Change is coming to Northeast 82nd Avenue, as it is everywhere. The avenue is transitioning from a place to pass through to somewhere to spend time. How and when that will happen are questions that animate city planners, such as Radcliffe Dacanay, project manager for the city of Portland’s 82nd Avenue Study.
At the corner of Northeast 82nd Avenue and Sandy Boulevard, many of the issues facing the avenue are encapsulated in a single glance. Safety is a genuine concern for residents in the Madison South neighborhood, Dacanay said, gesturing toward the Heights at Columbia Knoll, a senior living community. Seniors and their neighbors deal with narrow, crumbling sidewalks and an enormous, complex intersection with confusing markings. One corner of it is dominated by a business that keeps many tires behind a fence. “And maybe they don’t want to look at tires,” Dacanay observed.
The city’s 82nd Avenue Study aims to better understand the barriers to development in the corridor. It is focused on engaging businesses and property owners and seeking their thoughts and ideas about near-and long-term change in the corridor. The Study complements the Oregon Department of Transportation’s 82nd Avenue of Roses Implementation Plan, but it is separately funded.
Planners have put a lot of effort into finding out what residents and businesses want. The interests of businesses and residents must be balanced, the pace of change should be understood and residents’ wishes are running up against “the fact that this is a highway.”
Dacanay likened the focus areas of the Implementation Plan—the Madison South, Montavilla, Jade District and South of Bybee neighborhoods—to “emerging villages,” like small towns all over the country where the highway turns into the main street. The communities along 82nd Avenue are hoping for just that sense of identity, Dacanay said.
The Jade District and Montavilla are leading the way. In Madison South, “the market is not quite here yet,” Dacanay said. “It won’t be this year or next, but it is coming.” Small, local business is desirable, but unless a big “catalyst developer” comes along, change is going to be gradual. “It starts with a coat of paint,” Dacanay said. Food cart pods are another step in the right direction.
Some businesses are happy as they are, so the city needs to find incentives to create change— “swaps,” Dacanay called them—for laying new, wider sidewalks; using space more efficiently; and sometimes for using it at all.
The 7-Eleven on the corner of Northeast 82nd and Siskiyou is a shining example of a clean and modern facility, with a wide, smooth sidewalk around it. But there is a vacant lot in view of it. Nearby restaurants, mostly mom-and-pop businesses from an earlier cycle of development, have more parking capacity than seating capacity. They could widen their sidewalks and even plant a few trees, presumably, if they had the incentive.
A large part of a city planner’s job is judging time and expense. Change achieved in ten years is a good showing for urban development. “We don’t have a gazillion dollars to do things,” Dacanay said, adding that the tax system does not incentivize development. He felt better about city regulation though. Making developers jump through hoops ensures that their projects correspond with the public interest, he pointed out.
While the need and desire for major changes on Northeast 82nd Avenue are natural, residents need to have realistic expectations for the pace of change, and they need to understand its consequences. The call for improvement without gentrification is a headache for city planners (just try to tell the difference), but that is clearly a worry for the future. The community that is emerging on the avenue in Madison South is being shaped by small moves.
Even the smallest move can be complex, and people tend to be more understanding of the problems involved when they see the costs of things, Dacanay pointed out. Pedestrian safety improvements, for example, have a wave of repercussions for surrounding traffic controls and can cost upwards of $1 million. A 10-foot stretch of sidewalk costs nearly $2,000.
Dacanay, whose passion and optimism are undoubtedly valuable job skills, compared the city to a baby. You embrace it at some point and it’s perfect, at least to you. Then it changes, like it or not. That is no less true in Madison South. Northeast 82nd Avenue has a heritage and, as problematic as that may be now, it is a more colorful heritage than many streets of the city have. That will remain part of its identity no matter what its next incarnation looks like. The avenue’s grittiness will take on a rosy glow when it is relegated to tales beginning with, “When I was a kid …”
In the meantime, competition for highway repair money is tough, and the 82nd Avenue Study and the Implementation Plan have no funding behind them. With great passion and optimism, planners are working with residents, business owners and developers; encouraging public engagement and prioritizing changes to come; and preparing for talks with decision makers.
Dacanay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503-823-9713.