The sides continue years-long debate on whether Northwest 23rd needs a new parking garage
by: COURTESY OF HOLST ARCHITECTURE, An architect’s rendering shows what the controversial Irving Street garage would look like, if it is built in Northwest Portland.

Recently, the Northwest District Association appealed the city's approval of the proposed Irving Street garage, a commercial parking structure that will cost us an old house.

Unfortunately, the state Land Use Board of Appeals upheld the city's decision. The project conflicts with the Historic Alphabet District Community Design Guidelines and the city's comprehensive plan. Four of Portland's mayors have opposed it, and for good reasons.

The proposed site lies amid a network of sidewalks frequented by pedestrians and cyclists. The city's Safer Routes to Schools program, piloted at Chapman Elementary School, encourages children to walk and bike to school, yet we will place in their midst the exit to a garage at the property line. Exiting drivers cannot see the sidewalk until their cars are already on it.

Does the city's right hand know what the left is doing? If constructed, this will be Portland's only commercial parking structure in a residential zone - a dubious distinction for our treasured neighborhood.

This use is like placing a square peg in a round hole: It is incompatible with the historic design guidelines and typical zoning requirements.

The Historic Landmarks Commission itself narrowly approved the design, noting that, 'We're having to make decisions we feel violate our guiding principals,' and 'The character of the neighborhood is at stake.'

This project also violates a long-standing neighborhood policy prioritizing housing over parking.

In a city that needs more affordable housing, we will demolish a small apartment house that once belonged to Julia Hoffman, a pioneer of the arts and crafts movement in Portland. Ironically, she was struck and killed by a car while walking. Should we memorialize her life and accomplishments with a monument to the automobile?

This garage will create a dead zone in the heart of the neighborhood. Garages do not support street life. The in-and-out traffic will discourage sidewalk activity. The seclusion of comparable parking structures attracts vagrancy, drug use, mischief and crime.

Neighbors question the need for this garage and its placement near mass transit. They oppose this seemingly arbitrary spot zoning. Its auto-oriented nature appears contradictory in a progressive city that strives to reduce carbon emissions.

Architectural historians feel that the garage's blank walls and lack of setbacks will degrade the character of our historic district. And, this project may promote a troubling trend away from small, independent businesses toward large national chains. Some people refer to this as the 'mall-ification' of Northwest 23rd Avenue.

Look around Northwest Portland. Its many paid lots are rarely full. Last summer, Papa Haydn restaurant's small lot experienced an 84 percent vacancy rate. Similarly, two nearby paid lots were half empty last summer, and around Christmas 2007.

Most visitors want free parking, not paid lots or structures. We need an equitable, flexible, comprehensive parking program, rather than a shortsighted, irreversible, singular remedy.

Some think our businesses will suffer without more parking. However, last fall, the Daily Journal of Commerce reported that 'retailers are drawn to Northwest 23rd, investing time and money to upgrade spaces.' This reflects the charming character of Northwest Portland, not additional paid parking.

Why do the NWDA and so many neighbors oppose the Irving Street garage? Because it is a pivotal, anomalous land use policy that sets an unhealthy precedent. It affects not just one lot or one neighborhood, but the vitality and evolution of our city.

Juliet Hyams is president of the Northwest District Association.

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