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Despite serious challenges, pedestrian counts are trending up over the past two years, the most recent survey found.

PMG PHOTO: DANA HAYNES - Large crowds have returned to the Saturday farmers market at Portland State University, seen above, Saturday, Aug. 20, and the smaller market, Wednesdays at Shemanski Park at Southwest Park Avenue and Main Street. On any given Saturday, the PSU Farmers Market is jammed with people all day long. Shoppers come from nearby apartments and outside the urban core to buy the freshest produce and to enjoy hand-made meals. The activity would seem to contradict recent reports that downtown is not recovering economically.

In fact, that is exactly what the most recent {obj:65005:semi-annual pedestrian counts } conducted by Downtown Portland Clean & Safe found. Although many offices have yet to fully reopen, visitors have increased dramatically over the past two years during evenings and weekend, according to the report.

"The bright light in our recovery efforts has really been the return of big events to the downtown core, and we are seeing that these events are attracting people downtown. Businesses are looking forward to having office workers and the return of students back to downtown and will feel fully recovered from the impacts of the pandemic once this occurs," said Sydney Mead, director of downtown programs for the enhanced service district affiliated with the Portland Business Alliance.

The counts conducted over Memorial Day and the first two weekends in June revealed an uptick in the number of people downtown between 6 and 10 p.m. on Friday through Sunday, indicating they are coming for purposes of dinner, leisure and recreation.

COURTESY DOWNTOWN PORTLAND CLEAN AND SAFE - Pedestrian counts in downtown Portland are increasing as more people are returning, especially between 6 p.m. and 10 p,m. on Fridays and Saturdays.According to the report released on Tuesday, Aug. 23, nearly 7 million pedestrians were counted downtown between March 1 and June 9 of this year. That compares to just over 4 million in 2021 and around 2 million in 2020, the first year of the pandemic and social justice protests.

Rose Festival attendance also rebounded in 2022, the first in-person series of events held in two years. When looking at Saturdays over Memorial Day and the first two weekends in June — which included the Rose Festival parades, City Fair, Dragon Boat Races and the fireworks show — the number of people downtown was recorded at 71.4% of 2019 levels.

Earlier, gloomier study

The hopefulness in the most recent report conflicts with a national study released last week. It ranked Portland's recovery 60th out of 62 downtowns across the nation. That study, conducted by the University of California Berkeley, found Portland had only recovered 41% of pre-pandemic traffic.

Only two other cities had a lower recovery rate — Cleveland with 36% and San Francisco with 31%.

PMG PHOTO: JULES ROGERS - A city of Portland survey found people are concerned about nearly every neighborhood, not just downtown. Events such as the Saturday farmers market at PSU (in photo) continue to draw well.But the Clean & Safe report said the studies do not necessarily compare equivalent information. The Berkeley study compares cell phone tracking data among people in those downtown areas. The Clean & Safe study has used semi-annual manual counts at key intersections in its 213-block service district for the past 15 years. They were supplemented this year by cell phone data to monitor traffic and visitors 24 hours a day.

The Clean & Safe report also notes that Portland was slower to reopen than many other downtowns.

"Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been mostly up to state and local officials to determine rules for opening and closing businesses and sectors of the economy for their own communities. Oregon's and Multnomah County's success in saving lives is unquestioned; however, to save these lives, Portland reopened much later than many other major U.S. cities. Moreover, we know that Portland is still recovering from the multiple crises of the last few years. A patchwork of unequal re-opening dates and strategies for managing various crises creates unequal recovery data," the report said.

The counts plummeted in 2020 after the start of the pandemic and social justice protests over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Since 2015, on average, during the second weekend in June, a typical corner in downtown Portland would include 9,550 pedestrians. In December 2021, the average corner had 3,680 pedestrians, far below previous averages and only a slight increase from the June 2021 average.

"Downtowns everywhere were disproportionately impacted by remote work and people not coming in," John Tapogna, ECONorthwest senior policy adviser, told the Portland Business Alliance as recently as February, when foot traffic was still down around 60%. "It does appear, through this data at least, that Portland has some additional challenges in what is generally a challenging environment for downtowns all over the United States."

COURTESY PHOTO: DOWNTOWN PORTLAND CLEAN AND SAFE - Weekly downtown pedestrian counts are highest on Fridays and Saturdays because people are coming into Portland for shopping, dining and recreating.But the smaller boundaries of downtown Portland in the Berkeley study also emphasizes the city's woes, while failing to acknowledge signs of nearby recovery. It includes the government buildings that were at the center of more than a year of nightly protests, including the U.S. Courthouse, the Multnomah County Justice Center and Portland City Hall.

Only a fraction of the public employees have returned to those buildings because of ongoing COVID-19 restrictions. And all employees moved out of the historic Multnomah County Courthouse when the new one opened during the pandemic. Plans have been announced to develop it as The 10 TwentyOne, a nine-story mixed use office building.

In addition, the Berkeley boundaries exclude nearby properties where activities have increased. They include Keller Auditorium, where live performances have resumed, and Portland State University, which has returned to in-person learning.

The question of how — or even whether — to bring more public employees back to their offices in a vexing one. Governments negotiated agreements with their unions for all non-essential employees to work remotely during the early stages of the pandemic. Now many of them do not want to return to their offices.

A majority of city of Portland employees who work remotely said they would consider quitting if they are required to come to the office more than two days a week, according to a workplace survey released on July 18.

Nor are many of the 3,447 employees who responded to the survey workers interested in helping the downtown economy.

"There is overwhelming sentiment that while city employees enjoy playing a part in a vibrant citywide economy, workplace decisions should not be based on that possibility. Respondents by and large said that they should not be placed in the position of being seen as a vehicle for economic stimulus — as many of them have their own financial issues as well," the survey said.

In an email to city employees, Portland Chief Administrative Officer Michael Jordan wrote, "City leaders will use this feedback as they chart the path forward, and I will keep you updated each step of the way."

The U.S. government and Multnomah County have not released the results of similar worker surveys.

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