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.]


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.


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.

17 responses to “Report on Burnside Town Hall”

  1. While change is difficult, residents of the Henry condos are in a perfect position to sell their units now, pocketing $100,000 plus in appreciation per unit over about a year period! To scuttle this project for them would be a travesty. While I respect the work of Gerding/Edlen, I have heard that they approved the Couch change some time ago. You would think that they would be salivating to develop the West End (10th-13/14th, Burnside south to PSU) to Pearl density and profit. Without Burnside as a barrier, that opens a lot of land for mixed use development.

  2. Chris,
    Thanks for your report on last night’s doings.
    I took a few moments while waiting for the Streetcar to observe 11th & Couch and 11th & Burnside. (a actually crossed the later against the light when there was no traffic in either direction!) I was struck by how well Couch now functions for a bike route; Flanders is a kind of “separate but equal” type of solution that I dislike.
    Your statement of the issue is right on…do we trade a very pleasant mixed use, mixed mode environment (Couch) for a potentially less menacing environment (Burnside).
    There is a real risk that you lose the former and that the latter continues to languish.
    For the $, I don’t think its worth the risk. I think that the West End is well on its way to being developed regardless, that Burnside has a character that we will miss if it is “calmed”…rough and tumble, crowded, chaotic, but functional enough…and that as more people seek access in the N/S direction, their very presence will “calm” the street.
    Sorry the AC put in so much work on this, but that effort alone is not enough to justify going forward.

    PS given the prefered speed limits on upper Burnside, 10 feet is plenty for any truck!

  3. Chris –

    Thanks for an informative recap… it jibes pretty well with my own take on the meeting.

    I do think, however, that advocates for the project did outnumber opponents, and that the crowd was not so evenly split. I base this on the mutterings of folks around and behind me, and the ratio of applause for various remarks.

    Sam made a decision when taking comments that he only wanted to hear comments which had not already been made. He also rushed some of the citizens making comment (including myself) so that not every point was thoroughly made. Also, he did not allow for much “double dipping”, even from stakeholders, to challenge comments which may have come up from the floor.

    These were good decisions for the sake of timeliness and keeping a large meeting moving along, but the net result is that if you were just counting up comments, the views are almost guarnateed to appear evenly split.

    – Bob R.

  4. PS… Chris, do you know if there are links to the videos shown at the meeting? They were very high quality renderings, apparently done by the same group that put together the transit mall videos. I think they would be helpful for folks trying to visualize what this would all look like, especially the transition from Burnside to 2nd to Couch and the other transitions.

    – Bob R.

  5. Bob, I have them all on CD, they are so large however that I’m not sure it’s practical for people to download them. I may put them up later when I’m connected with more bandwidth.

  6. Bob –

    When I was referring to the video renderings, there was an animated 3D drive-through of the three segments of the project… far more illustrative than the PDFs.

    – Bob R.

    (This is going to get confusing with two Bobs…)

  7. I raised the point about potential changes, later on, to this plan, but evidently the experts didn’t think this was a consideration. Would not Burnside be a likely place for a streetcar line, assuming that Portlanders find the SC to be a viable option and wish it to proliferate? Did I miss something…I didn’t see a proposal.

    I recognize that some projects must be immediately attended to. However, as the cost and complexity rises is it not sensible to consider other possibilities and/or opportunities that relate to that project (since we are now in the planning mode as opposed to allowing merely the forces of business to shape our area)? In other words a master plan–that remains workable for decades. In most projects there is a point of no return…where trying to implement changes you forgot becomes cost prohibitive. You should have thought of them in the first place. Sure would’ve been cheaper. American cities rearrange streets much more frequently than European cities do. And don’t we have to wait ten years for the tax abatement on these spectacular developments in the Pearl and SoWa to end, anyway? So how can we plan to use the increased appreciation for improvements?

    Furthermore, why do Portlanders believe they are always in the forefront of urban transportation planning? We are quite a long ways down the list of cities that have grown from nothing to be major metropolises; so there is probably a lot we could learn–although each locale’s requirements will be somewhat different. I have never been on S.F.’ BART but I know it is pretty easy, and sometimes fun, to get around there and there aren’t a heckuva a lot of BART lines–it’s handled by other modes and they have double the population or more of Portland/Vancouver. Other cities have had to go underground–I sometimes wonder if that might be a better solution for certain congested areas here that handle thru traffic as well.

    I think we see a lot of arterials and corridors in PTown being frequently redone. We need some realistic
    projections of population, job growth and commuting–(maybe we already have them)–unless we’re trying to create a perpetual industry. There are probably a lot of people within the planning community who have found themselves a comfortable niche…..

    One last note (don’t take it too seriously). Was the neo-pagan style statue with the burning bowl a possiblity? Other possibilities: Captain Gray’s ship; a logger; Mayor Dorothy Lee. Why put anything in the way at all?

  8. Ron wrote: “I have never been on S.F.’ BART but I know it is pretty easy, and sometimes fun, to get around there and there aren’t a heckuva a lot of BART lines–it’s handled by other modes and they have double the population or more of Portland/Vancouver.”

    There’s a lot not to love about transit in the SF bay area. People who’ve used both generally prefer it here. (Which is not to say that TriMet is without problems…)

    First and foremost is a mess of separate entities and separate systems, with no fare compatibility.

    BART (regional rail) fares are purchased separately and are incompatible with the local systems in the areas BART serves. There isn’t even a common smart-card or other means of using a common payment system when switching modes.

    As an example (there is no direct comparison), imagine MAX being run by a different agency, with different policies and fares, and incompatible payment methods, and little or no schedule/route coordination with local buses.

    In Portland, the Portland Streetcar is a separate entity from TriMet, but to the average user the experience is the same and the fares are compatible.

    And MUNI, San Francisco’s primary transit service, running buses, historic streetcars, and LRVs (Muni LRVs are larger than Portland Streetcars, but smaller than MAX), is notoriously customer-unfriendly. If you go into the Civic Center station, the Muni turnstiles only take coins. There are no Muni-operated change machines. You can go to the BART machines to change a $1 bill into quarters. The machines accept $5’s, $10’s, and $20’s BUT YOU CAN ONLY BUY A BART FARE. You cannot get change for a $5 to buy a Muni fare. If you only have $5 or a credit card, you must go up to the street and buy a coffee and get change.

    Want to buy a TriMet daypass or 3-day pass? Most MAX machines will sell you one. For MUNI, you have to go to an authorized vendor (hard to find) or one of a couple of MUNI stations (which you have to pay a fare to get to in the first place) during limited hours.

    It will be interesting to see how the Westside Commuter Rail project here in Portland is priced and structured with bus/MAX fare… how much compatibility will there be? The closest analogy in SF is CalTrain (conventional commuter rail, separate from BART) which again is not fare compatible with either BART or Muni.

    CalTrain is interesting because it has been around for decades, is reasonably inexpensive to run, and is perpetually starved of capital funds that could upgrade it to near-BART service speed and frequency at a much cheaper cost than BART. BART is a gold-plated transit system using totally proprietary technology. It works fast and well from a technical standpoint, but is very, very expensive (perhaps the most expensive in the country) on a per-rider basis, arguably sucking up $$$ that would be better used on other transit projects.

    That’s my rant for the day. :-)

    – Bob R.

  9. Bob’s alternate proposal to the 10 foot lanes is interesting and I have forwarded it to the PDOT project managere.

    I would note that TriMet signed off on the 10-foot lanes, as did the City Traffic Engineer, who is reponsible for making sure the street can operate safely.

  10. “Sorry the AC put in so much work on this, but that effort alone is not enough to justify going forward.”

    I can’t think of an advisory committee that spent months considering alternatives that recommended doing nothing. That may be because such committees aren’t convened until its obvious something must be done. But I think it is difficult for people to spend months working on a problem and then agree that they failed to find a way to improve on the status guo.

    I think there needs to be a recognition that the role of the advisory groups is to come up with a recommendation for what should be done if something is to be done. No build options are really just a baseline for comparing various other alternatives.

    But having a plan should be recognized as only a prelude for the debate whether that plan is an improvement over the status quo. Assuming they do there work well, the advisory committee’s study and recommendations will help resolve most of the “we should do this instead” parts of that discussion. That will allow a more focused discussion on the whether to do anything at all.

    In this case, I agree with Lenny. There is no real certainty a couplet will change the basic social environment on Burnside. And given the negative impacts, its not clear whether there is any net benefit to the community. Even if you conclude there would be some net benefit, it seems like an awful lot of resources for the impact it is likely to have.

  11. Ross, it’s not just the stakeholders who agree that something must be done, it’s the seven neighborhoods who border the corridor and the property holders along burnside.

    I would also point out that we HAD the debate once already. City Council approved the concept more than two years ago with essentially NO opposition. Today’s opposition is essentially from folks who have bought condos on Couch since Council adopted the plan.

    The problem is real and the solution is real and broadly accepted.

  12. Bob R.

    I have been to SF many, many times and find getting around the city enjoyable. But it is well taken that they could improve with a Metroplitan government and consolidate transit ticketing and policies, but that is up to the people there.

    Your point about CalTrain: agreed. I was on an Amtrak train down in SD (or maybe it was a CalTrain)and it also had commuters on it all the way up into LA.( And have been on one out of New York,too) Couldn’t we do that here? Maybe Amtrak has differing policies in other regions and their plan for this area doesn’t include commuter Amtrak?

    My main gripe though is that I believe the MAX industry here is getting out of hand. I believe the Milwaukie MAX is going to be a mistake: too few riders, too much cost, too short a line, another bridge, and will cause the Portland Mall. It is readily observable now that the Interstate MAX (350 million) has no more riders, with the exception of rush hours, than a TriMet bus. That’s a pretty expensive bus line! A streetcar, OTOH, would cost far less and could lure people that might turn up their noses at riding a bus. The Milwaukie MAX (500 million) will eventually need to be expanded to Oregon City: so add a billion! Soon we’ll be talking about real money.

    So, I am skeptical about our planners. Other posters have observed, also, that there is a vested interest in many of these “processes” and, I believe, not a great deal of objectivity. So if you would concentrate your remarks on the bulk of my statement, instead of focusing in on a small portion I would appreciate it. My point was that riders can get around SF pretty well without a lot of BART lines, so why do we need a bunch of MAX lines? Your statement that BART is highly non cost-effective and “arguably sucking up dollars that could be used on other transit projects” is exactly what I am trying to get across.

    So when I asked if the Burnside Couplet, once built, would remain unchanged they confidently said “Of course”. Now, if you believe that, I have a bridge I would like to sell to the city…..It behooves Portland to have a transit plan that is; long range, well thought through, cost-effective and attracts people through quality and features rather than guilt. There are vested interests everywhere, now, in our society and transit planning evidently is becoming one of them.

    I think those who question the spending rampage should join together. Jim Howell, for example, has raised questions about many of the “gold-plated” proposals floating around this area and I liked his article about finding more effective ways to utilize the Columbia River I-5 bridge. No doubt, we need a lot of improvements but I ask: can we kill two birds (or three) with one stone…?

  13. Ron –

    Looking back I see I misinterpreted your paragraph about SF and BART. I had the impression that you were implying that the Portland area should look to SF and BART for ideas, and I see now that I misread your point.

    You and I may disagree on the value of MAX and the extent of what can be done with the Streetcar, but I appreciate your civility and apologize for jumping the gun on that comment.

    Best wishes,
    Bob R.

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