Lori Simpson and I have represented Eliot in a joint State/City effort to plan the NE quadrant of the as part of the larger Central City Plan. The Central City includes all of downtown as well as the Southeast Industrial area and our quadrant that is the area from the river east to 15th, south of Broadway to I-84, including Lower Albina and part of Eliot west of Williams south of Russell. The process is near its end after 15 months of meetings. This link provides access to the formal proceedings, which are well worth reviewing: http://www.portlandonline.com/bps/index.cfm?c=53257.
Recent weeks have seen a lot of activity and agreements on major points among stakeholders in our neighborhood. Two coalitions have emerged to focus on two areas/issues. The first is the area around the Broadway Bridge west of I-5 and above Lower Albina. I am calling it South Albina since the residential area of Eliot was historically known as Upper Albina. This area includes two historic properties (the Paramount Apartments and the Left Bank/Jumptown buildings) along with the Rose Quarter. The other area is the Broadway Corridor, which runs from the bridge through Irvington; a corridor shared by Eliot, Irvington, Sullivan’s Gulch and the Lloyd District.
The State proposes to widen the freeway in order to reduce accidents and congestion caused by vehicles weaving across lanes to enter and exit I-5. Over 80 different options have been evaluated and only a few remain. Basically an auxiliary lane will run along both sides of I-5 between I-405 and I-84. The on and off ramps will be extended as much a possible and the southbound entry may be relocated. All options will require overpasses to be removed and reconstructed, including Flint, Vancouver, Williams, Broadway and Weidler. There has been discussion of not replacing Flint and relocating Vancouver to the west side of I-5 more or less where Flint is today. That would put Vancouver next to the Paramount Apartments, which is unacceptable to them. As part of that proposal, the new overpass would also connect to Williams by extending Hancock. That would allow traffic to cut through the Eliot Historic District, which is unacceptable to Eliot. It would also direct traffic to Williams from Wheeler south of Weidler, which is unacceptable to the Left Bank, Blazers, and both the Paramount and Madrona apartments.
The South Albina stakeholder group is united in opposition to relocation of the Vancouver and Williams overpasses. After several meetings between City staff and the owners individually and the South Albina stakeholder group, we appear to have agreement that those overpasses won’t be relocated. If the freeway is widened, they would still have to be reconstructed. The future of Flint is unclear due to uncertainties about the design of a future Hancock overpass.
Eliot and our partners in South Albina wants our Historic District protected from cut through traffic. The City is working to identify ways to redevelop the School district property, including the Blanchard building and the several blocks of parking lots for it. They have approached both developers and prospective tenants about their plans and the current access to the site using Broadway/Weidler is a major barrier due to the already high level of congestion, frequency of accidents, and poor access for bikes and pedestrians.
The South Albina stakeholders and the City have a shared vision for this area as a vibrant urban neighborhood; One with a major employer and mixed use development that will diversify activities from the current “entertainment desert” that only comes to life for events at the Rose Quarter. The City and its development team have identified an overpass at Hancock that ties Vancouver and Williams directly to this area as a mechanism that will enable redevelopment. We (Eliot) have been persuaded by this argument; however, previous overpass designs proposed by the City posed unacceptable risks to the protection of Eliot’s Historic District. The agreement to retain the Vancouver and Williams overpasses allows for a Hancock overpass that connects to Dixon for traffic bound to the Blanchard site, rather than as a route for Vancouver traffic to the freeway. Such an overpass will consume part of the parking lot for the Paramount Apartment, so details need to be worked out, but this offers some exciting redevelopment opportunities as well as significantly enhancing bike and pedestrian access from Eliot to the Broadway Bridge, the Rose Quarter, and the new Loop Streetcar.
Another major land use discussion for the Quadrant Plan is how the Broadway Corridor should develop. Eliot has partnered with other stakeholders to identify areas of agreement on the Broadway Corridor. The primary area of agreement is that it should develop as a Main Street, which means a change in the current use as a commuter thoroughfare. The City is opposed to anything that significantly changes the way the street functions for commuters, however, the stakeholders believe adding traffic controls, more formal pedestrian crossings, and better bike facilities are compatible with transportation needs. Converting Broadway to a two-way street east of 15th has also been suggested, although the stakeholders are not agreed on that. The stakeholders feel the current zoning allows buildings that are potentially too tall for a Main Street, although Eliot and Irvington have different views on this point.
Irvington wants building heights along the portion of Broadway adjacent to its Historic District to be reduced from the current 100 foot maximum. Currently the tallest buildings, new mixed use projects, are no more than 75 feet at their tallest and the one across from Safeway steps down to about 40 feet on the back side facing a two story apartment building in Irvington. The City has proposed reducing the maximum height to 75 feet with a required step back on the north side of the block. That was acceptable to the Irvington representative at the meeting as well as to other Broadway Corridor stakeholders. The area of disagreement is in the area west of 7th, adjacent to Eliot’s Historic District and across I-5 along the Loop Streetcar route.
Heights of up to 100 feet are currently allowed and may be exceeded for residential developments. The Eliot Historic District is mostly two blocks north of Broadway, so requiring reduced heights in steps north of Broadway can provide the same kind of protection to Eliot as the proposed revisions will for Irvington. However we have raised two objections to this. The first is that parts of the Historic District around Rodney extend to within a block of Broadway, and development at the maximum height along the streetcar route will create a canyon effect that is unacceptable. One of the unique features of Portland’s rail transit system is that it is entirely above ground so users can enjoy the views and light we value so much in our cloudy city. Channeling the streetcar through tall buildings will destroy this. While we do not object to the occasional tall building, we want them to be designed so that they do not present a tall wall, block on block, as they do in the Pearl. Fortunately, City staff generally agrees with us. Unfortunately, taking back what current zoning allows existing landowners is legally and politically difficult. However, City staff are willing to identify innovative new ways to accomplish this end within the new Comprehensive Plan. More to come it appears.
Maximum heights west of I-5 along Broadway are also 100 feet. The Paramount and Left Bank buildings are about half that height and are the tallest buildings in that area. It is assumed the building that replaces the Blanchard Building will be less than 100 feet tall as well, most likely 4 to 6 stories. But, it is also assumed that if that building is surrounded by mixed use buildings topped with housing, they will need to be taller to be attractive to tenants and be economic for developers. Tall, skinny buildings at the end of the Broadway Bridge have been proposed by a developer. If well designed, these could be iconic buildings that create a “gateway” to Albina and the east side that will stimulate additional development. This is an interesting concept, but everything rests on the form of the building. Eliot has noted that the towers in South Waterfront were supposed to be skinny but they are too fat for what would be acceptable to us on Broadway; City staff agree. Nevertheless, that agreement needs to translate into zoning and planning regulations that will prohibit alternative (fat) building designs. Irvington, on the other hand, wants to keep or even reduce the heights in this area. They want to preserve riverfront views. This is ironic given their objection to lower heights between I-5 and 7th adjacent to the Eliot Historic District. They are basically asking that Eliot forgo the redevelopment that was promised when previous residents and businesses were forcibly relocated from South Albina simply for their viewing pleasure.
The other major land use issue in the Quadrant is the development scheme for central Lloyd. Most of the land in central Lloyd is owned by a few organizations and buildings over 300 feet tall are allowed. Few buildings of any height have been constructed in the past 25 years. At present the zoning assumes the tallest buildings will be focused on the west side of the Lloyd Center. The current proposal is to try and shift that focus to closer to the Convention Center to allow for the construction of “signature” hotels that tend to be defined by tall towers. The challenge there, as it will be along Broadway, will be to figure out ways to either roll-back rights allowed in current zones or incentives to induce developers to conform to expectations in the plan. I guess that means I will be going to more meetings in the future!
The final issue for the Quadrant is the proposed freeway expansion. The bare bones of the proposal that have emerged after 15 months of meetings and a heck of a lot of questions to State staff that they have taken that long to answer. The claim is that this stretch of the freeway requires “weaving” to access on/off ramps to/from the Lloyd District, I-84, and I-405. This causes traffic to slow creating congestion and accidents. State data indicated there are roughly 400 accidents a year in this area and traffic speeds are about 20 miles/hour below what the State thinks is appropriate. Adding auxiliary traffic lanes may increase traffic speeds to the optimum and reduce accidents by 30 to 70 percent, or to two every three days or one every third day, depending on which model you believe. It will cost an estimated $300 Million to remove and replace the four or 5 overpasses and take at least 10 years. State staff cautioned that these were just estimates. By the time the project is constructed the cost is likely to be higher. Others have warned us that State construction schedules are typically optimistic and from planning through construction is more likely to take 15 years, or close to 2030. City staff believe the project is necessary. They also believe federal funds for the project are the only source of funds available to improve traffic on surface streets, including for bikes and pedestrians. The South Albina stakeholders do not believe the project is worth the investment and that a 10 to 15 year planning and construction period will unnecessarily delay redevelopment. Further, all major construction projects cause business failures and job losses. Although the State and City always “promise” economic development will follow, but that has NOT been the experience in Eliot. We believe the jobs in hand are worth far more than the promise of jobs to come. It is likely the Eliot and the other South Albina stakeholders will recommend the freeway expansion not proceed.