Portland State University has turned one of its nearby streets into a pedestrian- and bike-only plaza.
With the blessing of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, planters now block vehicles from Southwest Montgomery St. between 6th Avenue and Broadway. The pilot program will last for the month of May then be reviewed for possible renewal.
The Montgomery Pop-Up Plaza pilot project is the university's way of making an "inclusive and welcoming public space in the heart of campus." The block has PSU's concrete bunker of a Safety Building to the north, its elegant new business school to the south, and the
Urban Plaza to the east, where there is a water feature, a Starbucks and the Streetcar.
At the noon launch party cyclists were rewarded with free ice cream and a raffle of bike gear, and grade school children helped fill in a street painting by student Sadie Jordan. (See sidebar) Ten artists showed their wares at tables Wednesday, May 1. (The art fair will be every other Wednesday.) The artists are organized by MFA student Emma Duehr, who exhibited Talking Tushies. Designed to be worn on the back pocket of jeans, they are patches with sexual assault statistics hand embroidered on to them. IG @talkingtushies
Stephen Percy, dean of the College of Urban and Public Affairs said the idea came from the school's Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, in a course on community and the built environment.
"The goal is to maintain vibrant spaces for healthy communities. While new technology enables us to overcome the friction of distance, we're learning today that place matters as much as ever," Percy told the crowd.
Clint Culpepper is the transportations options manager at PSU and point person for the project. "It came out of the idea of some students who brainstormed some events. So, with myself representing transportation and parking, and the campus planning office, we worked together on the physical space and the programming."
PBOT had to give the OK for closing the public right of way to vehicles. PBOT already runs a program called Portland in the Streets, which is designed to make fun, non-car use of the city streets, and includes the Portland Marathon, block parties and street paintings. "We own the buildings but anything that is sidewalk or street related, they oversee, to they make sure the use of the space is both positive and doesn't have any negative impacts," he added.
Culpepper estimates it took four months to get the plaza to fruition. "The hardest part is probably all of the moving pieces here on campus, the Business School, Safety, a major thoroughfare on either side, the MAX tracks, making sure there was no major impact on the flow of traffic and that everybody was included in those conversations."
The street will be activated with events on weekdays, two to four events every day, including students presenting their work. If it rains the programming will be in tents.
PSU architecture students and faculty are still working on modular seating for the space, along the lines of Street Seats, another PBOT program that
The city has a complex permitting process. According to a spokesperson, "Everything in the street closure area (SW Montgomery from 6th to Broadway) is covered under PSU's community event permit except the street painting. They have two permits: One is a community event permit and the other is a street painting permit. Since the street seat will only be there during the dates of the community event permit they don't need a street seat permit."
Culpepper says that it should be a popular block because the Urban Plaza gets extremely hot on sunny days, whereas Montgomery has the concrete skybridges and leafy sycamore trees for shade, which will encourage pedestrians to linger.
Data is king
PBOT Interim Director Chris Warner said "As always, we will be using a data-driven approach with traffic counts, surveys and other public engagement that will better inform us as we test this street prototype."
Students will do intercept surveys though the month, asking users if they would like it to be closed to cars seasonally or all year round.
"We're going to use the month to gauge the interest to see what we should do with it. It's not free for us to close it, it's not our property," said Culpepper.
Usually the foot traffic on this block between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. is 1,000 people per hour. Spot counts are as close as they can get to accurate data. Although video cameras are cheap, the labor to analyze the video and count the people is beyond the project's budget.
If it's a success Culpepper says the plaza could be there permanently.
Cliff Allen, dean of The School of Business talked about how the atrium space in the Karl Miller building's plaza was open to the community and has a natural flow. "I'm very hopeful this becomes permanent," said Allen.
The block is only a tiny part of a much bigger plan that has so far gone nowhere. In 2009 PSU revealed the Montgomery Green Street plan. This would treat Montgomery as a walking street from the West Hills to the Willamette River.
Asked if this is a tiny step or the beginning of an anti-car revolution, Wilf Pinfold, CEO of urban.systems Inc. a smart cities consultancy, said it was neither.
"The city is experimenting to try and understand what will work as they implement the 2035 central city master plan. It is clear that downtown congestion is not working for anyone. The city needs to encourage walking, biking and transit wherever possible. Lots of cars make these modes of transport less attractive. In the same breath it is important to ensure downtown businesses have easy access for commerce. Many people see these in conflict and there is a tendency to resist change because someone is perceived to be losing…"
Pinfold support's PSU's Montgomery Pop Up Plaza, even if it is only for one month.
"….Urban centers are changing and we should do some experimentation like this both to learn and get experience with what changes work. We no longer do much transactional shopping in town, a large portion of that has moved online. We do want experiential shopping in the city center and we want the city center to be a destination. People will come downtown to spend an afternoon at the farmers market, shop at the Nike or Apple store, go to a movie and grab dinner. This kind of experience does not need parking 10 feet from every store front it is much better if we leave as many cars outside the city as possible and walk or use transit, the remaining cars and delivery vehicles can then move more easily. The vibrancy of Portland depends on making some smart changes and a little experimentation is a good thing."
A junior in the graphic design program Sadie Jordan painted the pride-themed street painting on to the asphalt. She chose the gay pride rainbow colors then added two shades of brown for people of color and the pink, white and purple of the transsexual flag.
"We wanted it to be pride themed, that was the original idea that the class who had this place making project came up with," she told the Business Tribune. "I decided to incorporate abstract shapes related to people's identities, related to how diverse and fluid everyone's identities are, not just in the realm of the LGBTQIA community, but also overall, your many different parts of your identity and how they relate to the community." These abstract shapes are the curves and circles of the design.
Jordan, 21, wanted the design to be a fluid piece because knowing small children would be helping paint it, they could "just roll with" their mistakes.
Normally a solitary graphic designer, this is way of working was new to her.
"I've had a fun time doing this project and I want to somehow incorporate community art into my practice. I'm just going with the flow and trying new things and this is a completely new thing for me. This is my first ever mural or street painting."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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