The Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission last month unanimously endorsed the Outer Powell Conceptual Design Plan, but not without unexpected drama.

The Plan governs improvements to Southeast Powell Boulevard between the I-205 Freeway and 174th Avenue. It calls for one travel lane in each direction, a center median with left turn refuges at major intersections, two bike lanes, and wide sidewalks with street furniture and trees west of 162nd Avenue.

Between 162nd and 174th there would be two eastbound travel lanes and a right of way 104 feet wide as compared to 88 feet further in. No existing structures would be torn down to achieve the right of way, but it would be imposed where necessary as property is redeveloped. The Plan calls for future commercial buildings on the street to be built close to the sidewalk, residential set further back.

An earlier plan, the Foster-Powell Corridor Study, had proposed a five-lane road. This was based on projected traffic from Gresham, Happy Valley and Damascus, Portland Bureau of Transportation senior planner John Gillam told the Commission. Since then, subsequent studies have projected much lower traffic volumes.

Planner Stuart Gwin added that the narrower roadway was strongly favored by local residents and businesses in City outreach activities. Finally, he said, a three-lane cross section would cost $66 million, while a five-lane scheme would cost $138 million. “We’re talking big bucks here,” Gwin said.

This part of Powell is a state highway owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation, and nothing can be done on it without their agreement, the planners said. However, there has been good agreement on this project. Gwin said there had been extensive public outreach, with four well-attended open houses and a Citizen Working Group.

The Commission was startled when a member of that working group, Kam Pearson of Curtis Trailers, a family-owned Recreational Vehicle dealership at 10177 S.E. Powell Blvd., called the Plan “a waste of time and taxpayer money. It has a lot of good parts, but as a whole it’s very lacking.”

Pearson said that there was a chance that ODOT might shift the center line of Powell at some future time and this, plus the planned improvements, could mean condemnation of all or part of their property. To protect against this, she called for the south side bike path and sidewalk to be routed through Ed Benedict Park.

Gillam told the Commission it had been his idea for the Commission to hear from Working Group members and then pass the Plan onto City Council. Since ODOT has control of the road, the Commission had no authority to change what had been agreed to, and therefore there should not be any public testimony.

Commission member Irma Valdez objected to this procedure. Meanwhile, the matter became moot, for the day at least, when enough Commission members left to deny a quorum and prevent any action.

Two weeks later, the Commission heard from three other Working Group members — Tom Barnes of the Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association, Todd Lewis of the Centennial Community Association, and Teresa Keishi Soto of the non-profit environmental justice group OPAL (Organizing People | Activating Leaders).

Barnes said the five-lane configuration would “create a freeway running through our neighborhood, take out an unimaginable amount of housing and businesses,” and is “totally unacceptable.” The current plan “meets the needs of everyone concerned.” He added that Donna Dionne of the Midway Business Association had gone door to door discussing the issues with business owners, and reported “overwhelming” support for the proposed Plan.

As for Curtis Trailer, Gillam said that a shift in the center line by ODOT, while possible, was “unlikely,” and that the Plan called for using substandard bike lanes and sidewalks in “constrained” areas, ensuring there would be “not too much” impact on this business.

Attorney Bernard Murray, representing Curtis Trailer objected when the Commission started to vote, saying they had no right to vote on something they had no jurisdiction over. Commission members responded that they had the right to express their opinion, and Murray could testify when the matter reached City Council, which would have the final say.

They voted unanimously to support the Plan.