Improving unimproved roads in Southwest Portland

Ask Southwest Portlanders what they like about their community, and the list will go on and on. They’ll sing the praises of the highly ranked public schools; laud the sense of community. Ask them what they dislike, however, and after assuring you that it’s a ‘small thing’, many of them will voice the same complaint: the streets.

by: CONNECTION PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - A a stretch of unimproved road on Southwest 41st Avenue in the Multnomah Neighborhood.

It is city code that Portland streets are constructed and maintained at the expense of abutting property owners until street improvements are constructed to city standards.

The traditional residential street standard in Portland, according to Diane Dulken of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, has a parking lane, a roadway and a traffic lane with a sidewalk on either side and a parking strip with trees or a swale.

This has proven problematic in the Brentwood-Darlington and Woodstock neighborhoods of Southeast Uplift, in the Cully neighborhood of Central Northeast — and in virtually all neighborhoods of Southwest.

“When you pave a hard surface like a street, and you add gutters and curves, it channels the stormwater ... that water has to go someplace,” explained Christine Leon, Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) development services division manager. “In Southwest ... stormwater ... doesn’t infiltrate into the ground like it does in, say, Northeast Portland.”

Leon and Dulken also pointed to the time that the Southwest Portland area was annexed into the rest of the city as a reason for so many miles of Southwest not up to city code. Whatever the reason, a drive through Southwest Portland will in many places be a proverbial bumpy ride. Signs bearing the words “Roadway not improved” are planted throughout the region, though the gravel streets covered in mud and potholes speak for themselves.

If Southwest neighbors want to do

something about it, they have very few options — and all at their own expense, while paying the same property taxes as their neighbors because according to Dulken, street improvements are funded not through property taxes, but the city’s gas tax.

“Typically what a resident would use is our Local Improvement District formation process,” Leon said. “The property owners still pay for it. Another method people can use is to group together them- selves to take out a public works permit, hiring their own engineer, but we found that when ... people try to divide a cost and come up with their alternative, it’s very difficult for people on a street to do that, and a LID option is something that’s more accessible ... for a big project. That’s the long-standing historic means.”

Leon said that forming an LID is actually the less costly option.

To form an LID, “It to go through City Council for a formation hearing, and then ... the city takes on ... the design ... and then creation of a contract for the city to solicit bids, and then we hire contractors for bidding,” she said. “Then they carry out the construction with constructions done and the projects closed out we do a final cost accounting and then go back to council with the cost then determined for each one of the property owners.”

But, again, streets in Southwest Portland tend not to fit the bill for the traditional residential street standard that the LID process was designed to help bring them up to.

However, in November 2012, then-Mayor Sam Adams passed the Street By Street Initiative.

“Essentially, what Street by Street did is it offers two new standards for residential street improvements,” Leon explained. “What we had before was just one standard. The standards that we offer now under Street by Street are more affordable, but they have to meet the right kind of context to be able to be approved. ... The LID process, now that we have these new design standards, can actually utilize that as part of the design.”

In the 10 months since, Leon said, there have been about 35 inquiries to see if a given street may qualify for improvements under the new street standards.

“Less than half,” she said, “are in Southwest.”

The relative lack of inquiries compared to the palpable desire for change could be due to the fact that the initiative is less than a year old, and Southwest Portlanders simply aren’t aware of the alternatives at their disposal.

“There definitely needs to be more outreach,” Dulken said.

For more information on street improvement options in Portland call PBOT Residential Street Program Coordinator Barbara Plummer at 503-823-4584 or visit

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