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PDC allocates $500,000 for Halsey-Weidler corridor


Ideas garnered from an open house held in May are incorporated into designs for the Halsey Weidler Couplet work that begins soon.
Mid-county Memo photo/Tim Curran
An architectural rendering shows what re-vamped intersections on Northeast Halsey Street at 103rd, 108th and 112th avenues will look like with curb extensions, streetlights and trees. Engineering begins this year, with construction work starting spring 2015 in the Halsey-Weidler couplet from Northeast 102nd to 112th avenues.

The surprising news came in a late June vote when $500,000 fell from the bureaucratic sky to help improve the Northeast Halsey-Weidler corridor. The Portland Development Commission's June 25 approval of its budget channeled the money for safety and esthetic features, such as curb extensions, streetlights, trees and crosswalks, to the couplet that stretches from Northeast 102nd to 112th Avenues on Northeast Halsey and Weidler Streets.

After months of workshops, consultants, and public meetings, the half million dollar figure pleasantly stunned many community members, especially after PDC program manager Susan Kuhn had tossed out a possible figure of $200,000 for the project two months ago when asked about a funding estimate at a public meeting.

“Somebody was insistent that I throw a number out at one of the first presentations,” Kuhn explained to the Memo. “That was the number that I had heard was a potential and we thought that's where it was. I tried to explain we weren't close to a budget so we couldn't really say. And now we know the final number.”

That money will come from the PDC's Gateway Regional Center Urban Renewal fund of tax-increment money. The Portland Bureau of Transportation might also chip in even more funding. Besides the PDC funding, there is the possibility of more money arriving from community grants, other city bureaus and other sources.

The approved funding “most likely will not cover the triangles,” Kuhn said, referring to improvements to the two triangles located at the west and east ends of the corridor, at Northeast 102nd and Northeast 112th Avenues.

However, an annual Community Livability Grant might offer an additional $75,000, which would help to improve the triangles.

To discuss how to prepare to apply for the grant funds and possible ways to improve the triangles, the PDC is convening a subcommittee meeting composed of interested members from its 15-member working group of corridor business owners and neighbors. Anyone from the public interested in offering suggestions on the triangles, or on other possible projects related to the corridor, is invited to attend.

That subcommittee meeting is July 9 from 11:30 am to 1 p.m. at the Little Chapel of the Chimes, 1515 N.E. 106th Ave.

Part of the purpose of the meeting is to get the groups talking because “they're different proposals for each of the triangles,” Kuhn said. “They'll need to do their own fund raising.”

Now that the $500,000 is flowing in, many of the priorities that percolated up from a public open house in late May and from a working group of business and property owners along the corridor can be implemented, Kuhn said.

Though engineering studies must be completed, the construction will likely include concrete curb extensions on Northeast 103rd, 106th, 108th and 112th avenues. Planners would focus primarily on Northeast Halsey Street, with matching but lesser improvements to Northeast Weidler Street, Kuhn said.

For instance, Northeast Halsey would receive curb extensions on all four corners at each intersection, streetlights and trees. It is still undetermined if the trees would be planted along the main street or on side streets.

“Depending on where the overhead power lines are and, hearing from PBOT, depending on the size of the curb extension that's appropriate, we may be able to fit trees in, we may not,” Kuhn said.

Referring to the working group that has met for the past few months, as well as public comments, Kuhn said, “Some people didn't want trees. It's still that balancing act.”

By contrast Weidler would probably receive only two curb extensions at each intersection, but most likely no streetlights or trees.

Nothing is set in stone but the final construction will depend on “whatever comes out as a recommendation to get people from the residential to Weidler to Halsey and then whatever the funds allow,” said Kuhn. “The Bureau of Transportation has to go through engineering to see what actually will work.”

Through a separate state-funded program, Northeast 106th Avenue will receive a flashing yellow pedestrian beacon with a marked crosswalk. However, part of the PDC money would likely pay for two curb extensions at that intersection.

Construction would probably start in the spring and summer of 2015. Engineering studies and the bidding of contracts must occur first.

Ben Ngan, whose landscape architectural firm, Nevue Ngan and Associates, has contracted with PDC to design the corridor, submitted his final report on the project to the agency on June 27. Ngan said that because of the extra funding PDC “really wants to talk about just one project now. So there really isn't a Phase one and a vision plan. We're putting everything in the plan that we want to advocate for and we'll see what gets built. But I think we can afford a lot more than we were showing in the workshop.”

Northeast 102nd and 111th Avenues would probably not receive curb extensions.

“You don't really need to shorten the crossing distance because you've got a light to help you cross the street,” Ngan said. “In an even more future vision plan you would put those curb extensions there because then it would contribute to the look of the neighborhood as being complete.”

Before tweaking their final design, Ngan and his team met with the working group on June 4 to hear suggestions about the most important features. Ngan passed out to the group a printed list of over 50 ideas and comments the public had submitted at the May open house.

After the meeting, Ngan told the Memo that the comments from the public “validate just the whole goal of safety. There was enough said that supports we're on the right direction. I think some of the aspirations of the community are just not possible because of dollars. But it's been said, which is a good thing because at least you know there's interest and then there're other groups that want to do something with the public land” such as the east triangle.

Jason Hirst, an architect with Ngan's firm, said his impression after the public open house was “it didn't feel like there was anything major that we missed. I think that's the most important part of having the public comment is we just find out whether we're on the right track or not. I think it was very valuable to have the public input.”

Hirst added that the design team did incorporate changes suggested by the public. For instance, architects had designed a cycle track style bike lane at Northeast 112th Avenue and Weidler Street, but several community members expressed concern about having a raised curb next to the vehicular travel lane. Therefore, PBOT is re-designing it “so that's one thing that's significantly different than what we showed,” Hirst said.

Curb extensions vs. flashing pedestrian light
Designers added a rapid flashing pedestrian signal at Northeast 112th Avenue on the Weidler side that will cost about $60,000. “A lot of people have had concerns about that corner because people drive way too fast,” Hirst said.

Jessica Eden, a legislative aide to Mid-county State Representative Jessica Veda Pederson, asked if empirical data showed that the cost of curb extensions, as opposed to flashing pedestrian beacons, would create more safety for the public. “Where are we getting the most bang for our buck?” Eden asked.

Swanson replied traffic engineers have more data, but based on anecdotes and survey work, the curb extensions promote safety. “First of all, people can see the pedestrian; it's two lanes going one direction, which creates a heightened issue for us,” Swanson said. “Most of our fatalities have been in this condition out here recently. We have data that shows vehicles will slow down.”

Eden replied, “With such a limited budget, slowing down is not exactly the same as stopping for a pedestrian. Given the evidence that the flashing beacons increase pedestrian safety so significantly, does it make sense to be spending $14,000 per curb bump-out, or should we be prioritizing more flashing beacons at more important intersections?”

Ngan interjected that if engineers installed rapid flashing beacons, they must be spaced 600 feet apart because of traffic concerns “so you would only get one set anyway; you would have a flashing beacon every three blocks, so in between, you know pedestrians are going to cross so you want to provide something for them in that situation. And a curb extension is proven to do that.”

Members of the group asked where the 600-foot requirement originated. Swanson said it is a federal mandate, but because Portland is a progressive city, it might be possible to be exempted from the requirement and have signals every two or three hundred feet.

However, Ngan pointed out that the reason for requiring gaps in the spacing of the signals is that they are pedestrian-activated. If they are only 200 feet apart with different people pressing the cross buttons at random “you're going to have chaos in the traffic movement going through,” he warned.

Swanson added that spacing signals that close together would result in traffic speeds of 12 to 15 miles an hour going through the corridor. For a little more money, he said, the corridor could have traffic signals, which might be more beneficial.

“We do want speeds to be significantly slower,” Eden interjected. “If the goal is to create a more walkable neighborhood with a more accessible business district; and, yes, it's going to add congestion but for businesses located in this area and to decrease the amount of strip clubs and things we don't want, I personally think that having slower traffic-there are some benefits to that that are not being acknowledged here.”

Whether it is speed or pedestrian safety, Swanson said it is important for the community to clarify its goals, which will help traffic engineers when they make final decisions about the area.

Subcommittee member Kevin Minkoff said the corridor caters to business and employee traffic because it is full of banks and commercial buildings, with little consumer-oriented pedestrian traffic because of the lack of small businesses. While acknowledging pedestrian safety is very important, “I just don't think we want to tip the scale too far in that direction,” he said.

His comments led Christopher Masciocchi, a graphic artist who lives in the neighborhood, to argue for the addition of smaller shops and restaurants in the area. “As people who live here, we have none of that,” Masciocchi said. “We have to go out of our neighborhood to spend our money. It's so frustrating because we love this area, and we want to see it thrive. We need smaller things. My hope is that when we're done with this, we encourage that kind of thing. It's a healthier mix.”

Riverview Bank's Dean Sterner, another subcommittee member, agreed that Gateway currently is a destination community. “People drive through us,” Sterner said. “We are not like 23rd and Burnside where its park some place within five blocks and walk the 30 blocks in and around.”

Mark Jones, owner of McGillacuddy's Bar and Grill, pointed out that it is a long walk from Northeast 112th to 102nd Avenue. Walking that same distance on Northeast 23rd Avenue or Hawthorne Boulevard, “you would pass 300 businesses because that's the way it's built out,” Jones said. “Here you're passing 30 businesses.”

He asserted planners would need to “rebuild the district because they all have large parking lots.”

Ngan noted that the Gateway district could change overnight, a process that happened to the Southeast Division area in just two years, with many new businesses rapidly taking root there.
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