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Portland, out of order

BACKSTORY: Dry fountains, phantom signs, other snafus point to a city that works … sometimes
by: L.E. BASKOW, Some of the signs along the Morrison Bridge — which is partially city street, county river span and state highway, with several agencies overseeing various parts of it — can barely be read anymore.

Portland is the city that works. Until it doesn't. People have their pet peeves about the things in the fabric of the city that are broken. A suite of potholes, perhaps, or an abandoned building. Maybe the ticker signs at the streetcar stops with their wildly innaccurate arrival times.

Whether it's the new tourist signs aimed at pedestrians that leave one of the 'L's out of 'Willkommen,' or MetroFi's free Internet service whose Wi-Fi waves have a hard time penetrating drywall, there are enough flies in the ointment for everyone.

But there's often a good explanation for why something has been broken - sorry, temporarily out of service - for a long time. It could be a logjam of paperwork or extra-large cracks between agencies into which projects get swallowed whole. Sometimes it's as simple as bad design.

There's a mysterious object at the Rose Garden Children's Park in Washington Park: three rounded pillars set in a concrete circle with a drain. It's allegedly a fountain, although few people ever have seen it shooting water - and certainly not in the past three years.

Landscape architects Perron Collaborative designed the fountain and the park. 'I didn't know there was a problem with it, nobody said anything to me,' said the company's director, Bob Perron, last week. Perron added he hadn't been by that location for some time.

Riley Whitcomb, who was the project manager when the playground was opened, said he heard the fountain was inoperative only two weeks ago, which suggests lack of communication sometimes keeps things broken.

According to Portland Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Beth Sorensen, when the park opened in 1995 there were immediate problems with the fountain: 'Kids would come straight out of the sandbox, and sand would get into the jets and shut it down.' The sand would get behind the knobs and in the filters after 10 minutes, and then it would take two hours to clean.

'Parks engineers couldn't find a valve that would tolerate continuous sand and they suspended the search,' Sorensen said. 'But they could start looking again. New technology (might solve the problem).'

Forceful fountain's inessential come fall

Portland seems to have a fountain jinx.

Essential Forces, outside the entrance to the Rose Garden Arena is a popular fountain, when it's on. With its flame-topped plinths and dancing jets of water, it's popular with arena customers as well as kids cooling off on a hot summer day.

Jeff Rhinevault, the director of facility services for Global Spectrum, says it's been turned off since fall 2006, as is standard practice.

'We secure it (turn the water off) for the winter,' he says, 'but because this one has so many moving parts it takes longer to get up and running.'

Essential Forces, built in 1995, has 500 shooters or valves, and when one malfunctions they all have to be tested, like fixing old Christmas tree lights. There is no set date but he said it should be up and running again 'before the warm weather arrives.'

A minute's walk away on the northeast corner of Memorial Coliseum at the lower level is the fountain that is part of the Veterans Memorial, built in 1960. It is situated in a dingy plaza to the right of the main entrance.

It's hardly one of the great hangout places, even for smokers. In early April it was half-filled with leafy water, although the blue mosaic tile was pristine.

According to Rhinevault the fountain got new tiling and to prevent any risk of freeze-thaw action damaging it it was secured last fall. Since the Portland Tribune talked to Global Spectrum the fountain has been turned on and will stay on from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

It's a sign, all right, but of what?

What do Interstate 5 drivers see as they peel off the freeway and head down the chute that leads to the Morrison Bridge and into downtown?

Yes, the glittering towers of concrete and glass, nestling on a bed of greens. But there's also a guide sign with puckered white lettering that reads 'Washingon Street' on a backboard that instead of the usual green looks like a piece of toast. Why?

About 100 feet farther on there's another, hanging from a rusty support. Next to that is an empty space where another sign used to point to the turnoff to Naito Parkway.

The reason they've been there so long is no one knew who was responsible for it. The 'Washington Street' guide signs are usually the City of Portland Office of Transportation's territory, except when they are on river bridges, which are the responsibility of the county.

Just to confuse things further, the state maintains signs on state highways - and Naito Parkway used to be one. Until five years ago the state also maintained signs pointing to state highways. When the state stopped caring for them it removed the Naito Parkway turnoff sign. But only that one.

'People from the agencies have visited this issue over several years, and past practice has been fuzzy at best,' said Dave Hudson of the Bureau of Maintenance at the Portland Office of Transportation. 'Now that that monkey's on my back, I am the logical choice to run this down and kill it.'

Part of the problem is that the city has more than 144,000 traffic control and warning signs. Although it has a computerized map of inventory, it takes more money and manpower than is available to fix every bad sign. 'We prioritize stop signs,' he said. 'Guide signs fall to the bottom, even though I think they are important.'

Hudson's colleague Rob Burchfield has had calls and e-mails about these tatty signs. He assured the Tribune that they will be taken care of 'during the coming construction season,' that is this summer.

'The Naito Parkway sign will be upgraded as part of the Naito Project,' he said. 'Signing is one of the last things we do.'

Burchfield isn't sure yet what to do with the two Washington Street signs. 'What's the benefit? We may just take them down, or change it to 'central city.' But we'd have to pay for it - the county won't.'

So bureaucracy is only part of the story, there's also the question of money. Both men are conscious of the public purse. 'Taking signs down means night work, traffic control and using a lift bucket (cherry picker) and a crane. There's more cost in sign installation than in fabricating the sign,' Burchfield said.

The park that isn't

Residents of the Humboldt neighborhood in North Portland must wonder if their new minipark has gotten lost in a bureaucratic Bermuda Triangle. Hopes first surfaced three years ago to turn the Albina Triangle, a drab wedge of asphalt where North Mississippi Avenue becomes Albina Avenue, just north of Skidmore Street, into a city park.

The Portland Development Commission worked with the nonprofit City Repair Project to ask the community what sort of park it wanted and to do the design. Construction was supposed to start in fall 2005.

The 3,900-square-foot traffic-control triangle will have trees and shrubs, three walkways leading to a round, central plaza, a game bench, a community bench for storytelling, art tiles, a bike rack and swales for storm-water filtration. All this while the traffic whizzes by.

Project manager Carol Herzberg says a contractor has been selected to build the park, although the firm can't be named until the contract is finalized. She says the work will start soon and be finished by about July, in time for the Mississippi Avenue Street Fair, although the timing depends on the contractor.

It's a classic piece of Portland, using ideas from permaculture to transform a slice of the inner city. It's also classic Portland in that nothing happens until everyone puts in their 2 cents worth.

'It's taken longer than we hoped, but we want to try to make it so everyone is as pleased as possible,' Herzberg said. 'It's tiny but complicated. The land is owned by the PDC and the Department of Transportation. Plus the Bureau of Environmental Services is doing the storm-water filtration - it'll be a demonstration site. There's a lot of runoff at the bottom of that slope.'

Where the sidewalks (and storm drains) end

Dealing with storm water and runoff is a big deal in Portland. Green roofs, Big Pipes, swales … this rainy city has water issues.

Wander around the Crestwood neighborhood just west of I-5 near the Portland Community College exit and you'll see infill lots where new houses are being built between or in place of older houses.

Normally when a developer builds a house he pays for sidewalks, storm drains and curbs. Not around here. The road paving is crumbling and the sidewalks are nonexistent.

Jerry Palumbo and his brother have built one house and are building two more on Southwest 46th Avenue. Outside the finished one, the lawn ends in a short strip of gravel that then meets the asphalt road.

'It'd be foolish to put in a sidewalk and be the only one; it's not that we're cheap,' Palumbo said.

Kurt Krueger, development review manager in the Office of Transportation, explains, 'When we pave a street and collect storm water we have to treat it and slow it down.' For this you need a system of underground reservoirs.

Krueger says that in an old neighborhood like this, which was built substandard (not up to today's code) and has steep topography, making a new homeowner add drains to take water a half-mile is not practical or feasible.

Homeowners can apply for a waiver of remonstrance, which means if in the future the city pursues bringing the sidewalks and drains up to city standard, the homeowner will bear the cost then.

'We're not letting developers have a free ride,' Krueger said. If people do want sidewalks the majority of the neighborhood must form a local improvement district and petition the City Council. That usually happens in business districts, not residential ones.

'Southwest is notorious,' Krueger said. 'People there like the rural effect, and they say substandard streets keep the traffic low.'

Palumbo, however, does not like the fact that Southwest 46th Avenue is pocked and pitted and looks like a tidepool half the year.

'I casually inquired of the city, and they said the people who live here have to pay to pave the street, then the city will maintain it,' he says. The choice is pay for it himself or ask the neighbors to chip in.

Half a mile north is another angry homeowner. Barbara Creegan says she was forced by the city to install a pristine sidewalk when her home at 8419 S.W. 42nd Ave. was built three years ago.

'We didn't want it, and the only people using it are kids skating and skateboarding,' Creegan said. The next house down has an elaborate rockery and garden that juts out to the street. 'The city's just not fair if it lets someone up the street do it differently,' she said on hearing about the Palumbos.

Gates block off restrooms of yesterday

The bathrooms with the cast-iron entrances at Southwest Sixth Avenue and Yamhill Street were opened in 1908. If you look between the shuttered gates you see dust, old leaves and a beggar's cardboard sign. But there's no explanation of what's going on.

They were closed in 1984 when Pioneer Courthouse Square opened. According to Sorensen at the parks bureau, it would cost too much to bring them up to code by making them accessible and providing an emergency exit.

During the recent renovation of the old courthouse there was talk of moving its heating and air conditoning units into the space, but that plan was dropped because of the security risk of them being below a federal building. Consequently, there are no plans to reopen these bathrooms.

City's keeping up all right, some say

Not everyone sees the city as a series of irritations, however. Ethan Seltzer is a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University and vice president of the City of Portland Planning Commission. And he thinks the city's batting average is good.

'Remember, about 50 percent of the land in Portland is publicly owned,' he said.

'And a good 30 to 35 percent is right-of-way - that is, roads and sidewalks. Twelve to 14 percent is parks, then you factor in schools and the Port of Portland, jails and other public facilities before we get to vacant land.'

With this map in mind, he looks to other parts of the fabric of everyday life.

For instance, Seltzer finds greater annoyance in not being able to get a live person on the phone to make a plane reservation or get movie times.

'Why is it with TV news I can find out about about some murder in Texas but I can't find out what's going on in Portland? The failure rate of TV news is way higher than the failure of any public service.'

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