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Powell to the people

Irony, action seen in street dubbed a 'pedestrian corridor'
by: Christopher Onstott, Residents of neighborhood associations adjoining Powell, such as South Tabor's Christine Sprague, pick up trash as part of a recent boulevardwide cleanup.

To hundreds of drivers each day, Southeast Powell Boulevard is a relatively quick route to Portland from Gresham. Packed with convenience stores, check-cashing businesses and fast-food restaurants, Powell serves rushing commuters. But to the people living in the six Southeast Portland neighborhoods that border the boulevard, Powell is not neighbor-friendly.

Residents like Benjamin Hazelton are fed up with the speeding traffic and destination businesses along the five-lane highway. Hazelton has lived one block south of Powell in the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood for 13 years. He says the stretch of Powell in his neighborhood, from Southeast 26th Avenue to Southeast Foster Road, is terrifying for anyone not in a vehicle.

'I make a point to walk along the street to call attention to pedestrians,' Hazelton said. 'It seems dangerous because the sidewalks are right up on the street.'

Pedestrian safety is the chief concern for neighbors along the entire length of Powell, within Portland city limits, from the Ross Island Bridge to Southeast 92nd Avenue. Bill Ross, who has lived one block south of Powell in the Foster-Powell neighborhood for 26 years, worries about his wife, who has to cross the boulevard to get on the bus.

'We don't have a lot of crosswalks out at this end of the road,' Ross said. 'People are always trying to scamper across.'

Trash, traffic take a toll

Ross' stretch of Powell, between Southeast Foster Road and 92nd Avenue also has a trash problem. A big one.

'When they were going to do the Mount Hood freeway, the state tore down a bunch of stuff and we ended up with a lot of parking turnouts,' Ross said. 'They've become a popular place for abandoned cars.'

For Marilee Tillstrom, who lives one block north of Powell in the Hosford Abernathy neighborhood, the problem is lack of crosswalks and landscaping. Her neighborhood boasts the only park on Powell. It's designated a 'pedestrian corridor,' but the only two crosswalks are at either end of the park, at Southeast 26th and 21st avenues. Tillstrom says most people cross at Southeast 24th Avenue because it's most convenient.

'We've got a lot of arrogant traffic on Powell,' she said. 'They leave the light at 21st and see how fast they can get to 26th. From my house, I can hear a lot of tires screeching to avoid hitting people or other cars.'

Tillstrom also notes that parking strips along Powell are filled with concrete, which isn't aesthetically pleasing. A few years ago, she dug up the concrete in front of the apartment building she owns at Powell and Southeast 22nd Avenue and planted 16 feet of flowers and bushes.

The gripes about Powell may sound familiar to some Portlanders. Back in 1997, Fred Meyer and the Greater Brooklyn Business Association conducted their own survey of the highway. The final report cited many of the same issues - pedestrian and bicycle safety; speeding traffic; and blight - and called for 'a street that is parklike, slower, inviting and friendly.' The report led the City Council to designate the stretch of Powell from the Ross Island Bridge to Southeast 39th Avenue a 'pedestrian corridor,' but no action was taken to make improvements.

Repaving rallies neighbors

Neighborhood frustrations with Powell resurfaced last year when the Oregon Department of Transportation began repaving the west end of the boulevard. Neighbors were angered because repaving plans didn't include pedestrian improvements. ODOT ended up finding funds for a handful of pedestrian islands and repainted several crosswalks, but the improvements didn't appease neighbors.

As a result, Hazelton formed the Powell Citizens Working Group, which has at least one representative of each neighborhood that borders the boulevard.

'We envision a roadway that is equally accessible to multiple modes of traffic,' Hazelton said. 'It can be a source of civic pride, but right now I see it as a source of civic shame.'

Cleanup, research being done

Earlier this month, the group held a three-hour trash cleanup along Powell in each neighborhood. The group also is meeting monthly with a representative from the Portland Office of Transportation, which will begin researching a streetscape plan for Powell later this summer. Objectives include identifying pedestrian safety opportunities, encouraging multiple modes of transportation on Powell, slowing down traffic, beautifying the corridor and identifying funding for recommended changes.

'The streetscape plan will not change the number of travel lanes going through Powell,' said April Bertlesen, a transportation planner with the Portland Office of Transportation.

Making Powell more accessible to pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users won't be simple. The highway is multijurisdictional. The road, from curb to curb, belongs to ODOT, which has put a priority on maintaining Powell as a thoroughfare. The sidewalks fall under the jurisdiction of the Portland Office of Transportation.

The streetscape plan for Powell will launch later this summer and conclude before the end of fiscal 2007. Bertlesen intends to make recommendations for the next phase of paving for the east end of Powell, and for the already-paved west end.

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