My View: 'Plaza' concept is perilous in pandemic
I salute Commissioner Chloe Eudaly's effort to help restaurants and bars to open safely and survive in the new world of masks and social distancing. We should explore ways to better use sidewalks and parking zones. However, under no circumstances should we create destination plazas by completely closing streets. Still deep in the midst of a pandemic such a decision would be both foolhardy and dangerous. Here's why:
Portlanders knows what happens when we close streets for food and drink. It looks nothing like the drawings provided by the advocate Zack Katz. Portlanders flock to those places, standing shoulder to shoulder on lovely summer nights. Think of what you have seen when we close Mississippi Avenue or Alberta Street or on currently closed Ankeny Street. Social distancing will be erratic at best.
The pandemic has not ended. One super-spreader going to bars in South Korea unleashed over 100 new Covid-19 cases. A virus rebound closure will be the death knell for our local businesses. From around the country we have evidence of danger of mixing alcohol, food and limited outdoor spaces.
Equity and fairness say that any public facility should be for everyone. Portlanders over 60, people with conditions like diabetes, obesity or asthma and many others with comorbid conditions would be effectively excluded from destination plazas on closed city streets. That includes our neighbors where the plazas are being considered.
When the city decides to 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 all an equal opportunity to survive the crisis.
Looking at the maps, one plan to close 28th Avenue results in a 16-block detour. Thousands of inner northeast and southeast residents use that street to get to Hollywood Fred Meyer. Has anyone considered the environmental cost of making cars drive farther to shop for groceries? Seems pennywise and pound foolish.
Finally, there is a cynical political nostrum, "never waste a good crisis." 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 while everyone else is absorbed with living the most stressful time of our lives. Randomly scheduled online Zoom public meetings are not the equivalent of a robust public process. Some of the justifications for creating plazas are dogmatic. Everyone has the freedom to choose their form of transportation based on their needs, physical ability, financial means and personal philosophy. I fear some see closing streets and creating plazas as much a political statement as public amenity.
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 introduce unacceptable risk. Policy decisions that create plazas we already know attract crowds is something best left to a time when we have solved the public health crisis and Portlanders can once again gather to talk about alternatives.
Jim Blackwood Jr. is the former senior policy director for Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish. He lives in Southeast Portland.
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