Since it was platted by Edwin Russell, William Page, and George Williams in 1872, the city of Albina (now Eliot) was set up with a Manhattan-style grid with long east-west blocks that are 2.5 times as long as the north-south blocks. This, combined with the steep cliffs separating the neighborhood from the river made all the north and south streets important connections for a huge area north of Eliot over the last 140 years. In 1888, the Steel Bridge opened and life on the east side was booming. Electric streetcars started running over the bridge in 1889 on the original Albina line. In the early 1900s, streetcars ran up and down Williams and Union (now Martin Luther King, Jr.) Avenues. The speed limit before cars came along was 6mph, with streetcars allowed to go 12mph. Crossing the street was no big problem for the early residents of Albina.
A few east-west streetcar lines also ran through Eliot with a line that ran between MLK and Mississippi Avenues on Stanton Street. Another line ran from the Boise neighborhood through what is now Legacy Emanuel Hospital property along Russell to MLK. This made the intersection of Russell and Williams Avenues a hub for commercial activity, which it was until torn down for a still-non-existent hospital expansion 36 years ago. Over time, these streetcar lines were consolidated and in 1950, all the streetcars were removed from Eliot and replaced with bus lines.
Starting in the 1930s, cars were coming to Eliot. When the cars were used mostly on weekends, some of the empty lots in Eliot were used as garages with three to five cars to a lot. By the late 1940s, people were using cars to get around town and to work and didn’t like having tracks in the roads. Additionally, streetcar ridership was declining and track maintenance was not in the budget due to mismanagement. Clunky at first, these cars were smaller and simpler than they are today. In the early 1900s, MLK was a major bike connection street, the main north south spine of the east side. By 1930, MLK Avenue had been taken over by cars and was widened to its current width. The street changed from a fairly mixed residential/commercial street into a street almost completely dedicated to commercial uses. MLK at this point became somewhat of a pedestrian barrier. In the 1980s, an Oregon Department of Transportation project added medians and put MLK into its current configuration. The design is set up to move a large volume of cars quickly through the area, at the cost of local business and adding challenges for pedestrians trying to cross the street.
In residential Eliot, there are 5 streets that connect north and south through the entire neighborhood: (from west to east) Vancouver, Williams, Rodney, MLK, and 7th street. In their current configuration, crossing MLK is probably the least fun, followed by Williams, 7th, Vancouver, and then Rodney being the easiest and most enjoyable. My personal goal is to make it more comfortable and enjoyable to cross all of the streets in Eliot so that we can all visit local businesses, parks, and neighbors more easily. Most of the east-west streets are not too difficult to cross, so I am hoping that we can work on some of the north-south roads. MLK Avenue seems such an uphill battle that I’m not sure we’ll be able to do much in the near future.
Right now, there is a project that the City of Portland is proposing on Williams Avenue called the North Williams Traffic Safety Operations Project. There is a proposal to narrow Williams Avenue through Eliot from two automobile lanes heading north to one lane. Some of the extra space would be used as breathing room so that cars, bikes, and buses can all share the street with less conflict. Crossing the street will be easier as pedestrians will only have to wait for a lane of bikes and a lane of cars to stop instead of two lanes of cars and a lane of bikes.
There has been some concern from area residents that narrowing Williams will create a bad traffic situation, that we’ll be swamped in heavy traffic on Williams, and that there is no reason to change a street that already works. I look at this project from the perspective of a blank slate: starting fresh, where would we draw the lines? According to the city traffic engineer, Rob Buchfield, traffic won’t come to a standstill, and he is willing to endorse reducing the street to one driving lane, one wider bicycle lane and parking on both sides. There might be some slowness during rush hour, and some drivers will choose alternate routes. I think that is a price we should be willing to pay to get a friendlier, safer, more neighborhood-designed Williams Avenue.
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