Eastside/Westside Portland…since 1890!

Portland has been trying to tie itself together across the Willamette River for a long time. East Portland, Albina, Sellwood and St Johns were separate cities until voters approved mergers in the years between 1890 and 1915. Geography drives this…its tough to expand to the west over mountain range with heights over 1,000 feet and only a handful of passes (Cornell Rd., Burnside, Canyon Rd., Slavin Rd). But the River is a challenge as well…wide, deep and swift…only Pittsburgh comes to mind when I try to think of American cities that span large rivers (OK, New York too), and the model of how to do this is Frankfurt am Main…but more of that later. To make matters worse, to get anywhere on the opposite side of the Willamette in Portland, there is not just the River, but also a freeway and a rail line that makes the crossing feel twice as long.

Things started with the bridges of course, but the first effort to establish a “second downtown” or to extend the City’s downtown to the eastside was Ralph Lloyd’s vision. A wealthy California oilman, he started buying property on the inner NE side, proposing in the 20’s a grand hotel. The Depression killed that, but later a plan was hatched for a new civic center, which also came to nothing. The first “stake” on the eastside was Memorial Coliseum, approved by voters in the 50’s, and sited by City Council in the South Auditorium Urban Renewal Area (more accurately Negro Removal Area). Voters rebelled and moved it across the river (it became the City’s second Negro Removal Area, which was later followed by “I-5” and Emmanuel Hosp. “NRAs”…read more about all this in E. Kimbark MacColl’s The Growth of a City).

In 1961 the Lloyd Center Mall opened, offering drive-in shopping and a hotel right off the new Banfield Expressway; downtown retail began to shrink as it was more of an “us & them” in those days than a “we.” In the years since, the Lloyd District has added a few high-rise office towers, public agencies (State Office Building and Metro followed the BPA). More pieces were added in the 80’s…MAX, the Convention Center and in the 90’s the Rose Garden, but its been a long slow process…unlike the almost overnight creation of the Pearl District and so far, South Waterfront.

Will the Eastside Streetcar Loop “close the deal?” Maybe. A lot of “smart money” is betting it will, but there are huge barriers to really tying this town together. First the River…we can’t do much there, but we can improve the approach from the westside by removing the floodwall and replacing it with a sloping lawn/meadow, so at least you can see that there is a river there. The new “improved” Naito Parkway, is actually worse for ped access than the old version due to wider pavement thanks to the so called “freight interests.”

But the real barrier is that once across the River, you are only half way there, you still have the freeway and railroad to cross, a substantial distance if you are on foot. The Eastbank freeway (along with the Marquam Bridge) was a mistake that even the head of the Oregon Transportation Commission recognized the day it was done. (Vancouver…beware of a massive freeway/bridge right next door you may live to regret.) It covers the most valuable land in the City, devalues the second most valuable…on the westbank… cuts east side residents off from the River, and offers westside residents who venture to the River a trashed view…the Marquam approaches cutting through the center of Mt. Hood. Views are valuable, and we have sacrificed many to save someone passing through five minutes.

The only benefit of I-5 along the River is that it keeps the Central Eastside cheap and gritty when combined with the UPRR mainline and the approaches to the bridges, and there is something to be said for that. And assuming that in my lifetime we will never have to two sides of the River within reasonable walking distance of each other, the Streetcar becomes the key…a walk surrogate. It really does go faster than a walk…I ran the other day pretty hard for several blocks in a race to the next stop…it was a tie. Adding Streetcar to the Broadway, and later Burnside Bridges will bring the two sides that much closer; it may be that the Hawthorne Bridge might be better in this regard than the eventual light rail bridge further south, as it would link already active areas on both east and west sides.

So we have an urban fabric that has a huge tear…a river, a freeway, and a rail line…that can’t be sewn with walkable stitch, though we are due for a world-class pedestrian bridge. Streetcar has demonstrated its ability to weave together urban fabric from NW to SoWa, so it’s worth a shot across the River.

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