Rave reviews roll in for temporary ‘Better Block’ on 3rd Ave

Rave reviews roll in for temporary ‘Better Block’ on 3rd Ave

3rd Avenue Better Block PDX

The temporary plaza in front of Ankeny Alley and Voodoo Doughnut was bustling with commerce and enjoyment for most of the weekend.
(Photos: Greg Raisman unless noted)

This weekend in downtown Portland’s slightly seedy north side, a citizen group temporarily converted two lanes of auto parking, a big expanse of empty pavement and two traditional travel lanes into a huge new pedestrian plaza, rows of street seats and ping-pong tables and a protected bike lane.

And it was, more or less, a huge hit.

“It’s a radical change that bellows a bold declaration: Welcome to the future of Portland,” wrote Oregonian reporter Jamie Hale in a short, glowing review.

“They want you to feel a kind of living-room atmosphere here,” explained KGW’s reporter Nina Mehlhaf.

Organizers hope the city will decide to make the changes, or something like them, permanent.

Old Town’s car-free weekend nights, intended to keep drunk and rowdy people safe from traffic, haven’t been popular with patrons or local businesses. Their trial period expires this month, and local businesses are pushing to replace it with a permanent design that will improve safety and atmosphere without requiring towed cars and heavy police presence.

With that in mind, Mayor Charlie Hales stopped by at least twice, once on Friday evening:

3rd Avenue Better Block PDX

And once over the weekend, when he picked up some ice cream…

Better Block

…and joined a game of ping-pong.

Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick came by for some ping-pong, too:

On Saturday, the Mayor tweeted his take:

Hundreds of ordinary Portlanders and visitors, meanwhile, stopped through the area for fun, commerce or relaxation.

When KPTV, the local Fox affiliate, posted a short news item about the three-day demo, one of their website’s commenters was nervous.

“Bike lanes? uh oh here come the haters,” Liona wrote.

But the haters didn’t show.

“Actually. this was neat,” the next comment read. “They have it by Voodoo Doughnuts. There were ping-pong tables set up and extra places to sit. Worked really well. Sounds like a good weekend idea for that area, I didn’t see any issues with drivers OR Bikes.”

The only truly negative media coverage seemed to come from KOIN, where reporter Lisa Balick described it as “confusing to many drivers” and “a good thing this is just for the weekend.”

But even on that site, the only web comment disagreed with Balick’s take:

This was an experiment and it sounds like the businesses in Old Town supported it. I stopped by today and the atmosphere was genuinely lovely–something I never would have said about that area before. There were people relaxing in the plaza and drawing chalk art and playing ping-pong.

But it made somebody late for lunch. Apparently, that’s enough to tip the scales for KOIN.

Portland Bureau of Transportation employee Greg Raisman spent 30 hours at the project on his own time Friday and Saturday, capturing some terrific photos of the scene:

Better Block

Better Block

Better Block

3rd Avenue Better Block PDX

3rd Avenue Better Block PDX

3rd Avenue Better Block PDX

Better Block

Better Block

3rd Ave Better Block

As Jonathan observed on Friday, the big new plaza in front of Voodoo was clearly the star of this show. When I stopped by around 7 p.m. Friday, families were continuing to enjoy the street space, which was scattered with hay bales loaned by Linnton Feed and Seed.

kids hay bales night

tourists hay bales night

The city’s top traffic engineer, Rob Burchfeld, was there on Friday afternoon, too, biking up and down 3rd with Raisman to assess how much traffic was backing up. (And during rush hour, it certainly was backing up to the north — usually for a little more than two blocks during a red-light cycle. In other hours, multi-block backups were rare, though cars were certainly moving slower.)

“This is the type of community-led effort and collaboration that makes Portland a dynamic place to live, work, and play.”
— Rob Burchfeld, city traffic engineer

The basic issue in the Friday afternoon traffic backup was that in the block just north of Burnside, where many people were trying to either make left turns to cross the Burnside Bridge or head south to the Morrison Bridge freeway onramp, one block-lane of traffic wasn’t enough space to store all the cars that showed up during each light cycle.

In an email to BikePortland Monday, Burchfeld wrote that “we haven’t fully debriefed on our observations of traffic flow, but our preliminary response is that temporary traffic control appeared to work O.K. and pretty much as we expected for a demonstration project.”

Promising a more detailed response soon, Burchfeld added that “We congratulate all of the businesses and community volunteers that contributed their time, effort, and resources to the event. This is the type of community-led effort and collaboration that makes Portland a dynamic place to live, work, and play.”

In an email to his fellow organizers in the wee hours of Monday morning, Dixie Tavern owner Dan Lenzen wrote:

Simply, thank you.
You’re amazing. Let’s make dreams happen.
Need your help at City council now to make the 3rd street Street Closure Ordinance sunset and allow US to drive what has been started by the community.
This belongs to you and needs to stay in your hands.
Letters to all commissioners, testimony in 2 weeks, it’s time to activate your voice.

Another enthusiastic advocate of the demo, local pedicab entrepreneur Ryan Hashagen of Portland Pedalworks, chimed in:

Let’s encourage council to replace the Entertainment District “Street Closure Ordinance” with a community inspired “Public Street Ordinance” to better describe the uses of public space in Old Town. …

It was really amazing to see how different 3rd operated last night once our experiment ended and to be reminded how much more dangerous it is with 3 lanes of vehicles racing each other, even on Sunday night! This weekend, 3rd Avenue really was a welcoming public space! I really loved how it was an opportunity for tourists, locals, Old Town residents, and neighbors to all enjoy the space together. Many of the visitors i met were surprised that this was not a regular use of 3rd Avenue!

Boris Kaganovich of Better Block PDX, who led a volunteer team that raised more than $5,000 to cover costs and put hundreds of person-hours toward design, construction, supervision, media relations and teardown, wrote that he “can’t wait to see what we do next!”

The sponsors included regional government Metro, the nonprofit America Walks, Dixie Tavern and architecture firm Ankrom Moisan.

Kaganovich set up an overhead camera to capture the whole three-day experiment from a third-floor window. That video is being processed now; look for an excerpt of it here on the site soon.

Still, of all the ideas, gripes and raves I heard this weekend about what’s surely Portland’s most unusual volunteer-led transportation project in years — and it seemed as if everyone I ran into around town this weekend wanted to talk about it — one of the reviews was my favorite.

It came from Kirk Paulsen and Erinne Goodell’s dog, Cordi. Paulsen, a traffic analyst for Lancaster Engineering, fixed a camera on his bike on Friday to capture Cordi’s reactions as she rode through the downtown streets toward the event. You can see the entire video here, which really drives home how calm Cordi is as she sits in her usual perch at the front of the bike. But the last couple minutes of her ride are as reliable a case as anything I’ve seen that this weekend’s project briefly changed a little piece of Portland in a truly fundamental way:

Correction 10/7: An earlier version of this post misstated the lender of the hay bales.

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