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City dreams of a better Burnside

Plan improves traffic flow and helps street blend better with area

The Portland City Council never seems to run out of projects.

Cap the freeway. Build a streetcar line. Buy an electric company. Help the schools. Build a tram. Buy a baseball team. Develop North Macadam.

And now, revitalize Burnside Street.

That's the latest ambitious, visionary civic-improvement project on the city's wish list. Council members think the Burnside Transportation and Urban Design Plan, as it's known on the official city documents, would improve traffic flow, lure new jobs, increase pedestrian traffic, boost existing businesses, rid the street of drugs and hookers, and, in general, make Portland a better place to live.

'You want a major street like that to have good traffic flow and a good business climate,' said Commissioner Erik Sten. 'Right now, we've got a street there that isn't succeeding on either level.'

But like the tram, streetcar and others, while the Burnside project's ambitions are clear, the method of paying for it is not.

The cost could reach $61 million, which would make it more expensive than the $57 million Portland Streetcar. Approval of the project Ñ but not the money to build it Ñ came as the city faces what may be $5 million to $6 million in general fund cuts for the 2003-04 budget. Little of the Burnside project may wind up coming from the general fund, which pays for police, fire and parks.

That doesn't mean, though, that the Burnside project is moving to the front burner, ahead of everything else, said new Commissioner Randy Leonard.

'This is a master plan,' Leonard said. 'Things will happen, and money will become available. It will occur.'

Still, approving a spendy program in the middle of budget shortfalls isn't the best way to inspire confidence in city fiscal policies among skeptics.

'It would be a mistake to actually build this project right now,' Sten said. 'It's a great vision and will stand the test of time. But we don't have the funds in the budget right now. We can implement it in better times.'

The plan, unanimously approved Dec. 11 by the council, envisions $38.5 million of the cost coming from the federal government and completion by perhaps 2009. But the plan Ñ as approved Ñ allocated no money. Not yet, anyway. A local improvement district could help pay the local share, and city officials have started briefing the local congressional delegation with the aim of having the project included in upcoming federal budget requests.

A seam that binds

There are good reasons for preparing such plans before calculating their priorities or knowing exactly how to pay for them, Sten said. Before allocating money, for example, Congress wants to see detailed plans Ñ not something written on a bar napkin Ñ and wants the public involved in the planning.

'It takes years to plan these kind of things,' Sten said. 'You don't want to stop strategizing in down times or you won't be able to move quickly when times are better. Planning for the future is one of the relatively low-cost things you can do to keep moving forward during a recession.'

The process is similar to the way Congress approves spending, said Mike Salsgiver, who was an aide to former Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., and is now with the Portland Business Alliance. Congress, he said, approves a project and later authorizes money to pay for it.

The Burnside plan is the result of two years of meetings with neighborhood associations, local businesses and city staffers. It tries to knit Burnside Street more thoroughly into the neighborhoods it borders.

The street serves as one of Portland's most significant demarcations. It's the dividing line between north and south and stretches between the city's eastern and western borders. It's the boundary for many neighborhoods but isn't really part of any of them, mostly known as a place to drive quickly through on the way to someplace else, said Lloyd Lindley, an urban designer on the team that drafted the plan.

'Should Burnside be an edge,' he said, 'or a seam that binds the city together?'

Burnside has always been as much a state of mind as a street, a local euphemism for hard luck, for the bad side of town. That started early. In the 1860s, B Street, as it was then known, was populated by saloons, sailors and gambling.

By 1892, when its name was changed to Burnside, it had become home to railroad and hotel workers and Portland's African-American population. In the 1930s it was turf for Depression-era hobos and, more recently, street people, drug dealers and the social service agencies that track them.

The new plan, Lindley said, asks the city to create traffic patterns and public areas that in turn will attract the private sector to create new businesses when the timing is right.

Wider sidewalks

Key to the project is creating what road planners call a 'couplet,' a pair of one-way streets. The project would make Burnside Street one-way eastbound from 15th Avenue on the west side of the Willamette River to 14th Avenue on the east side. The exception would be the Burnside Bridge, which would remain two-way.

Westbound traffic would use Couch Street one block to the north. Couch would not need to be expanded, but traffic lights would replace the stop signs.

The project calls for redesigning the intersection of Sandy Boulevard, Burnside Street and 12th Avenue, connecting Burnside and Couch streets with a half traffic circle. Lindley would like to see some kind of gateway there marking the entry to the city core.

The one-way grid would enable left turns off Burnside Ñ now a rare event Ñ full-time, on-street parking and timed traffic signals, just as in the central downtown core. And the one-way streets would mean wider sidewalks between Eighth and Second avenues on the west side Ñ ideal for outdoor cafes, Lindley said.

'The one-way grid,' he said, 'brought everything into focus.'

Lindley has other ambitions, such as a parking structure over Interstate 405, and putting sculpture or fountains on the many little traffic triangles where downtown streets hit Burnside at an angle.

The project won the support of the Portland Business Alliance transportation subcommittee, although the organization reserves the right to pass judgment on the method the city devises to pay for it, Salsgiver said.

'The big issues for us are ensuring that portals into and out of the central city are workable and provide for freight and traffic mobility and the access we need to grow,' Salsgiver said.

White-collar takeover?

No significant zoning changes are planned. In fact, Lindley said, the intent is to make traffic move more smoothly in and out of the east-side industrial areas.

But one merchant fears that all this planning will undermine the area's blue-collar heritage in favor of white-collar jobs.

'You see the project and hear the words, and you wonder what the real intent is,' said Michael Vokoych, owner of Michael's Italian Beef and Sausage Co., a few feet south of the intersection of East Burnside and Sandy Boulevard.

Yes, he wants to get rid of the hookers and the drugs, but keep the job base that's there now.

'I don't see anything wrong with this manufacturing community,' he said. 'It's part of an American way of life, guys working on tires and bearings and refrigerators, auto repair guys and body and fender guys. These guys provide good-paying jobs and pay good tax dollars. Working people are the strength of our economy. But we're getting this idea where we should all work in an office and eat vegetables.'

But Lindley said the project would promote new development while helping existing businesses.

'In the end,' he said, 'we humanize Burnside and make both sides of the river a more humane place.'

Contact Don Hamilton at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..