Well past time to clean up downtown Portland
At a time when it should be welcoming throngs of holiday shoppers, diners and theater-goers, downtown Portland is instead pleading for help.
The Portland City Council and other elected leaders must listen to those pleas, or they risk losing the very heart of a great city. If they want to see a return to a hollowed-out core — a downtown of the 1970s — then they should allow current trends to continue. Otherwise, it is well past time for more aggressive action to hold downtown together.
Yes, the biggest problem right now is COVID-19 and the restrictions needed to slow the current devastating spread. The limitations on conducting ordinary business are crushing merchants large and small. In addition, downtown has suffered very real physical and reputational damage from vandalism and violence that splintered off from otherwise peaceful protests.
But let's be honest: Downtown was headed in a worrisome direction before COVID-19 and before protests got out of hand. Camping on the sidewalks, the open abuse of intoxicating substances, the stench of urine in the air — these were all disturbing parts of the downtown experience.
In an urban setting, however, the key is for the good to overwhelm the unpleasant. As long as those shoppers, diners and theater-goers were filling the sidewalks, people felt safe and excited to be downtown.
Very few people are strolling the sidewalks now. Too many stores have replaced their windows with plywood, due to the vandalism. Downtown isn't exactly a ghost town, but it's teetering.
That's why the recently formed Rose City Downtown Collective has written an open letter to City Hall asking for assistance. This group is correct to challenge the current and incoming City Council to help save downtown.
"Our elected officials let us down this year, but we are hopeful that the new City Council will step up," the collective states in its letter. "The hard reality is that some local businesses won't make it to January to see new council members take their posts. The urgency of this situation cannot be overstated."
This isn't a letter urging aid to the big corporate interests that Portlanders love to hate. The collective includes hair stylists, restaurants, specialty grocery stores, delis, bars, jewelers, hotels — and every other type of business that makes downtown a vibrant place.
So, what can City Hall, or anyone else, do to help downtown in the midst of a pandemic? One place to start is simply recognizing the importance of retaining a thriving city center.
For too long, "business" has been a dirty word in Portland's political campaigns. Many City Council candidates lost their races after being called the tools of business interests. Chloe Eudaly tried that tactic against Mingus Mapps this year, and he still won — so maybe a shift is occurring in the public's understanding. Other elected leaders should take note.
Beyond a change in attitude, the downtown collective has other specific suggestions, including:
• Supporting and promoting cleanups of the downtown area by SOLVE.
• Creating a sign-up for businesses that have been vandalized to connect them to funds, materials, resources and volunteers that can help repair damages, paint over graffiti and ultimately take boarding off windows.
• Creating a system to report graffiti in non-business specific areas for cleanup.
• Helping connect businesses downtown to city, state and county officials with a clear action plan on how to help downtown.
In recent years, the city, the county, private parties and voters have all worked to create more shelters and more affordable housing units. That is terrific. Not enough, but necessary, and much more is still needed. The city also must take much stronger action — within the limits of the law — to move people out of makeshift camps and into shelters. That's the humane thing to do.
The pandemic won't last forever, but its damage to downtown — and frankly, all local business districts — could be permanent if more isn't done to assist businesses directly and to connect them to resources needed to help them just survive the next few months. The plywood storefronts must come down. The vandalism must be stopped through arrests and prosecution. The efforts of the Portland Business Alliance's Downtown Clean & Safe program and the SOLVE cleanups must be supported.
But the starting point is for the Portland City Council to acknowledge just how important downtown is for this city's livability. Neither a person nor a city can survive without a heart.
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