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West Portland Town Center planning for more people, more housing, more jobs and more sidewalks

BPS ILLUSTRATION - The West Portland Town Center as envisioned by the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.There's a reason that the section of Southwest Portland that surrounds the Barbur Transit Center and the intersection called the Crossroads looks the same now as it has for decades. This part of town has been dubbed the Bermuda Triangle of Portland planning; lots of development ideas have disappeared there over the years.

There's a new plan in the works for what is now called the West Portland Town Center. It's a planning effort to bring that area into the 21st Century by creating the right conditions for new housing, office space, stores, restaurants and community spaces.

The planning process has been delayed but not derailed by the pandemic. Originally, a preliminary proposal would have been officially presented to Portland's Planning Commission in June. It will be late July before that happens. Plans for public hearings are pending at this time. Presentations to neighborhood associations could happen in August. Please see Clarification on timeline below.

MORE HOLLYWOOD THAN HILLSDALE

The plan is to turn this part of Portland into something that looks more like Hollywood Town Center than what it's looked like for decades: four lanes of traffic , office space, strip malls, motels and an eclectic blend of commercial services. If West Portland Town Center becomes a reality, Barbur Boulevard between Southwest 30th and the Portland city limits could be bustling. If it doesn't, Portland will have once again ignored the 4,000 Portlanders who live in the area and abandoned Barbur to being just a highway without sidewalks that people drive through, rather than a legitimate destination.

Key planners of the project point to town centers in Northeast Portland, Beaverton, Hollywood and Milwaukie as examples of what's possible for West Portland. All those other town centers have light rail lines running through them. The proposed light rail line connecting Southwest Portland, Tigard and Tualatin could be a "catalyst," said Joan Frederiksen with the Bureau of Planning and Stability.

Project manager Ryan Curren took it one step further.

"The key will be the timing of the light rail. We can coordinate a development project with a light rail project and that (development) could open on the day the light rail started. That would be a real success," Curren said.

If all the planning, engineering and funding pieces fall into place for that light rail line, the soonest trains would be rolling through Southwest Portland is September 2027.

WHERE PLANS GO TO DIE

One unattributed comment made at a citizens group meeting to craft the West Portland Town Center put it this way, "Twenty-five years of wanting this town center, so there is expectation of it being approved."

It was in 1996 that the idea of such a town center was first brought up. Since then it's been studied more than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Why should this latest plan actually transform a big part of Southwest Portland when others came up short?

"There are probably many reasons, but the market wasn't particularly interested in developing there," Frederiksen said, citing the relatively small amount of land available for mixed-use development and the perception of the area, "Barbur's fairly auto-oriented and sort of low rise," she added.

Curren asked, "Why hasn't development occurred along the corridor? I think traffic safety and just the pedestrian experience down there is really challenging and unsafe and unhealthy. So that's been a deterrent for some of the market trends we've seen elsewhere in the city," he said.

Glenn Bridger, active in local neighborhood associations and Barbur Boulevard improvement efforts since the 1980s, especially the Barbur Concept Plan of 2013, has a different theory.

"The various neighborhood associations were having difficulty coming to agreement on their vision of what should be going on there. So because it spans several neighborhood associations, it didn't really get the push it needed for the past quarter century," he said.

WHAT ABOUT BARBUR TRANSIT CENTER?

Ground zero for the West Portland Town Center is the Barbur Transit Center. It sits on a 4.8 acre site that is owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation. Half a dozen TriMet bus lines pass through there and, in normal times, 350 cars are parked there during the day.

"I think it's a major anchor of the plan and of the town center because it's publicly owned. That's the big opportunity there," said Curren.

Early versions of the plans for redeveloping Barbur Town Center are still subject to changes, but the basics seem to be in place. There could be five buildings from five to ten stories tall built on the site for apartments, offices, stores, parking spaces and community areas. Whether the demand is there for all that square footage will be determined by the market. Uses that won't be allowed are self-storage facilities, drive-thru businesses and gas stations.

GETTING IT RIGHT

Every effort is being made by the planners to take care of the "Three Ps":

n Provide jobs and housing for the thousands of people they expect to move to Southwest Portland between now and 2035.

n Prevent displacement and gentrification. What's to keep an upgraded West Portland neighborhood from attracting those who can afford higher rents, thus displacing current residents? That's what they're trying to figure out.

n Preserve existing affordable housing by building new housing units (apartments) elsewhere. Frederiksen said doing so has become a priority.

"Efforts to preserve affordable housing and efforts to improve accessibility to transit are a benefit to the current population and the future population." he said. "There's a growing concern about displacement and an effort to avoid it when new development inherently gentrifies an area."

A FREEWAY RUNS THROUGH IT

One of the challenges in planning a future for this section of Southwest Portland is that the neighborhood is divided by I-5. Capitol Highway provides a link and there's a pedestrian bridge over the freeway that's a well-kept secret. But other than that, it's a physical divide between the growing immigrant and refugee communities south of I-5 and residents to the north.

Planners have made extra efforts to involve members of the Muslim community in early planning efforts and public involvement events.

Hannah Osman is a Somalian on the team from Planning and Sustainability. She's been concentrating on helping people through the pandemic's early days but plans to keep her community connected to the Town Center effort.

"I enjoy getting to really advocate and add the voice of community to this plan." Osman said. "I think it's really important. Traditionally and historically, underrepresented communities are not often brought to the decision-making table."

Organizers of a walking tour of the project last summer made sure that Somali, Arabic and Swahili interpreters were on hand for attendees.

The preliminary plans call for construction of a "multi-cultural hub" as part of the West Portland Town Center.

"A multi-cultural hub is an opportunity to kind of bring everybody together and provide some community stability and cohesion for the immigrant refugee population that has been there for the last 20 years," Curren said. As an example of what he meant, he mentioned the Mercado Southeast Portland's Lents neighborhood, which is an indoor market and outdoor plaza for mostly immigrant entrepreneurs.

CLARIFICATION: The following was sent to the SW Connection by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability: The project expects to release a Discussion Draft in late July 2020 and host public engagement opportunities after that. The next step is then a Proposed Draft, which is currently scheduled for an October release. The Proposed Draft goes to the Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC) which will hold a hearing, tentatively scheduled for late November/December. The PSC will direct the creation of a Recommended Draft, which in turn goes before City Council for a hearing and adoption. City Council dates have not been scheduled but are anticipated in Winter 2021.

Website: https://beta.portland.gov/bps/wpdx-town-center


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