the Burnside side of the building are locked. As you might guess, Unico is a strong supporter of the project.

In contrast, Mark Edlen conceded that Whole Foods had closed their door facing Burnside, but attributed this to crime on the street – not traffic. He did not make the connection to an earlier comment from a project team member that more pedestrian activity provides ‘eyes on the street’ and reduces crime.

10 Foot Lanes

There was also a side dispute about the stretch of Burnside from NW 15th to 23rd where the plan calls for narrowing the travel lanes to provide for wider sidewalks. Representatives of the Freight Committee opposed this plan, while neighborhood representatives (including your correspondent) supported it.

Creative Re-Use

One piece of news revealed in the discussion concerns the proposed bicycle and pedestrian facility on Flanders, paralleling the project (since despite considerable effort, no way could be found to accomodate bikes on Burnside).

Bill Hoffman indicated that a private engineering study had found that the central span of the Sauvie Island Bridge, which is being replaced with a new bridge, appears to fit well to bridge the I-405 freeway at Flanders, giving that element of the project a big boost.

In Conclusion

Even speaking as an advocate for the project, I can say it is very clear that the couplet plan would diminish what is an absolutely fabulous pedestrian environment on Couch near the Brewery Blocks. The question is whether the greater good to the environment on Burnside from 2nd to 15th offsets that loss. To this advocate the answer is a very clear YES. The question now is whether the political clout centered at 11th and Couch can override the community’s assessment of that trade-off.

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