If you live in Wilsonville, two letters likely follow a four- or five-digit series of numbers in your address — S.W.
As is obvious, the letters indicates southwest. What's less obvious — even to longtime residents, city of Wilsonville employees, Clackamas County planners and even the U.S. Postal Service — is why almost all Wilsonville addresses are considered "southwest" and what purpose the distinction serves.
The answer lies beyond city limits.
In many major cities, including Portland, addresses are delineated based on a local grid system. In this system, the city is divided into southeast, southwest, northeast and northwest quadrants — or sometimes just north, or just east. Along with Portland, older cities like Oregon City, Gresham, Canby and West Linn operate under their own local grid system.
"They were farm towns. They weren't created based on someday this becoming a metropolitan region," said Tom Kloster, Metro regional planning manager.
In the early 20th century, Wilsonville was a small community with schools, churches and businesses but did not incorporate until 1968. And, according to Kloster, sometime in the mid-20th century, Clackamas, Washington and Multnomah counties began to create addresses in unincorporated land based on a regional grid with Portland as its hub.
"As Portland grew, it started to run up against other towns like Milwaukie. About in the mid-1900s, in tandem with suburban development, you started to have counties themselves adopt Portland's numbering system," Kloster said.
Though neither the Spokesman nor the city of Wilsonville could verify, it's likely Wilsonville adopted the county's regional grid system when it incorporated in 1968. Wilsonville is positioned south of Portland's Burnside Street and (mostly) west of the Willamette River, which is why it's "southwest."
And many of Wilsonville's addresses are five digits long because they are that many blocks away from the Portland core.
Wilsonville engineering inspector Susan Rothenberger said this has been the case at least since she first joined the city about 30 years ago.
"When you're a brand-new city, you don't know what you're doing," Rothenberger said. "It provided a guidance and a way to address."
One interesting quirk in Wilsonville is that even though the Charbonneau neighborhood is located on the other side of the Willamette River, it's still considered southwest.
However, as Wilsonville Public Affairs Director Mark Ottenad noted, when you exit Charbonneau and enter Marion County, the directional indicator switches to northeast. This is because Salem is the regional hub for that area.
Ottenad thought that the southwest distinction could be useful to a certain degree.
"At least you have a clue as to what part of the region it is," Ottenad said.
For some, it seems redundant.
"I think it's unnecessary because Wilsonville is enough information, just like 97070 (ZIP code), to tell you where it is. You don't need southwest," said longtime Wilsonville resident and City Councilor Charlotte Lehan.
But with uniformity comes simplicity. And Kloster said that some cities' systems are more confusing than Wilsonville's. For instance, Gresham implemented a local grid system, but when it incorporated county land, it contained addresses within the regional system and addresses in the local system. This is why Northeast Eastman Parkway suddenly becomes Southeast 223rd Avenue.
"This is true all around the region," Kloster said.
Dan Stark, manager for Wilsonville's geographic information system, said having a local grid can create challenges when cities grow. Over time and expansion, an address with "S.E.," for instance, may no longer occupy the southeast portion of a city.
"We can't outgrow that southwest designation because the entire city is in the 'S.W.' designation," Stark said.
From an emergency response perspective, Tualatin Fire & Rescue Public Affairs Chief Cassandra Ulven said a local grid system can be helpful.
"If you have areas with similar street name but there's a distinction between south, east or southwest, that's helpful," Ulven said.
However, Capt. Tim Nokes said he has never had a problem with addresses in Wilsonville during his tenure.
Kloster agreed that local grids can have some navigational value.
"One of the arguments for keeping the local grid is: if you are in the downtown of one of the historic towns, you can find your way around," he said.
Some might wonder why the Portland metro region hasn't adopted a uniform grid system that all cities abide by or local cities or counties adopt their own grid system rather than a mishmash of both. Kloster said re-addressing projects are challenging and GPS applications have made such urban planning distinctions less relevant.
"We're probably less likely now than ever to revisit street names and addresses. With those tools available anywhere on a portable device it doesn't have the impact it used to have," Kloster said. "It's a historic relic but also really hard to change. Some have done that and some have opted to have the dual system."
In 2005, the city of Wilsonville passed an addressing and naming policy that included a provision that "future streets shall be addressed and numbered in accordance with the addressing matrix of the Portland Metropolitan Region."
Though he wouldn't predict far into the future, Stark said he doesn't foresee that provision or Wilsonville's addressing system as a whole being altered anytime soon.
"I work closely with people who assign addresses in the city and county. We work to make sure addresses are current and up to date for 911 purposes," he said. "I haven't heard any issues that would raise the notion of any re-addressing project to be necessary to fix."
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