One idea: Put a lid on I-5 to create more space for buildings

by: COURTESY OF PORTLAND BUREAU OF PLANNING AND SUSTAINABILITY - A map shows city planners' vision for how Lloyd Center could change by the year 2035, under proposed zoning and other changes. The city is about to embark on a makeover of the Lloyd District, trying to foster a downtown-style ambiance that’s inviting to pedestrians and bicyclists and lures thousands of new residents and jobs.

The N/NE Quadrant Plan, which comes up for a City Council hearing Thursday, revives former Mayor Vera Katz’s dream of putting a “lid” on a freeway — only this time it’s Interstate 5 north of the Rose Garden arena.

The N/NE plan aims to spur a host of new office and residential towers throughout the Lloyd District, via zone changes and eased building height limits. The city hopes new incentives can be dangled before billionaire Paul Allen to leverage public access to the largely vacant Willamette riverfront he owns on the eastside, between the grain silos and the Broadway Bridge.

Proponents say the N/NE plan could reshape the Lloyd District much like past plans led to the revitalization of downtown Portland, starting in the 1970s.

The Lloyd District’s “time is coming,” says Lloyd Lindley, an urban designer with his own architectural firm who co-chaired the stakeholder’s group working on the N/NE Quadrant plan the past year and a half.

The N/NE project also aims to improve traffic safety on a stretch of I-5 that bisects the area. That has the highest accident rate anywhere on Oregon’s freeway system — three times as high as the Terwilliger curves.

Collaboration pays off

Oregon’s Department of Transportation has been concerned about safety issues there for decades, says Andrew Johnson, ODOT’s major projects manager for the area. ODOT long wanted to widen and elevate the freeway, and city leaders opposed the idea, sensing it would harm surrounding neighborhoods.

This time around, ODOT teamed with city planners and transportation staff to jointly draft the N/NE project, in what both sides call an unprecedented spirit of cooperation.

“Usually you have a city saying one thing and a transportation department saying ‘we need to build a freeway,’ ” says Andre Baugh, chairman of the city Planning and Sustainability Commission.

“The days of the old ways of doing things are done,” says Johnson, who commutes to his ODOT job on bicycle. “We’ve learned now how to talk to one another.”

ODOT and city planners propose to stick within the existing freeway right of way but expand the shoulders and add an auxiliary lane. That would be accomplished, Johnson says, by extending the freeway to the edge of the right of way, using vertical walls on both sides instead of sloping to surrounding lands.

There were 472 car accidents on I-5 between its intersections with Interstate 405 and Interstate 84 from 2005 to 2009, Johnson says.

While Johnson was at a night meeting working on the N/NE Quadrant project, his wife was involved in a crash on that stretch of freeway.

“Her car got totaled while I was working on the project,” he says.

Engineers calculate that safety improvements will cut down on weaving traffic in the area, reducing accidents by 30 to 50 percent. Though there won’t be any added traffic lanes, that should reduce motorist delays caused by crashes.

Surmounting a barrier

To integrate freeway safety improvements with plans to reshape the Lloyd District, the city and ODOT propose new ways for motorists, pedestrians and bicycles to pass over I-5 so it doesn’t form such a barrier between land to the east and west. Foremost are two lids — usable land masses added above the freeway — via rebuilt overpasses for Broadway, Weidler, Hancock and Dixon streets. Planners also discussed merging the two lids into one larger lid, providing several new blocks of land to site offices, parks or other development.

Other cities have built such lids, but this would be the first one for Portland, Baugh says.

Planners also propose a new Clackamas Street I-5 overpass reserved for bicyclists and pedestrians. That would link the Lloyd District with the Rose Quarter and the Willamette River, where the city hopes eventually to build a waterfront path through North Portland.

The freeway and other transportation improvements are estimated to cost $325 million to $365 million, Johnson says. That’s cheaper than the old freeway widening plan, and the city-ODOT collaboration should make it easier to win project funding, he says.

River access key

It’s critical to provide new access to the riverfront, Lindley says, to bring sorely needed open space to the Lloyd District and make it a more desirable place to live.

“I think capping I-5 is really important for getting to the river,” he says.

Right now, the Lloyd District has only about 1,500 residents, but up to 18,000 people work there.

The city hopes to gain 8,500 more residents and 10,000 to 12,000 jobs in the district by 2035, partly through zone changes, public improvements and other elements of the N/NE plan.

“We need to bring people in and create a robust urban environment,” Lindley says.

The city’s goal is to get the mix of jobs and residents in the Lloyd District closer to downtown levels, says Steve Iwata, supervising planner for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. That will ease growth pressures on other eastside neighborhoods as Portland’s population rises, planners say.

Planners hope to encourage more office towers and mixed-use buildings east and north of the Oregon Convention Center, and near the Portland Public Schools headquarters, viewed as ripe for redevelopment. New residential towers are projected west of Lloyd Center Mall, along the riverfront and elsewhere.

City officials long ago zoned the Lloyd District to have development density similar to downtown, but relatively little of the anticipated buildout has occurred, says Joe Zehnder, chief planner for the city.

Existing zoning could allow 20 million square feet of development, Iwata says, much of it on surface parking lots that could be redeveloped. That’s far more space than all of downtown’s Class A offices.

The N/NE plan doesn’t add density to the area, but it gives developers new flexibility to help projects pencil out, Lindley says.

The Lloyd District also is blessed with ample light rail and freeway access, and a recent extension of the streetcar line there should spur more street-level development.

Planners also propose a bicycle bridge over the Banfield Freeway at Northeast Seventh Avenue, providing a safer route to and from the Lloyd District.

Nobody expects the freeway improvements to get funded and built for a decade or more. But setting a plan in place may give developers some assurance that investments are merited in the Lloyd District.

“It’s prime for redevelopment,” Johnson says.

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