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City's street closures complicate weekend business for clubs

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Police want some streets free of cars but nightclub owners are asking the city to remove Entertainment District barricades and allow the clubs more leeway in self-policing the growing summertime crowds in the Old Town area.More than two dozen Portland downtown-area nightclub and bar owners have formed an association and drafted a proposal for changes they'd like to see in management of the Old Town/Chinatown Entertainment District.

Historically, the city's club owners have mostly been competitors and, in some cases, not always friendly ones at that. But under the auspices of their new Old Town Hospitality Group, 25 club owners are asking the city to give them more power to self-police the nighttime crowds that head into the Entertainment District on weekends.

The group also is asking the city to consider a looser noise ordinance in the district at night. In addition, the club owners are asking the city to remove the barricades along Northwest Third Avenue and Northwest Couch and Davis streets that make the area pedestrian-only during the busiest club hours.

Last October Portland Mayor Charlie Hales worked to have the street closure, originally part of a pilot project, extended for one year on the advice of the police bureau. Police say closing the street to vehicles has allowed officers to better keep unruly crowds under control. Also, they say, having the street closed to vehicles provides more room for pedestrians, and lessens the chance that an accidental shoulder bump escalates into a fight. According to police, crime in the district dropped about 30 percent once the streets were closed to cars.

“The police are in a better position to see problems before they arise because they are given a clear view around because of the street closure,” says Hales' policy assistant Chad Stover.

Nightclub owners see it differently. Club owner Dan Lenzen, spokesman for the Old Town Hospitality Group, says the barricades discourage visitors to clubs south of West Burnside Street to cross over and visit the clubs and restaurants in Old Town.

“Sometimes it looks like a big bowling alley,” Lenzen says of Burnside. He'd like to see stop signs and crosswalks to encourage safer pedestrian travel, rather than blocking off streets.

Gaining leverage

The Hospitality Group report claims that police-initiated calls for service have increased by 50 percent since the streets were closed. Police, they say, are too quick to respond to behaviors that are a natural byproduct of large numbers of people drinking late into the night. Lenzen says the problem is that officers tend to hang out in specific spots looking for troublemakers rather than moving around during the night.

“If you stay in one place and wait for something to happen, it will happen,” he says. “They're sitting there, they're self-initiating their own calls, they see something, and they act on it. Some of it is good. Some of it may be not giving the licensees the opportunity to deal with it themselves.”

Lenzen says allowing nightclubs to take on a greater security role might lessen the need for police to stay in place. The clubs, he says, could coordinate in training security and in developing policies for working better with police officers.

Stover says closing the streets to vehicle traffic and freeing up sidewalk space provides police more line of sight, which allows them to stop street problems before they escalate.

“Before they were in a sea of people because of cars,” he says.

But on the issue of street closures, the club owners have the support of the Old Town/Chinatown Community Association, which has come out in support of taking down the barricades.

As far as organized club owners taking greater responsibility for controlling their own patrons, Stover says the mayor is willing to listen. He says that most of the Entertainment District problems are directly related to alcohol.

“If club owners can come up with solutions as to how we can keep the crime rate down without a street closure, that may be part of the solution,” Stover says.

Meanwhile, the city is exploring a potential change in regulations that could tip the balance the other way — late-night activity permits.

The city has little control over nightclubs and bars. Liquor licenses are controlled by the state, so the city has little recourse if a club becomes a problem spot. But Stover says the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement is looking at how other cities, including, Austin, Texas, use the city permits to gain leverage with club owners.

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