Sunday, May 07, 2006

South Waterfront (I)

[I was originally planning to embed a Google map in this post to help illustrate the situation I'm describing, but the Tribune article this leads with is a week old now, so I figure I might as well post this, and just post again when I get the map thing figured out. 5/13/06 ]

[Updated: Ok, I found a decent pic of the general area, although it's centered somewhat to the north of the South Waterfront area proper. It links to a fascinating and unusual site all about highway interchanges. Even more I-405 freeway geekage here and here, if you're interested. 5/15/06]

Friday's Portland Tribune carried an article about the looming transportation nightmare in the city's soon-to-be-ultra-ritzy South Waterfront district. (Google Map of the area here, at least until I figure out that Google Map API.) It seems that a streetcar line, an aerial tram, and a completely rebuilt street grid in the area won't suffice to transport the idle rich between their condos and whatever it is they do with their time. Seems they're also going to need a MAX line, and a new bridge over the Willamette, things the city's not eager to talk about.

Now, I'm all in favor of new MAX lines, and I think the city desperately needs at least one new bridge in that general part of town. But if current trends at city hall hold true, the MAX line and bridge we end up with will be designed without considering the good of the city as a whole.

For example, I have a funny feeling that the new bridge they have in mind won't carry auto traffic, because a.) it's cheaper that way, and b.) city hall's mass transit idealism knows no bounds. The existing connections between downtown/I-405/I-5 and SE Powell and McLoughlin are pretty awful, and much of the current infrastructure dates back to the mid-1940s or even earlier, when this was a much smaller city. I've complained before about the way traffic flows in that area, especially around the west end of the Ross Island Bridge, and the surrounding, historic Corbett-Terwilliger-Lair Hill neighborhood. Though there are (supposedly) plans afoot to tinker with the bridge approaches a little, in the end I think a new bridge is needed. The west end of the bridge is simply in the wrong spot to serve cross-town traffic.

The transportation problems in the area have been studied fairly extensively, most recently in the South Portland Circulation Study [PDF]. But unfortunately, fixing stuff costs money, and fixing it properly costs even more money.

Consider, for example, the problem of east-west travel in the area. The aforementioned tram is supposed to connect OHSU and South Waterfront. This does nothing for the disgruntled citizens of the CTLH area, so the city's throwing them a rare bone, and is planning to build a pedestrian bridge over I-5 so they can walk over and visit their high-rise neighbors/rivals on the other side of the freeway. There still won't be any convenient way to drive from one side to the other, because that would cost more.

And it's worth pointing out that pedestrian bridges do very little to create a sense of neighborhood unity, for example look at the amusingly named "Failing Bridge" in North Portland, or the bridge over Naito Parkway near the Ross Island Bridge ramps, which connects SW 1st and the so-called "Bermuda Triangle" area.

The biggest problem is geography, pure and simple. You've got a narrow strip of land between the steep West Hills and the Willamette River, and this constricted area is home to several major north-south arteries (I-5, Barbur Blvd., Macadam Ave., Naito Parkway), and a historic neighborhood that won't stand for being ripped up by transportation planners yet again, and a major university (OHSU), or two if you include Portland State in the area (it sits just to the north of the I-405 loop). And the current infrastructure accreted haphazardly over most of the 20th century, much of it designed prior to any modern notion of how to do a major road properly. The designers of the area certainly assumed that nobody would ever want to walk or bike anywhere ever again, since cars are so much more modern and convenient. So whatever work ends up being done in the area will consist in large part of trying to correct previous screwups, without tearing up the fabric of the neighborhood any further.

While we breathlessly wait for The Powers That Be to figure out how to do that, here's a webcam where you can watch the condo towers going up.


Mike Landfair said...

Very interesting post, especially for businesses that may be affected along Macadam.
Landfair Furniture (BLOG)

Anonymous said...

Just limit auto traffic. Why is the city responsible for the movement of suburban auto traffic? Give the streets back to the neighborhood. Commuters have plenty of road options, if they choose to commute from Wilsonville to N portland each day by car, then they should expect to be delayed. THere is no RIGHT to a traffic free commute. Simple choice do you want 4 lanes of traffic in your neighborhood or 12 lanes of traffic (see Atlanta, LA, Houston, etc) Keep the streets small and build for the neighborhoods people NOT suburbanites.

brx0 said...

I'm actually not trying to make a pro-car, pro-freeway argument here I live in the general vicinity, and 95% of the time I get around by walking, or by bus or streetcar if it's raining too much. What the area needs is for main roads like Naito and Barbur to be less freeway-like, not more, with traffic lights and real crosswalks, not more weird and frightening pedestrian overpasses & underpasses like they're planning to impose on us.

The day I can walk across the Ross Island Bridge to the Original Hotcake House at 3 AM without getting mugged or run over by a semi, I'll say the city's finally done its job properly.