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Tall brick buildings are lined with outdoor lights, hanging over new outdoor seating areas within the Pearl District
A closed-off block of 13th makes room for a new outdoor seating area outside the Pearl District bar River Pig
Ramzy Hattar/Official

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With New Outdoor Plazas, Portland’s Pearl District Plays Around With a Pedestrian-Centric NW 13th

Pearl District businesses have long been interested in making 13th Avenue — with its lack of sidewalks and warehouse doors — more pedestrian-friendly. Now, with COVID-centric outdoor dining permits, the area gets to explore that possibility.

Stretching through the Pearl District, NW 13th Avenue is not a particularly accessible street for a stroll. Some blocks don’t have clear sidewalks; others have stairs and walkways up to raised building entrances that serve as makeshift sidewalks. Sometimes, the process of walking down 13th involves maneuvering around parked cars, stepping aside for moving cars, and walking up and down tiny sets of stairs three, four, or five times; while some of those walkways have ramps, not all of them do, which makes them prohibitive for people who cannot walk. All the while, cars often will zip down 13th to avoid lights, slipping onto the Interstate 405 entrance off Glisan. That makes it tough for pedestrians — and also the businesses who rely on foot traffic, especially during a particularly difficult period for restaurants and bars.

For years, Julie Gustafson, the executive director of Pearl District Business Association, has been interested in seeing NW 13th become a more pedestrian-friendly street. “There have been five or six different groups that have looked at ways we could modify NW 13th Ave, which is such a unique street,” she says. “There had been a larger effort, with businesses and residents, to try to do this permanently for the summer. Then, COVID hit.”

With COVID, however, came another opportunity: outdoor dining. Back in May, the Portland Bureau of Transportation adjusted its Healthy Businesses permits to allow businesses to create temporary outdoor plazas that blocked off sections of city streets. These permits allowed bars and restaurants to create outdoor seating that could accommodate the state’s COVID-related health and safety guidelines. Those Healthy Business permits are now at work on NW 13th, turning the street into a handful of temporary pedestrian-only blocks.

Currently, there are three blocks along 13th with some sort of car-free space: NW Everett to NW Flanders, NW Glisan to NW Hoyt, and NW Hoyt to NW Irving. On these streets, cars are mainly diverted away, or are able to enter to unload goods or access certain parking areas. Instead, people can freely walk or bike through, or, in certain cases, sit down for a cocktail or meal. Within these stretches of fully blocked off or partially blocked off streets, restaurants like Mediterranean Exploration Company and Papi Chulo’s and bars like Two Wrongs and River Pig have created outdoor dining plazas. Additionally, the closed-off blocks leave room for things like art shows, open-air events, and pop-ups.

Car-free streets, of course, are far more popular in other parts of the world than they are in Portland. In Barcelona, urban planners are attempting to transform more than half of the city’s blocks into mixed-use walkways and plazas, which they’re calling “superblocks.” The transition away from cars on those streets is not only meant to create more community-friendly spaces, but also as a way to reduce the carbon emissions of the city at large — i.e., to reduce the number of and reliance on cars. Oslo has essentially banned cars from its city center, and London is planning on doing the same on some of its busiest streets.

In Portland, there hasn’t been the same momentum for these sorts of promenades and plazas. However, during the COVID-19 crisis, the need to socially distance has created more of an incentive for city leaders to prioritize pedestrians, to avoid overcrowding: Beyond the Healthy Businesses permits, commissioner Chloe Eudaly approved a plan to limit car traffic in certain neighborhoods earlier this spring. However, there was still pushback from the community. “Proposing to convert some of the most congested streets in the city to pedestrian-only is exceptionally short-sighted,” writes Karen Gregos in an Oregonian letter to the editor. “That traffic would be pushed onto the neighboring streets already impacted with cars trying to navigate the area and find parking.”

Gustafson is aware of the potential pushback, which was part of her rationale for doing something temporary and gradual. However, as Pearl District restaurants like Irving Street Kitchen, Rogue, and Bluehour close, any sort of business survival strategies seem particularly urgent. “We didn’t want to hinder any potential future changes by doing anything here that was rushed, jumping the gun, or not well thought out. But we’re very much wanting to support this critical corridor, as well as the Pearl District as a whole,” Gustafson says. “We want to bring the vitality back to the Pearl.”

The Pearl District businesses involved planned on getting the plazas set up earlier in the summer, but the permit process took longer than expected. It wasn’t until September 11 that the plazas actually opened — right in time for the smoke to roll in. For Ramzy Hattar, who owns the bar River Pig and helped open businesses like Papi Chulo’s down the street, any opportunity to expand seating is, in his words, is a matter of “life or death.”

“We missed the summer, but we can extend (our outdoor seating) another 15 feet, which is really big for us,” Hattar says. “I’m looking at tent coverings and heaters for the winter. I think it’ll pay for itself.”

Now that the smoke has cleared, Hattar says that business has dramatically improved. “What a difference,” he says. “One day to the next, just because of the rain and smoke clearing up — we’re still at COVID numbers, which is around 60 percent less than normal, but at least we’re not that 65 percent below that. It was a big pickup.”

The plazas, originally designed to stick around for just the summer, should be in place until November 1, but the city is looking at extending those permits — “nothing is set in stone until it’s done,” as Gustafson says. After that, who knows. Hattar would like to see the plaza model on 13th exist permanently, in some form. “Ideally, I think that would be the best situation for the neighborhood, for that street,” he says. “It’s such an awkward street for walking; it’s pretty dangerous, just because people don’t know how to drive on it. I lived in Europe for many years, my family is from there, and they have designated streets like this, just for walking.”

Gustafson is hoping some sort of pedestrian-friendly space continues to exist on 13th, but she wants to get a feel for how the community responds and what business owners think. “Once we see how it works, I think that this model could be very, very successful,” she says. “Now that we’re supposed to have some good weather next week, we’ll have a better idea of how it works.”

Portland Streets Can Turn Into Outdoor Plazas With New Permitting Program [OPB]
Cars dominate cities today. Barcelona has set out to change that. [Vox]
Here’s Where Portland Will Install Barrels to Limit Car Traffic and Let People Walk in the Road [WWeek]
Readers respond: Pedestrian-only streets solve nothing [O]

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