Bridge closure has neighbors in suspense
St. Johns businesses, festival brace as rehab cuts west-side access
For the last six months, the closure of the St. Johns Bridge has been 'the only topic of conversation' among local merchants, according to St. Johns Business Boosters Vice President Joe Beeler.
'It's absolutely jarring,' Beeler said. 'The most terrifying thing in this business community in years.'
The bridge was closed July 10 for a $33 million rehabilitation project that will replace much of its 72-year-old structure and improve its west-side ramps, bicycle access, and drainage and lighting systems. It's expected to remain completely closed until Aug. 29 and be closed on weeknights, and perhaps other times, until its scheduled completion in 2005.
Whether the bridge's current full-time closure is living up or down to local merchants' fears seems to vary from store to store.
At the St. Johns Liquor Store on North Lombard Street, whose customer base includes parts of Northwest Portland across the Willamette River, sales are down 20 percent to 25 percent from what they were before July 10, said owner Aziz Rahman.
And Bob Leveton, co-owner of the Man's Shop, also on North Lombard Street, said he's seen a 40 percent to 50 percent drop.
'I thought it would be like this, but I was hoping that it would not,' Leveton said Tuesday.
But at the Tulip Pastry Shop just down the street from the Man's Shop some customers on Tuesday had made a 24-mile round-trip detour from the west side to get their usual morning doughnuts.
Shop owner Kathryn Woodward said that may be because the Tulip sells doughnuts you can't get anywhere else.
'This recipe goes way back,' said Woodward, whose family has operated the bakery in St. Johns for 55 years and bakeries in Vancouver, B.C., and Vancouver, Wash., before that.
'They're 'spudnuts,' made with potatoes,' she said. 'There's nothing premade here. Nothing comes out of a bucket unless we put it in a bucket.'
Or maybe, Woodward conceded, it was because Tuesday was the Tulip's first day open after a weeklong summer break.
'Who knows what will happen as the month goes on,' she said. 'But they came in this morning, that's for sure.'
Show goes on
Woodward's sales would be music to the ears of the Business Boosters' Beeler, who also is executive director of the 23rd annual Cathedral Park Jazz Festival, which starts tonight. The three-day festival will be held in the park directly beneath the bridge's east end.
Beeler said the bridge project affects both access to the park and seating for the festival's attendees, who last year numbered 10,000 during its three-day run. A construction safety fence has cut off what Beeler called 'the really prime seating area, where most people sit early in the day because of the shade.'
His concerns, as well as those of St. Johns business owners, are not news to Dave Thompson, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation, which is in charge of the bridge project.
Thompson said the bridge's closure was 'basically forced' by safety considerations, especially on the west end, where space for construction equipment is more limited than on the east end.
'Believe me, if we could have found a way not to close the bridge, we would have done it,' Thompson said.
According to Thompson, the department held 35 to 40 meetings before the closure to share information and attempt to mitigate its negative impact on the communities on both ends of the bridge.
As a result, the U.S. Postal Service suggested that patrons who live west of the river but usually pick up their mail in St. Johns have it rerouted to the Forest Park Station during the seven-week bridge closure period.
The Portland fire and police bureaus, which usually respond to calls in the west-side community of Linnton from St. Johns via the St. Johns Bridge, made alternative arrangements. Tri-Met revised its schedules for two buses. And commuter and truck traffic is being redirected to alternative routes.
Miles add up
'Nobody likes it,' Thompson said of the alternative route that takes westbound drivers from North Lombard Street (also known as U.S. Highway 30) to Interstate 5 and across the Fremont Bridge, a trip that his car's odometer recorded as slightly more than 12 miles one way. The transportation department, he said, 'freely admits that it's horrible.'
Nonetheless, the folks responsible for, or affected by, the bridge's closure are making plans for the future.
• The transportation department has offered the construction company that is doing the job a $20,000-per-day incentive to get this phase done by Aug. 29.
• Beeler and the jazz festival crew have scheduled a lineup that includes 'Roomful of Blues' 'the biggest national act we've ever had,' he said tonight at 8 and Ray Charles' sax man, David 'Fathead' Newman, Sunday at 6 p.m.
• Leveton, of the Man's Shop, who stocked up on summer slacks because the bridge's closure originally was scheduled for February, holds out hope that the closure will last only five weeks, not seven.
'You have to have hope,' he said.
And St. Johns Neighborhood Association Chairman Robin Plance, while not insensitive to the concerns of his shop-owning neighbors, even sees a light at the end of the bridge.
'The closure is actually a blessing to me,' said Plance, who works in Northeast Portland. 'There's less traffic to and from work.'