Yesterday the City Council voted unanimously yesterday to begin initial work to convert West Burnside and Northwest Couch into two one-way couplet streets between 2nd and I-405.
Leading the charge on this $80 million endeavor is commissioner Sam Adams and the Department of Transportation. But as Anna Griffin reports in today's Oregonian, city planners and members of the Planning Commission, an advisory group, are against the plan. However, there is also tied to the plan an extension to the streetcar, which most everyone supports.
Steve Duin’s column from today's paper also quotes commissioner Erik Sten saying, “Let’s be blunt. We have a Planning Bureau that’s trying to undermine this project.”
I don’t quite understand. If it’s a major planning decision for the city and it doesn’t originate from the Planning Bureau, isn’t the undermining happening the other way around? If this is best for Portland and the central city in particular, I’d have expected the plan to originate in the Planning Bureau and then be carried out by the Transportation department.
This is just my opinion, of course, but I don’t even find it “blunt” to say that we have a couplet effort that’s undermining the architecture of the city’s planning process.
But where the couplet plan starts is less important than whether it goes through or not. As someone staunchly against the couplet, I can give you some reasons why it shouldn’t happen. And somebody favoring the couplet can give reasons why it’s for the best. But do we want to move forward with a plan that at least half of those weighing in seem to oppose? Is the couplet a plan that those in power should railroad through?
Burnside isn’t a great place for pedestrians. There need to be much better crossings in certain places. However, as the only street in Portland that touches Northwest, Southwest, Northeast and Southeast, I believe it has extra importance as a unifier of the city—a grand boulevard in the tradition of the Champs Elysee.
If Burnside is divided into a couplet with Couch, the dichotomy may allow more room for wide sidewalks and other pedestrian amenities. But one will also be crossing two busy streets instead of one. I think of the places this format exists in Portland—Northeast Broadway and Weidler, Martin Luther King Boulevard and Grand—and I think of islands surrounded by traffic.
If the city council members advocating for the Burnside couplet are so confident about the plan’s viability, why not come to us with a couplet plan not attached to a streetcar extension? I wonder if some supporters are in it for the streetcar and turning the other cheek with the couplet.
The ironic thing about the couplet to me is that, despite whatever claims its supporters make about pedestrian health, this is a plan for automobiles. When you think about all that Portland is known for, does it really fit to radically change the most significant major thoroughfare in the city in a way that's about moving cars? That's why marrying the streetcar plan to the couplet plan is so clever--and (however unwittingly) devious.
Also, I’m continually flummoxed at the notion that there are property owners in Old Town or otherwise along Burnside who are waiting to invest until the couplet is approved. It’s true that the streetcar has been used in the past as a development tool, but I believe the promised value of a couplet to property owners is a purely psychological one. The couplet is news that they can use to spin for condo buyers, but not something that will transform their area—only they will do that, but renovating the buildings they’ve been sitting on.
How about this: we go forward with what everyone agrees on and then take up the couplet if necessary. That means we put a streetcar down Burnside. We take out the trees in the middle of the intersection, put them on the sidewalks and widen them, adding those wide curb extensions at key intersections. We also put traffic lights on Couch to make it more viable as a through street. Those combined things would in my and a lot of people’s minds solve what needs solving. If it doesn’t, we can still make Burnside and Couch one-way at a later date. But for now, why not move forward with solely the measures people agree on?