Some business owners along Portland's Southeast Foster Road expressed extreme angst when the city decided in 2014 to put the thoroughfare on a "road diet."
At the time, there was an understandable fear that taking Foster from four travel lanes down to two would clog traffic and drive customers away. Now, after four years of planning and a full year of construction, the road improvement — known more formally as the Foster Transportation and Streetscape Project — has been completed. And although at least one protest sign remained on display at a furniture store last week, casual observation and community reaction would indicate the project has mostly delivered on its promise.
Yes, the road diet has made Foster Road skinnier between Southeast 50th and 90th avenues. But the street's appearance is vastly improved, with an ample middle lane keeping left-turning vehicles out of the traffic flow. And impressively, the Foster Road district and Lents Town Center have experienced a smorgasbord of development, at least some of which can be attributed to the public expenditures.
A combination of funds from the city, the Lents urban renewal district and the federal government paid for the $9 million project, which always was more than a simple narrowing of the artery. Also included were modernized signals, new pavement, wider sidewalks, more attractive street lights and nearly 200 street trees.
The end result is a district more appealing to pedestrians, which ultimately will create an atmosphere most conducive to doing business in the area. Many business owners along Foster saw that potential when the project was first conceived, and it is likely their optimism will be validated. Based on remarks from merchants during a June 13 ceremony marking the completion of the streetscape, it appears the tide has turned decidedly in favor of the improvements.
Of course, that doesn't mean all problems are solved. Safety was one factor in the decision to make the changes to Foster, and on the same day that officials were celebrating the project reaching the finish line, a woman was killed while crossing Foster at an unmarked crosswalk near Southeast 71st Avenue. Her death, sadly, continues a string of pedestrian, cyclist and motorist deaths and injuries that the city had documented prior to the start of this project. Even with a skinnier road and more safe harbors for pedestrians, a busy street such as Foster — like many East Portland thoroughfares — still poses hazards for walkers and cyclists.
Work still remains, as well, to complete Foster's transformation from a somewhat tattered business district to Portland's latest urban renewal success story. With dozens of new businesses having moved in, and with urban-style midrise apartments now renting in the Lents Town Center, a tipping point may have been reached. If so, the surrounding neighborhoods will become increasingly pricey for homeowners — which is, of course, the unfortunate downside of gentrification.
It's still too soon to fully evaluate the Foster Road diet's impact on traffic, safety and urban renewal. But the early consensus seems to be that the year-long disruption due to construction, as well as the expected slower pace of traffic, will bring far more benefits than detriments.
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