Portland’s Dangerous Street Plaza Idea

Alone and masked, during the lock down I have walked many of the business districts in Portland. I set out to record a history of the closing of small businesses, restaurants and bars by photographing every closed sign I could see. I now have over 500 of those pictures. The signs are heartbreaking, especially the handwritten ones that speak to customers and friends in a most personal way. Some analysts say we could lose 40% of those small businesses.  Worse yet, if we are not careful about how we reopen, a second wave could result in losing 80%.

I salute Portland city government’s effort to find ways for restaurants and bars to survive in the new world of masks and social distancing. We should explore ways to better use sidewalks and parking zones to maximize social distancing. However, under no circumstances should we create destination plazas by completely closing streets. Still deep on the midst of a pandemic such a decision would be both foolhardy and dangerous. Here’s why:

Portland knows what happens when we close streets for food and drink. The drawings provided by the advocate Zack Katz are naïve at best because they show open spaces with few people. We know better. Portlanders flock to those places, especially on lovely summer nights. Think of what you have seen when we close Mississippi Avenue or Alberta. People come in droves, walking and standing shoulder to shoulder. The city rightly cancelled Sunday Parkways to avoid such gatherings and those events cover miles. I often attend evening live music shows and visit the closed SW Ankeny St. It’s fun, drinking, eating, meandering. But it tells us what will happen if we create destination plazas throughout the city. People will gather and social distancing will be erratic at best. And, how do we enforce mask wearing when the activities revolve around eat and drinking?

Worldwide, we already have examples where cities and countries have opened up bars and restaurants then had to close them again. Science has revealed that about half of COVID-19 infections are asymptomatic. One super spreader hitting the bars in South Korea unleashed over 100 new Covid-19 cases. It will be the death knell for our local businesses if in some people’s enthusiasm to reclaim our streets a new outbreak linked to a plaza shuts down businesses again.

From around the country we have evidence of danger of mixing alcohol, food and enclosed outdoor spaces. It isn’t shocking that the people least likely to observe social distancing or masks are younger. I too was a more careless person at 25. There still prevails in America the sad notion that COVID-19 is only dangerous to old people. Sure, the deadliest outcomes skews to older people but the virus knows no age limits. Portlanders have to seriously consider who will be the biggest evening users of closed street plazas. Equity and fairness, which guides so much our policy, would say any public facility should be for everyone. But the reality is that people over 60, the obese, people with conditions like diabetes or asthma and many other Portlanders with comorbid conditions would be effectively excluded from destination plazas on closed city streets. That includes neighbors where the plazas are being considered.

When the city decides to close streets and create plazas, it is making a calculation to pick winners and losers among our small businesses. That is not the proper function of our Transportation Bureau. Good policy will put our local businesses on an equal footing and give them an equal shot to survive the crisis. A plan to use sidewalks and parking zones does that while street closures to create plazas does not. And, looking at the maps, one plan to close 28th Avenue results in a 16-block detour. Thousands of inner NE and SE residents use that street to get to Hollywood Fred Meyer. Has anyone considered the cost of making cars drive farther to shop for groceries. Seems pennywise and pound foolish. The other concept closes a direct approach to the Morrison Bridge just as people are driving more.

Finally, and sadly, there may be something else afoot here. There is a cynical political nostrum, “never waste a good crisis.” From my years in City Hall, I know that advocates are very effective at cultivating relationships with politicians and planners. The COVID-19 crisis gives a committed few an extraordinary opportunity to craft policy when everyone else is absorbed with living in the most stressful time of our lives. We are in a world where open process loving Portlanders cannot gather together to discuss, support or challenge policy initiatives. We are using Zoom to work and reach out to friends and family. Calling randomly scheduled Zoom public meetings the equivalent of a robust public process is at best a thin soup, at worst, a way to circumvent the general public altogether.

Everyone has the freedom to choose their form of transportation based on their needs, physical ability, financial means and personal philosophy. We should not be making judgements on people’s character or intentions based on how they chose to get from one place to another. I was especially concerned to see this statement in a popular bicycling advocacy blog as part of an analysis of PBOT supplied diagrams.

“The presence of drivers and their cars in this image is troubling. PBOT might underestimate how incompatible these human-centric street uses are with the presence of loud, smelly, anti-social and scary motorized vehicles are.”

Advocates will be advocates, but this is precisely the divisive characterization of people by their transportation choice that is toxic to reasoned public discourse. Someone choosing to drive somewhere is a “human-centric” use of publicly funded streets.

We have an opportunity to use public policy to help as many small businesses as possible survive. But the virus is still in charge. Since it is impossible to enforce 100% masks in an area where people are eating and drinking, it is reckless to have public policy that introduces unacceptable risk. Policy decisions that create plazas we already know attract crowds is something best left to a time when we have solved the health crisis and Portlanders can once again gather to talk about alternatives.

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