Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Downtown NA Gets In Tri-Met's Grill

I haven't been to a zillion neighborhood association meetings, but I've seen a lot of Portlanders, and I know enough to know it was classic Portland at the Downtown Neighborhood Association meeting Monday night in City Hall. It was really a no brainer to expect a packed Lovejoy conference room, when the subject was transit and the prospect was getting to re-discuss a major project at the last minute. If Portlanders had run Paris when the Eiffel Tower was being planned, angry Champs Elysees residents would have packed the plaza the day before construction and complained about violations of the height code and the soaring price of steel.

That's absolutely part of Portland's charm, however: The City That Re-Hashes. And President Renee Fellman was more than ready to yield a meeting's worth of time to hear three veterans of city development give their views on the imminent Transit Mall plan. It seemed like a good match between presenters and audience, as long as everyone was airing their beefs about how badly the new plan would suck, and how TriMet hadn't told anyone the annoying little details about how the renovation would go--or hadn't decided on the details in the first place.

But what became clear to me after a while was that there was significant yet relatively unnoticed disagreement over what exactly the root of the problem was. And even more clear was that one vitally important constituency had no organized presence whatsoever--and THEIR version would surely have been different from the other two.

Here's what I mean. President Fellman started the meeting with only thinly veiled derision towards the lack of process and detail. She excoriated the TriMet board and CEO Fred Hansen, and read out loud some of the responses Trimet had sent the DNA in reference to some of their questions. Fellman wondered aloud "who is running this project? The City? Tri-Met?" Someone else? Nobody? She raised valid points, but it was more than obvious that the board was ready for some disobedient red meat.

The presenters--Ron Buel (founder of Willamette Week), George Crandall (longtime urban transit engineer) and Jim Howell (retired Tri-Met engineer)--at times did seem ready to toss steaks onto the conference tables. Buel in particular was highly upset about any plan that would shunt buses off the Mall permanently. But he also grew very animated in talking about the disruption during the renovation itself.

Now I can see how bad planning could lead to terrible ramifications for traffic, but if the Mall is being renovated, it will be closed. Buses will have to pickup elsewhere. Complaining about that reality had limited value, in my mind. It's true that no solid planning is evident on how the load will be distributed, but to warn a room full of people over 60 that the new alignments would be terribly confusing and require logistical challenges, played a little too much to fear in my view.

Buel at one point said directly that buses would be staged on 3rd and 4th Avenues permanently after the renovation. I asked him how he knew that to be definitely true (especially since TriMet claimed otherwise in Friday's Portland Tribune article that quoted him extensively). I noted that it seemed more likely from the materials that the Jefferson/Columbia lines would be most apt to stay where they were. He was not aware of that language, but it's there in the last line before the bullets for Option 1.

Another slide declared in no uncertain terms "The current serpentine design is inherently unsafe," and "Cars in the left auto lane must unload passengers into the transit traffic." I wish I knew what made the lack of safety inherent, and on what basis he made that claim. As for the passengers in the auto lane, it's true that the front passenger would most likely have to exit into traffic. This isn't any different from the current situation, however.

Buel also all but predicted the mass departure of thousands of feet of occupied office space as the result of construction, and stated as a truism that slowed Mall traffic would increase operating costs, forcing TriMet to make service cuts. That's quite a leap, and it rests on the contradictory premises that 1) to have things run properly, they will have to take buses off the mall, and 2) the buses will still be there to keep things from running properly. If they take buses out to keep service from being slowed, service ends up not being slowed, doesn't it?

Crandall delivered more of an empirical look at the results of poor planning and their permanence on the urban landscape, using pictures comparing different system setups. His point was largely that TriMet is not an urban planning agency; they are a transit system. They are not concerned particularly with building the community and fostering a sensible growth curve. They want to lay track and get passengers. (I thin k Crandall overstated it a bit, but basically that's true). And so it's incumbent upon the good people of Portland to stick up for the City and the effects the transit design will have on its health.

And so Crandall too began talking about the potentially harsh impacts on downtown business should this 2-year construction take place, and the current Mall design persists. Why? Mostly because of the lack of parking. Despite the business community's apparent belief that 24/7 driveby access to the Mall will be good for stirring retail sales, Crandall believes that only parking can really support retail in a mixed-use system. Even "teaser parking"--four or five spots in a cutout section of the curb--gives the impression of available parking and spurs shopping, he said.

But is parking even close to an option on 60-foot right of ways down the Mall? Of course not. So what's their solution? As the Trib article mentions: get rid of the cars.

Now wait a minute. The whole time they've been arguing about how the plan will kill business, and the solution to the plan is to get rid of the one thing business thinks will save it? There's obviously a big problem with that, and I'll get to it, but first I have to say that I largely agree with their point. I don't necessarily believe the current alignment cannot succeed, but it's definitely got a much better chance if the serpentine alignment is ditched, and light rail simply assumes the left hand lane, leaving the other two to buses as before.

None of the men mentioned this, but personal experience indicates to me that light rail downtown is a spur to discretionary trips. Tourists do not hop the buses on the Mall to use fareless square up into the Pearl..but they do use MAX to go between Pioneer Square and Lloyd an awful lot. The appeal of hopping a train from near curbside at the Hilton to Union Station sounds pretty sweet, too. So I wouldn't be surprised if the MAX does what cars simply cannot in that space: spur Mall retail.

So the presenters want the train and the buses, but not the cars. Fair enough. But once question time began, it was quickly clear that most of the audience was ambivalent about the cars, but didn't want the TRAIN on the Mall. The buses needed to stay there, and the cars--whatever--but the train was simply a terrible idea to them. Did I have this right? Was the Downtown Association seriously talking about throwing $190 million into the trash because some buses might get moved? Trashing the whole thing and basically leaving it as is, had never occurred to me as an option.

And as I said earlier, strangest still was the fact that the group supposedly being protected and cared for so greatly in the presentation, had no substantial representation at the meeting. Finding myself in the MOST unusual position of standing up for the PBA, I finally got the chance to ask a question (under the typically Portland rules of order) that wondered, how do you think the business community will react to your thoughtfulness in removing their highest priority from the project entirely? What will happen when the businesses say "Go Leahy yourself" and take their money with them? You're speaking on behalf of their devastation; have you asked them about your solution? And how about all that federal money? I was sure someone at the White House got fired for letting Portland have so much money to spend like true liberals, so are we ready to delay this project another couple years and make the feds renew their commitment down the road?

The meeting boiled down to these competing solutions:

Engineers: trains in left, buses in right and center, cars perhaps off peak
Audience: buses in right and center, cars we guess in left
PBA/DBA: absent, presumed for cars in left, trains in center, buses whereever

Which is not to say that this ran the gamut of potential options. This is when I knew I'd really found the heart's breath of the city: subways! Elevateds! And my personal favorite, the every-4-minutes jitney shuttle! I did not hear electric log flume!, but it was noisy.

Happy Birthday, Oregon! And bless you, you old nebbishy Stumptown!