Saturday, August 09, 2014

MLK Gateway Plaza

View Larger Map

Today's adventure takes us to the corner of NE Grand Ave. & Hancock St, the point where two-way MLK splits into southbound MLK and northbound Grand Avenue. The traffic shift creates a couple of awkward (and unbuildable) triangles of land, which the city's tried to do various things with over the years. Most recently, it's been transformed into something the city calls the "Gateway and Heritage Markers Project" The skinny south corner of the main triangle is landscaped with some sort of tufted grass, I think to discourage people from walking through it. The triangle's divided by a curved metal mesh wall, maybe 7'-8' high, with an inspirational MLK quote facing Grand Avenue, in a font that makes it look vaguely like a Nike ad. The north side is a small concrete pedestrian plaza with displays about Oregon African-American history.

The design of the place is odd for Portland, seemingly designed for the benefit of passing motorists rather than pedestrians. The project was put together by the city's transportation bureau and this isn't technically a city park, which might explain the vehicular orientation of the place. The design drew complaints over the lack of sidewalks; apparently the city felt there were some unsafe pedestrian crossings here, and set out to discourage people from crossing the street in these spots rather than figuring out how to make them safer.

The one-way couplet of Grand Ave. and Union Ave. (the previous name of MLK) was announced in August 1957, and the change went into effect in January 1958. Initially this involved northbound drivers making two 90 degree turns, a left from Grand onto NE Hancock and then a right onto northbound MLK. In 1978 the city bought up the car lot on this block and created today's angled arrangement. This was part of the same project that created a landscaped median along the two-way portion of MLK, while eliminating much of the on-street parking along the street. This design has been widely regarded as a disaster, one that killed off many of the businesses along the street and made the street into a sort of neighborhood barrier since there were very few intersections where cars or pedestrians could cross it. They've worked to mitigate this in recent years, but it's hampered by the fact that MLK is a state highway (OR 99), and ODOT hates traffic lights and anything else that would prevent semis from barreling along city streets as fast as possible.

I ran across a pair of city planning documents from when the Transportation Bureau had to get design approval to proceed with the redesign. One mentions that the original design included additional heritage markers up and down MLK north of here, but noted there was no funding in place to actually do this.

Architects and designers love talking about places as "gateways". That often seems to be meaningless professional jargon, but this spot really is a sort of gateway, or at least historically it's been one. Before gentrification took hold in Northeast Portland, it was at least symbolically an entrance to the only majority-black neighborhood in the city. Growing up out in sheltered 1970s Portland suburbia, I can distinctly recall being cautioned to never ever go north of this spot because it "wasn't safe". Now it's more of a gateway from one trendy hipster neighborhood to another, yoga studios and artisanal coffee roasters as far as the eye can see.

No comments :