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Streetcar's new eastside loop already spurring development

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - The prototype Made in America streetcar will start taking passengers this weekend when the eastside loop is completed. 
A lot more than people will be riding on the Portland Eastside Streetcar Loop when it opens this weekend.

So will a 24-year-old vision for a unified city on both sides of the Willamette River.

The Central City Plan approved by the City Council in 1988 called for a transit loop that would move people and encourage development in all parts of the inner city. Two years later, planning started on the city-owned Portland Streetcar system.

“At the time, Portland had completed the award-winning downtown plan that had revitalized downtown, and everyone wanted to export its benefits to the rest of the Central City,” says Rick Gufstason, executive director of Portland Streetcar Inc., the nonprofit that operates the system.

The vision seemed justified when the 2001 opening of the westside line was followed by large redevelopment projects along the tracks in the Pearl District and at Portland State University. Hoping to spread the transit and economic development opportunities to the other side of the river, planners soon began in earnest on the eastside line.

It opens on Saturday, Sept. 22. Running from the Pearl District over the Broadway Bridge to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, it was completed at a cost of around $148 million, with the federal government picking up half the tab.

But the opening is not without risks. It follows a deep, unforeseen recession that has cut into government budgets, including those for the transit services in the city. TriMet provides drivers and contributes $3.75 million to the streetcar operations. But the agency’s new budget raises most fares and eliminates the Free Rail Zone in downtown and the Lloyd District.

And eastside streetcar service is going to be less frequent than originally planned, at least until revenue projections justify hiring additional operators.

Gufstason is hopeful that can happen soon. He says it all depends on how much fare revenue is collected in October and November. If fare collections are high enough, peak service intervals could be reduced from 18 to 15 minutes within a few months, Gufstason says.

Despite the problems, city and streetcar officials see signs that the 1988 vision for the eastside is already beginning to be realized. They point to several major redevelopment projects that began or were announced after construction began on the extension. Projects include the $250 million mixed-use superblock redevelopment in the Lloyd District, Metro’s renewed efforts to build a headquarters hotel at the Oregon Convention Center and renovation of the Convention Plaza building, the first project in the long-stalled Burnside Bridgehead.

Although planning is still in the early stages, some of the most significant redevelopment projects will occur on 18 acres of property owned by OMSI, just east of the existing museum, where the eastside streetcar extension intersects TriMet’s coming MAX line from Portland to Milwaukie, creating what is expected to be a bustling transit hub.

Several neighboring property owners are involved in the discussions, including Portland Community College, Portland Opera and the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation.

No decisions have been made on the mix of buildings to be constructed there, although both new visitor centers and office buildings are being considered.

“We believe that the streetcar will be an important element in the development of the lower eastside and will eventually connect both sides of the river opening exciting possibilities for growth,” says OMSI Senior Vice President Paul Carlson. “Our development plans are still in the formative stages but the increased accessibility to the museum that the streetcar affords is definitely a positive factor in our assessment of future attendance and our view as to how this OMSI district can develop going forward.”

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