BY BRIAN LIBBY
On June 22, Mayor Adams announced a change in his administration’s plan to turn West Burnside and Northwest Couch Street into a couplet of one-way streets with a new streetcar line. Instead of $80 million worth of changes to Burnside and Couch with a streetcar, Adams is suggesting a handful of paired down options, both without a streetcar. The primary reason is budget. Yet the paired down vision for Burnside is, particularly if we put the couplet proposal to rest once and for all, arguably a better design anyway.
It was easy to see the inspiration for change. High traffic speeds make Burnside difficult for pedestrians to cross, evidenced by Portland’s highest concentration of accidents there. Left turns are also prohibited, requiring drivers to instead circle the block in a series of right turns to reach their destination, adding to gridlock. Burnside also lacks bike lanes.
One concept proposed by the mayor, called the “Hybrid”, reduces West Burnside to three traffic lanes between Fourth and 19th Avenues. Left turns would be allowed From Third through Fifth, and on Broadway, Ninth, 10th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th. The space is taken up with a combination of wider sidewalks, bike lanes, and curbside parking.
In the “Skinny Couch” concept, Burnside would carry eastbound traffic and Couch would carry westbound traffic. Couch would be reduced to one lane between Broadway and 14th, a nod to the pedestrian-friendly atmosphere that has been successfully cultivated around the Brewery Blocks and the North Park Blocks.
Adams is also offering a “stripped-down” version of the couplet. It would cost $18 million and the mayor says he has support from over 50 percent of Burnside business owners to make it happen (and funding in place through a Local Improvement District assessment tax.) This is essentially the same as the Skinny Couch concept without the single lane on Couch.
The mayor announced on his website that these concepts are “very preliminary and incomplete.” But because The Oregonian requested copies of this preliminary work through a public records request, the mayor added, he felt compelled to release it to the public himself. Yet this also seems in keeping with a general pattern in Adams’ tenure as mayor: not so much always coming forward with one idea for change, but two, three or more. It's not so much particular policies that matter, the thinking seems to be, but pushing ahead until an agreeable solution is found, almost like a seminar leader taking a group in a conference room through an exercise. Given how Portland's participatory environment and weak-mayoral system, there's certainly a method to the ambition, even if feathers inevitably get ruffled along the way.
Of course on the east side, Burnside has already been paired with Couch as two one-way streets. The change separated Sandy Boulevard (which runs diagonally, southwest to northeast) from where it intersected with the east-west running Burnside and 12th Avenue. This has in some ways improved the flow of automobile traffic.
Living near there for the past 13 years, I used to fume at this intersection as red lights would span for as much as two minutes (particularly on 12th). Now, the longest red light is 45 seconds. Yet the experience driving west down Couch and then back south a block onto the Burnside Bridge is an odd one, particularly in how the road jogs at a sharp twisting angle.
In all these conversations, there are competing interests vying against each other: the interests of automobile traffic in moving swiftly through and in creating the kind of pedestrian and bike-friendly spaces that encourage retail development and weave together a much more humane and human-scaled physical environment. It’s not that you can’t have it both ways, but the street is only so wide.
If I had to choose amongst the mayor’s two proposals, it would be the Hybrid concept because it does not include a couplet of one-way streets for Burnside and Couch. While this may be the most efficient way to move cars, the couplet plan was ultimately just that—too automobile focused.
“Somewhere early in the process, people got the impression that the couplet was the only way to fix traffic problems. Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Portland architect William Tripp, part of a quartet who produced the “PDXplore” urban-design exhibit last year; Tripp also lobbied city council to scrap the previously couplet plan. “Moving cars is only one of the things that a street needs to do. There’s an imbalance when we think about cars only.”
The Hybrid concept gives drivers something substantial: the opportunity to turn from Burnside into downtown or the Pearl District and Old Town. It frees Burnside from its isolation. Before interstates and other highways, this used to be the road one took from the coast all the way to Mt. Hood. Yet by eliminating a lane in certain portions of Burnside, the Hybrid concept lets certain downtown city blocks act more appropriately as pedestrian-first zones.
Of course, some reasonable people see it differently. Beth Slovic’s recent Oregonian story, for example, emphasized a draft traffic analysis by David Evans and Associates, one of the city's contractors on the project, that found there would be "noticeably increase" delay for drivers in Old Town during peak morning hours. Yet representatives from PBOT and the mayor’s office argue there is no definitive evidence yet. It begs the question: who does Burnside really belong to: those who live and work along the street in the urban core, where the changes may be made, or those who use the street as pass-through arterial?
Part of the problem here may be that we’re trying to make Burnside all things to all people. Tripp speaks of a hierarchy of streets in which Burnside plays a prominent role, but also a special one that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right place for parking or bike lanes. “Most cities we love have major streets that are vibrant, whether it’s the Champs Elysee in Paris or Market Street in San Francisco," he says. "They’re not always places you’re going to sit on the sidewalk and have a cup of coffee, or even ride a bike down."
Cities are big organisms," he adds. "You’re not going to put a small-scale intimate coffee shop on just any street, or a big department store. That’s what’s great about cities, how the intensity varies from one block to another. Why are we putting bicycles on Burnside for example? If you acknowledge that it’s a vibrant two-way busy automobile street, why would a cyclist want to use it? Go one street over to Couch. Everybody would be happier.”
A modified version of the Hybrid option could place a turn lane on Burnside, alleviating drivers’ inability to cross it, and also add additional crosswalks and wider sidewalks. If we make Couch a more designated bike boulevard with one lane, and keep street parking on Couch but not on Burnside, there may still be room for multiple lanes for cars in each direction down Burnside, or at least portions of it. Burnside has a role as a unifying east-west Portland street that need not be radically altered with a couplet in order to achieve a more humane intersection with pedestrians and better navigability for drivers. We just shouldn’t try to make it all things for all people. Small changes can sometimes have a large impact.
"I do think that there could be improvements made to Burnside," says Dennis Harper, an architect with ZGF. "Let’s focus on the narrow part from the Park Blocks up to NW 23rd or so. In the downtown section of Burnside, it is surprising how much pedestrian activity there is now from the Crystal Ballroom to blocks east of Powell’s. Slightly wider sidewalks (like upper Burnside) and skinny trees would enhance the pedestrian environment. East of the Park Blocks, the greater Burnside width would offer much to an urban designer/planner to improve the street." Like Tripp, he believes NW Couch should remain a two-way shopping street with slow traffic, citing the hub of retail activity around the Brewery Blocks, the Crystal Ballroom and a host of small shops in between.
Yet there is another difficulty to the two plans for Burnside as presented. In eliminating the streetcar from the Burnside-Couch plan for budgetary reasons, the mayor cited the fact that the 25-year Citywide Streetcar Strategy was completed. “It showed me the need to prioritize streetcar extensions on the east side of the Willamette River.”
Yet I’m not sure the same logic has been applied to the Burnside proposals overall. This process has been driven by planners at the Portland Bureau of Transportation. Traditionally, transportation bureaus exist for the purpose of moving people. As a result, the type of urban setting we’re ultimately getting as a result of these traffic changes takes a back door. If the question of bringing the streetcar to Burnside has been affected by a citywide plan, then it would seem to follow that the Burnside-Couch proposals themselves should be made by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, or at least in tandem. That bureau has been busy creating a new Central City 2035 plan as well as a broader Portland Plan. Surely we’re not going to radically alter the character of one of the city’s most important streets without tying it to the bigger city or central city plan, right?
Still, the new plans announced by the mayor do offer, particularly given his willingness to absorb feedback and alter or fine tune his plans, the opportunity exists here to make small changes to Burnside that could have a substantial positive impact.