Archive | Burnside Plan

Bureau of Planning Releases Burnside Couplet Critique

Today the Bureau of Planning released its response to the Burnside Couplet plan. Here are Gil Kelley’s cover letter and the analysis document.

The top line: BOP thinks a couplet is not the way to go on the west side.

I think the report actually raises some important issues, including the need for stronger planning of placemaking along the ‘link’ section (2nd to Park) and the need for stronger analysis and planning for linkages with the districts emerging along Burnside.

But of course, that begs the question: where was BOP with this analysis during the two 18 month planning processes we have already conducted? The plan could have been greatly strengthened if we had had the benefit of this level of analysis and thought during the process, rather than applying that effort as second guessing afterwards.

As to some of the recommendations in the analysis:

“Burnside … is one of the city’s few distinctively ‘big city streets’ …”

I think we could do without the kind of distinction that makes pedestrians avoid the street!

“Some reduction of capacity on Burnside might not be a bad thing.”

Gil, where were you when I was trying to remove one eastbound lane between NW 23rd and NW 15th?

The plan proposes intersection treatments and additional signalized crossings at 8th, Park and 9th as an alternative to the couplet. This does NOT provide a comprehensive answer to the left turn question.

It even goes on to suggest widening sidewalks by:

“…reducing the existing 11-foot travel lanes to 10 feet …”

Now astute readers will remember that the Freight Committee has bitterly opposed similar narrowing from the freeway to NW 23rd. This suggestion seems calculated to draw opposition to the central segment.

Indeed the capacity reduction suggestion is certain to draw opposition from PBA’s “portals” sub-committee, whose mission to to guard access to the central retail core. During the stakeholder process, PDOT was clear that the project could not reduce capacity. This restriction was a major motivator for the couplet, as it allowed traffic to be calmed and made compatible with pedestrians without reducing the capacity.

If I were feeling cynical – and since it’s almost midnight I’m tending in that direction – I might suggest that this report was intended to introduce a degree of uncertainty and doubt, and draw two important groups into opposition to the plan. Possibly a way to effectively kill the plan without having to come out in direct opposition?

But read the report – I will certainly be reading it again – and form your own opinion.

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.

Burnside Transportation and Urban Design Plan

Over at the Commish is blogging about controversy over the Burnside Couplet plan. I urge readers to attend the Town Hall mentioned to learn more about the project and put your views on record.

As neighborhood transportation chair in Northwest Portland I had the opportunity to participate in two year-plus-long planning processes around the Burnside corridor and I still represent my neighborhood on the stakeholder committee for this project. The project will be truly transformative for the central city and I want to take some space here to explain why.

The Problem with Burnside

Burnside is the street that provides the dividing line between North and South in our city and the street is also very much a physical divider. Different sections of the street provide different challenges such as narrow sidewalks and extraordinarily difficult intersections (for both cars and pedestrians). But the common feature of Burnside everywhere is four lanes of very fast traffic creating a huge impediment for pedestrians.

The speed comes from the signalization strategy – turn all the lights green and get as many cars through as possible before you have to stop traffic to let cross-traffic through. A driver has a built-in incentive to race down the street.

Burnside is also an access barrier for drivers. The need to propel so many cars through the corridor has led to the elimination of left turn movements. If you need to make a left off of Burnside, count on making a complicated right-hand jug-handle move instead.

What the Plan Does

The Burnside Transportation and Urban Design Plan has a number of elements that tackle the challenges of the street, starting on the eastside at 12th/Sandy/Burnside and crossing to the west side all the way to 23rd and Burnside.

  • Squares off the 12th/Sandy/Burnside intersection (making sort of a rectangular traffic circle) providing more understandable traffic flow and multiple safe pedestrian crossings.
  • Creates a couplet on the eastside from 12th to about MLK (the exact return street will depend on the Burnside Bridgehead final design) putting two lanes of eastbound traffic on Burnside and two westbound lanes on Couch. This means pedestrians only need to cross two – not four – lanes of traffic at once. Each intersection will also be signalized, creating a signal timing progression that move traffic along at safer speeds (and mean less time waiting at red lights) and creating signalized pedestrian crossing opportunities.
  • Creates another couplet with Couch from 2nd to 15th on the west side with similar characteristics and benefits.
  • The couplet between W 2nd and the Park Blocks also frees up a tremendous amount of right of way which will be reused flexibly as parking, a sidewalk promenade, festival space and potentially opportunities for building development.
  • A highlighted treatment (perhaps including a water feature) at the Park Blocks will help connect the North Park Blocks with Park Avenue area that will bridge to the South Park Blocks.
  • From 15th to 23rd, sidewalk widening and the ‘squaring off’ of the triangular intersections, along with more signalized crossing, will greatly improve the pedestrian environment
  • A parallel bicycle facility on Flanders, including a bike/ped bridge over the freeway, will provide important east/west connectivity through Northwest, the Pearl and Chinatown/Old Town.
  • Additional benefits of the couplets on both sides of the river are adding back parking on Burnside and allowing left turns again! Both of the these are crucial to facilitating the development of retail on a corridor where the possibility of drop-in retail has been virtually destroyed by the high-speed traffic and lack of parking.

This plan knits back together the neighborhoods that have long been divided by the street. It creates a much safer environment for all modes of travel and provides the necessary transportation prerequisites for the revitalization of Burnside on both sides of the river.

For all these reasons the plan has been endorsed by all the neighborhoods it touches:

  • Kerns
  • Buckman
  • Old Town/China Town
  • Downtown Community Association
  • The Pearl District
  • Goose Hollow
  • Northwest District Association


Of course, none of this comes cheap and the question of whether this is the best use of capital dollars at this time will be an important part of the public debate. Congressman Blumenaur has already secured some federal funding to help start the engineering on the eastside (Congressman Wu – are you listening?). And other parts must be rebuilt on the City’s maintenance schedule in any event (the portion near NW 23rd is literally falling apart).

About the Opposition

Opposition to this project is relatively recent and seems to be coming from property (condo) owners in the Brewery Blocks. The opposition has been characterized as asking whether it is in the best interests of Couch to ‘activate’ the street?

In my view, the street is already very activated near the Brewery Blocks (the congestion at 11th/Couch/Burnside is a good indication). Indeed, the improved circulation and signalization offered by the couplet might well ease some of the issues now seen in that area.

I suspect the concern about traffic volume is really a fear about traffic speeds. Speeds on a progressively signalized Couch will resemble those seen on Washington St. downtown today. Not a suburban cul-de-sac certainly, but a far cry from what pedestrians on Burnside most cope with now. And anyone who lives on Couch must encounter Burnside on a daily basis. The vast improvements on Burnside will more than make up for the increased traffic volumes on Couch. Residents of the Brewery Blocks will enjoy a much more vital and pedestrian friendly neighborhood when this project is completed!

Please excuse the length of this post, but I think the topic more than merits it!