Changes on horizon for Willamette Falls Drive?
As she described a concept plan for a new street design — also known as a "streetscape" — on Willamette Falls Drive, outgoing Historic Willamette Main Street (HWMS) manager Noelle Brooks summarized the goal of the plan with one particular turn of phrase at a West Linn City Council work session Dec. 18.
"We don't want to go from the 'drive thru' to the 'drive around,'" Brooks said.
Indeed, part of the plan is to discourage drivers on nearby Interstate 205 from using Willamette Falls Drive as a de facto "third lane" of the freeway in order to avoid traffic jams. But in the process, Brooks said it would be paramount for the City and HWMS to find ways to entice drivers to actually stop in the historic neighborhood and patronize its shops and restaurants. Through a series of proposed improvements, the concept plan — which was drafted by HWMS with the help of a consultant and a grant from the City over the course of about a year — aimed to do just that.
As part of the Oregon Main Street Program — which falls under the broader arm of Main Street America — HWMS' stated goal is to "celebrate and preserve the rich history and natural beauty of the area, invest in the heart of our downtown and create a community where local residents and visitors can dine, shop and connect with others." To advance those goals, Main Street groups use a four-point approach focusing on organization, economic restructuring, promotion and design.
Brooks' presentation to the council Dec. 18 was her last, as she prepared to depart for a new job and would soon be replaced by Rae Gordon.
"This is what the community, combined of business and property owners and residents, have formed together with the design committee's work for over a year," Brooks said. "This is done in accordance to what was laid out with (the West Linn Transportation Systems Plan) and our hope is that it will be adopted as such."
The concept plan introduces several significant changes to Willamette Falls Drive, which serves as the main road through the historic Willamette district. Sidewalks, for one, would be redone with a more uniform approach.
"Our sidewalk widths undulate," Brooks said. "Some are six feet, some are eight. Some have seating, some don't. This (plan) actually unifies it to 12 feet on both sides."
She said this would be particularly beneficial to restaurants on Willamette Falls Drive that wish to utilize outdoor seating, while also improving conditions for pedestrians.
"Say your restaurant sits on a side with a narrow sidewalk and you can't get ample seating, while the next person pays the same amount of rent per square foot and they have twice the room," Brooks said. "This just gives that space not just for our businesses but then also for the pedestrian who is trying to traverse through those tables and chairs."
The plan also proposes the addition of a tree planting strip down the middle of the road, a 7-foot wide elevated bike lane on each side and the realignment of parking spots to implement a "back-in" approach that would have cars facing out into the street. That realignment would eliminate the medians on either side of the road that allow for parallel parking.
"We have had some pushback on (back-in parking) because it's a new trick to learn," Brooks said. "But back-in parking allows for a lot of things. First off, it's more handicap-friendly — you're now unloading your wheelchair from the back of your car into a safe, protected area as opposed to oncoming traffic. Same with people with small children."
She added that if similar angled parking spaces were added on side streets like 14th and 15th Streets, the City could increase parking capacity in the neighborhood by about a dozen spaces.
City Councilor Richard Sakelik noted that he had prior experience with the back-in parking concept.
"Many years ago when I lived in California, I lived in a small town called Mountain View," Sakelik said. "They redid their downtown and it was very similar ... they started the back-in traffic and people were like, 'Oh no,' and everybody ended up loving it. It turned out to be a really great idea."
Brooks said the plan also calls for new signs that would welcome visitors as they enter on both sides of the district, as well as other more minor additions like bike racks.
"We can't ignore that there is revenue made when we attract tourists, so if we are a bike friendly community that is certainly going to help," Brooks said.
The City Council was largely receptive to the plan, which will have to be evaluated by the West Linn Planning Commission and later in a formal council hearing before it can be incorporated into the Transportation Systems Plan.
"One of the big projects we're looking for in the future is the improvements to Willamette Falls Drive all the away over to Arch Bridge," Mayor Russ Axelrod said. "And that's tying in with this design and slowing traffic, getting people out of there unless they're actually going to the location."
HWMS representatives said there was no cost estimate yet for the streetscape improvements, and City Manager Eileen Stein pointed to that as a potential next step.
"It's a gorgeous proposal and a gorgeous project," Stein said. "My guess is that it will be multiple millions of dollars to pull off just from experience on another streetscape project in a community I worked for previously. That was a $6 million project when all was said and done, and this feels about the same."