The recession has slowed development activities in Eliot so the major land use action involves City plans for the NE Quadrant as part of the Central City Plan update. The Central City Plan covers the downtown area east of the West Hills as well as our area of NE (Lower Albina, Lloyd District, Rose Quarter, and points in-between). The NE Quadrant plan is the first to be developed of the four quadrants in the Central City. The plan is a partnership between the City and the State because the Department of Transportation wants to improve freeway capacity on I-5 between I-84 and I-405 and needs to replace ramps and overpasses to do so. That will require changes to surface streets so it makes sense to plan for that within the Central City Plan update. The proposed freeway changes are expected to be “temporary,” which means sufficient for the next 20 to 30 years only. The freeway element has dictated that the Plan process proceed on two tracks, one for freeway improvements and one for land use.
The freeway improvement options are constrained by an expected budget limit (no more than $300 Million is the best guess) and study area boundaries that don’t extend beyond I-84 and I-405. Proposals by Eliot and others to relocate the current ramps away from Broadway and Weidler outside the study area have so far been rejected as too expensive or, “outside the study area.” Staff from the City and State has otherwise been fairly open to suggestions from the NE Quadrant Advisory Committee and members of the public who attend the meetings. Nevertheless, they are maintaining a focus on freeway improvements/overpass replacement. Eliot has led a charge against overpass replacement because it will interrupt streetcar operations on the soon-to-open Loop Streetcar and create too much uncertainty for development at the Rose Quarter and the area around the Blanchard Block (the school district headquarters building). Planning for freeway changes will take at least 5 years according to State staff and financing and construction several more. The prospect of having the local transportation infrastructure demolished and reconstructed within ten years is expected to discourage investment in the area. Waiting ten years to redevelop the Rose Quarter and the Blanchard area is unacceptable to area neighborhood associations as well as the Blazers and other stakeholders who have been awaiting the arrival of the Loop Streetcar to revitalize the Lloyd District.
Minor changes could be made in freeway ramps that would not require changes to the overpasses that could improve traffic safety on I-5. Eliot neighbors have proposed a number of these that we believe will improve freeway access, traffic flow along Broadway/Weidler, and safety for bikes and pedestrians. City and State transportation planners are evaluating these suggestions along with many others and are expected to present their leading options to the project advisory committee the end of September and at an Open House in the fall. At the last committee meeting, State staff indicated many of their options required a new vehicle overpass at Hancock. That possibility was the subject of this column last issue. Although Eliot and other neighborhood representatives attempted to stop further consideration of that option, we were not successful. For a variety of reasons, Eliot remains opposed to a Hancock overpass that allows for motor vehicle traffic.
The hot topic on the land use track is future uses in Lower Albina and in Central Lloyd. City staff developed some specific questions for the advisors to consider for these area. In general, Eliot supports the City’s suggestion that the area around the Blanchard Block be developed primarily as an employment zone, but with housing allowed. We do not believe housing alone will attract investor interest and office or light industry alone can’t justify the redevelopment costs. It is expected that the Rose Quarter Plan will complement this kind of development, although it isn’t clear what kind of development will emerge from that plan.
The rest of the Lower Albina area was divided into subareas by City staff to evaluate other development possibilities. The State has dictated that industrial land in Portland remains zoned for industrial use, so radical changes in zoning and use is not expected. However, there is some flexibility within the industrial, “I” and “E,” zone. Eliot supports retaining current zoning for the industrial land west of Interstate. It recommends more flexible zoning for the area east of Interstate south of Russell. Both Eliot and the City want to retain the industrial/employment focus and exclude housing uses for the present, but allow for commercial and professional uses in the area and “software foundries” instead of the steel foundries expected in the “I” zone. Some of the properties along Russell are in a more flexible zone now; one that allows residential use. Eliot has recommended extending this “E” zone to the rest of Russell and the property north up to the freeway. That area already has multi-family and a scattering of single family structures in it as well as many vacant land parcels. It is an area difficult to access by heavy trucks and lacks rail access, so it isn’t well suited for true industrial uses. More flexible zoning is more likely to stimulate redevelopment.
The City identified a roughly triangular area under the freeway ramps that connects Lower Albina to the Mississippi District. This area is mostly City or State rights-of-way so it isn’t very attractive to developers, however; development has been proposed on parcels on either side of it. Strengthening the connection between Lower Albina and Mississippi will improve the chances for redevelopment in the area north of Russell. Accordingly, Eliot supports zoning changes that will do so. Area under the freeway ramps may lend itself to development of a skatepark or facilities to support seasonal farmers’ or craft markets.
The other area of immediate interest to planners is the Central Lloyd area. This area is zoned to allow high rise towers on extra large “superblocks.” The existing zoning allows buildings so large they could accommodate all of the growth in employment and residents for the city as a whole. Obviously, that won’t happen, but the expectation of property owners that it will “someday” is preventing them from any development. Should they plan any of these “mega” buildings, they would compete with potential tenants for new construction at the Rose Quarter or Blanchard area. This creates a Catch-22 situation, where if the City encourages (e.g., subsidizes) development in Central Lloyd, it will undermine City efforts to redevelop the Blanchard site. As a result, Eliot recommends that the City make it clear that it favors development at the Blanchard site over new towers in Lloyd.
Irvington wants to see redevelopment on the northern edge of the Lloyd district to revitalize the Broadway/Weidler corridor. To do so, they recommend pedestrian improvements to the north-south streets to reinforce the connection between Irvington and Lloyd Center. They also want Broadway and Weidler to be converted back into two-way streets. Their idea is slowing traffic with two-way streets and pedestrian crossings every block will stimulate drives to stop and shop. It would also discourage commuting through the area at high speed. Both Eliot and Sullivan’s Gulch has joined them in these recommendations.
It remains to be seen how many of Eliot and other neighborhood recommendations will be incorporated into the resulting plan proposal. Whatever does result will have to be approved by City Council and several of those positions will turn over in the upcoming election. This process is a long way from complete.