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New street plan gets city out of a rut

Some worry low-cost paving proposal could get bumpy


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Longtime Southeast 79th Avenue resident Jeanne Teeples has been trying to get the city to pave her pothole-riddled street, which causes dust in her home in the summer and flooding the rest of the year. She welcomes the city's Out of the Mud proposal, which could provide a bare-bones way to get her street paved. On warm sunny days, Jeanne Teeples cracks opens a window at her Southeast Portland home and it fills with dust from cars rumbling over potholes on her partially paved street.  

“When it rains,” she says, “I have a lake out front.”

Gazing across the street on 79th Avenue, just north of Powell Boulevard, she sees three-foot-high weeds where most Portlanders would see a curb, a grass parking strip and a sidewalk.

“I’ve been trying to get the city to do something about that street since 1974,” Teeples says.

Now Mayor Sam Adams is pushing a new bare-bones approach — dubbed “Out of the Mud” — to improve Portland’s substandard residential streets.

Adams’ notion is to let Portlanders pay for a modest, 16-foot-wide slab of asphalt to replace the dirt in front of their home, plus gravel for parking, and skip the sidewalks, curbs, landscaped parking strip and storm drainage system.

So far, Out of the Mud is winning support, even if it’s sometimes lukewarm, from neighborhood leaders, homebuilders and advocates for pedestrians and people with disabilities. Most appear to agree with the assessment by Christine Leon, who is spearheading the project for the Portland Bureau of Transportation: “Doing something is better than nothing.”

Yet some say it’ll still be a long shot to get Portlanders to pay thousands of dollars for new streets in front of their homes, even at a discount. And nobody says Out of the Mud is a panacea for a problem that Adams says has persisted for “years and years and years.”

Sore spots

If lined up, Portland’s unpaved residential streets would stretch 45 miles. The worst areas are in Southwest and East Portland, plus the Cully, Brentwood-Darlington, Woodstock and Linnton neighborhoods.

There are even more miles if one counted places like Teeples’ stretch of 79th Avenue, which has a sidewalk on one side of the street but a roadway so dominated by potholes and dirt that it barely counts as paved.

City officials like to blame Multnomah County for Portland’s miles of unpaved and substandard residential streets, because many of the most-plagued neighborhoods were developed under loose county rules, before Portland annexed them.

But Roger Averbeck, a volunteer with the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition, says those annexations occurred decades ago. “It’s been 30, 40, 50 years, and we still don’t have paved streets,” he says. “The city can’t blame Multnomah County for all of that.”

A bigger culprit are the city’s high standards required before permitting street improvements, and the city’s longstanding system of billing homeowners to pave the streets and build the curbs, sidewalks, parking strips and storm drainage systems. The city charges homeowners about $300 a month for 20 years — ultimately $72,000 — to bring a 50-foot-wide stretch of dirt in front of their home up to the standards of their neighbors.

That’s “really not feasible” for most people, says developer Justin Wood, who likes to build in-fill and starter homes.

It’s nearly impossible to pay for the new streets under city rules requiring a local improvement district to be formed by homeowners, with a majority vote to approve the higher property taxes. There has only been about one approved a year since 2000, says Dan Anderson, Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesman.

Sam Adams can’t be faulted for lack of trying. Four years ago Adams pushed hard for a new street maintenance fee for all Portland property owners, which would have raised $458 million over 15 years. But Adams dropped the plan in the face of business opposition and a deepening recession.

Now Adams is proposing a vastly scaled-down approach.

Two alternatives

The city estimates a simple asphalt strip and gravel parking, called the Shared Streets model, could shrink the $300-a-month cost down closer to $60 a month.

For roughly $85 a month, homeowners could add a sidewalk on one side of the street.

City staff are getting feedback from neighborhood groups on Out of the Mud, and hope to get City Council approval of the two new alternatives in November.

The city’s poster child for the Shared Streets model, depicted as a prototype in a Power Point presentation, is Southeast Mill Street east of 82nd Avenue, with a simple asphalt road and no sidewalks. There’s not enough room for two oncoming cars to pass each other, so they must take turns. And motorists must share the roadway with bicyclists, skateboarders, pedestrians and people on wheelchairs.

John Richards has lived on this stretch of Mill Street for 11 years. “For the most part, it’s a great street,” Richards says, though he says the towering street trees give it much of its ambiance, and won’t be available elsewhere.

City traffic engineers say the Shared Streets model will only work well if they can get the speed limit down to 15 miles per hour, and add speed bumps, Anderson says.

But the speed bumps on Mill don’t prevent people from speeding, Richards says. He also thinks it’s unfair to charge residents the entire bill for street improvements their neighbors enjoy a block or two away, at no extra cost.

“These people have paid property taxes for years and years,” Richards says. “The city annexed this for the property tax value and they’ve done nothing to help these streets get paved.”

Better than nothing

The Shared Streets model is a “mixed bag” for people with disabilities, says Jan Campbell, a longtime advocate who uses a motorized wheelchair.

Sharing a paved street with cars is preferable to a gravel road, she says, which can be treacherous for people in wheelchairs or using canes and walkers.

People relying on wheelchairs can become housebound, reliant on lift services, when the only way to get around is a gravel street, says Joe Vanderveer, another activist who uses a wheelchair to get around.

“Sidewalks of course are the most safe,” Campbell says. “I just want to be sure that this doesn’t take the place of not doing sidewalks forever.”

Averbeck, the pedestrian advocate, says a culture change is needed before pedestrians will be able to safely share streets with motor vehicles, but it can be done.

With the status quo, he says, getting Portland’s dirt streets paved is “never going to happen.”

The inability to build stormwater runoff will render about one-third of the 45 miles of unpaved streets unsuitable for Out of the Mud, Leon says. That’s particularly true in hilly Southwest Portland, with soils heavy in clay that don’t absorb water well.

But most of Portland’s flat streets won’t pose a flooding problem if no stormwater drains are built, says Dean Marriott, director of the Bureau of Environmental Services. Water will be absorbed in adjoining parcels, as now, he says.

It’s unclear if the city can hit the $60 a month figure for the Shared Streets model, and that price doesn’t include speed bumps the city says are essential.

Teeples says she might be willing to pay $60 a month to finally improve Southeast 79th Avenue.

At a recent City Council work session, City Commissioner Dan Saltzman openly wondered if Portlanders will agree to form LIDs even at $60 a month.

All it takes to turn neighbors against approving an LID is one resident who claims economic hardship, Wood says.

Wood, who also serves as associate director of government relations for the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland, supports Out of the Mud, and serves on a city task force to fine-tune it. Yet he wonders if there’s not a better way to pay the estimated $91 million to $96 million price tag to fully improve the 45 miles of dirt roads.

“The city manages to find money for pet projects wherever they look,” Wood says. Maybe it should commit to spend a few million dollars a year during the next 20 years for neighborhood roads, he says.

“That’s the only way the city of Portland is ever going to fix all its streets.”