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Activists push for east Portland streetcars


The Portland Planning Commission unanimously approved the Streetcar Systems Plan last month. While some community activists raised doubts and concerns about the cars, those from Mid-county said they wanted them, and that they wanted them soon.

The plan - by the office of Mayor Sam Adams and the Portland Office of Transportation - shows the best potential future routes for streetcars. The routes are divided between concept corridors (essentially shovel-ready projects when funding is secured)and comprehensive plan corridors (something that has potential, but needs work first, usually zoning issues). Although project planners denied it, some perceived the comprehensive plan corridors to have a second-class status. This because they were in some way either inherently less desirable than the concept corridors or in need of some sort of work, such as the rezoning of adjacent properties to produce the kind of intense development streetcars are intended to generate.

Only one route east of 82nd Avenue is a concept corridor - the Gateway Loop - that would travel between the new MAX Green Line light rail station at Southeast Main Street and the Gateway Transit Center, stopping at Adventist Medical Center on the way. Even here, the plan's commentary calls this route “the most challenging concept corridor in this plan,” in part because for the foreseeable future, it would be isolated from the rest of the streetcar system.

The other potential east Portland routes are all comprehensive plan corridors: Northeast Sandy Boulevard from Hollywood to 122nd Avenue; Southeast Foster Road to 122nd Avenue; Northeast and Southeast 122nd Avenue from Sandy Boulevard to Foster Road; Northeast and Southeast 82nd Avenue from Northeast Killingsworth Street to Southeast Foster Road; and Southeast Belmont, Washington and Stark streets from 50th Avenue to Gateway.

Some of those who testified questioned the virtues of streetcars, arguing that electric trolley buses are faster, more maneuverable and less expensive to install. Commission member Andre Baugh warned, as he had done at previous meetings, about potential adverse effects of streetcars on the communities they go through. “Where's the money going to come from?” asked Baugh, who formerly worked as a transportation planner for what is now the Portland Bureau of Transportation. “How do you preserve local businesses, low-income residents and seniors (from the inflated property values that typically follow streetcar development)?” He suggested that - rather than deciding whether to build a car or bus on a given route - the plan should say, “There's a desire to develop here, and streetcars are one tool to get there.”

Even this bothered another commission member, Jill Sherman. She noted that the pending Portland plan is supposed to decide where density should be placed, and the streetcar process seems to be preempting that process. “I don't see how we can recommend approval of this without an accompanying discussion of land use,” she said.

However, some east Portland activists see streetcars as being the perfect tool to attract basic infrastructure, like standard sidewalks, that they have long sought. Cora Lee Potter of Lents is a member of the volunteer East Portland Streetcar Working Group. “We in Lents suffer from the injustice of having a freeway run through the center of our neighborhood. A streetcar could reunite us. When people talk about east Portland corridors, they say, 'We can't do it. There's not enough development potential.' You should work to develop more development potential.”

She added that planners “dismissed 82nd Avenue as being too hard to do, but surveys say it was the number one choice. The Number 72 bus has one of the highest ridership rates in the city. It has a huge, huge potential.”

Commission member Howard Shapiro said, “Thank you for coming forth and making the east side more visible.”

Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association Chair Mark White has long complained that his neighborhood lacks both commercial services and basic infrastructure. With 11,000 residents, the neighborhood “will soon get (its) first full-service bank - inside a Safeway.” The area also has “well over 1,000 people in Section 8 (subsidized) housing, and 3,750 kids, not including our high school. The proposed (Foster-122nd-Sandy) Loop would connect every school and park, and two groceries. For us, this is about profound economic change. The loop is almost entirely within the Lents Urban Renewal District.”

Hazelwood Neighborhood Association Chair Arlene Kimura, a strong advocate of the Gateway Loop, told the commission, “I'm asking you to support this document and move forward. We want the whole package: sidewalks, bikes and streetcars.” She complained about recent TriMet service cuts, saying, “No matter how well-intentioned, they live in a vacuum. We have people who work at minimum wage jobs at odd hours who will be hurt by the changes.”

Jerry Koike, a member of the Gateway Urban Renewal Program Advisory Committee, said, “The routes you're looking at so far are in the central area; there's little east of the Great Divide - 82nd Avenue. The other corridors you're considering are already built up. Gateway has been envisioned as a second downtown. It's a diamond in the rough; please help it shine. Help east meet west.”

Others took up the comprehensive plan corridor cause, including longtime streetcar advocate Chris Smith and Owen Ronchelli, chair of the Streetcar System Advisory Committee. “Without the comprehensive plan corridors, you don't really have a system here,” Smith said. “New funding methods will have to be developed (for routes) outside the central city. It's critical to avoid displacement; the plan has to work for existing residents and businesses.” Regarding a contention that streetcar tracks are dangerous for bicyclists, Smith said he is also working on updating the city's Bicycle Master Plan (see related story, page 8), and said, “At the policy level, they have an absolute common interest. The two plans will have to complement and enforce each other.”

Ronchelli said that a streetcar system without the comprehensive plan corridors would not be “geographically equitable.” For the plan to succeed, “Public support from all Portland citizens will be imperative.” Streetcars are an effective tool to create 20-minute neighborhoods, or communities where residents can find most of the goods and services they need within a 20-minute walk.

Commission member Irma Valdez, a strong streetcar supporter, was distressed at talk of using trolley buses. “Streetcars are being built in Hillsboro,” she said. (Oregon Iron Works of Clackamas County is constructing new cars for Portland and other cities.) “It would be so humiliating if we build these and then don't use them in Portland.”

The commission eventually voted to endorse the plan, but called for additional work on issues brought forth at the hearing. They selected Baugh to take the lead on such efforts.

The Portland City Council will hold a hearing on the plan Wednesday, Sept. 9 at 9:30 a.m. at City Hall, 1221 S.W. 4th Ave.
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