Saturday, September 06, 2014

NE 16th & Tillamook

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Our next sorta-adventure takes us back to the Irvington neighborhood again, this time to the intersection of NE 16th & Tillamook, where a narrow landscaped strip cuts diagonally across the intersection. This is yet another Irvington location from a list of very obscure places the city parks bureau somehow had a hand in. Like the others nearby, this spot functions as a traffic control device. Vehicles (other than bikes) can't go straight here; on one side, all northbound traffic has to turn west, while eastbound traffic has to go south, thus diverting inbound traffic from both directions off Irvington's residential streets. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it's one of the subtle traffic tweaks that keeps cars out of Irvington without looking like an actual barrier. Somehow you always end up going around Irvington rather than through it, and only realizing years later that you've never actually been there.

As with the other Irvington traffic widgets that have shown up here, it's a little mysterious that they're on the list and other similar ones around town aren't. I think I have a clue with this one though. An Urban Adventure League photo caption says this was the very first traffic diverter of any type in town, and relays a story that it was first built in the 1960s as a "neighborhood guerrilla action".

I checked the library's Oregonian database, and I can't find anything to confirm the "neighborhood guerrilla action" story or the notion that this was the very first traffic widget in town. Which is not to say they aren't true, just that I don't have anything concrete to back them up. But news stories do confirm this spot dates back to the 1960s. Which is surprising, since the 60's were very much the age of the almighty automobile here in Portland. So as you might imagine, adding a traffic barrier was not without controversy. It first appears in the paper in July 1967: Residents were lobbying to create a traffic barrier here, but a reluctant city council deferred immediately action on the proposal. In late August they approved it, but only for a 90 day trial period, with no commitment to keep it after that. At the time, a resident on nearby NE 15th Ave. complained that the project was happening due to "16th Ave people" who wanted a private playground for their children, essentially spending public money to make it safe for rich kids to play in the street.

The city quickly pulled the plug on the 90 day trial after only 22 days. The reason given for ending the experiment so early was a rash of complaints from residents on 15th Avenue, who saw a sudden influx of traffic on their street now that it was being diverted away from the intersection one block over.

By December, angry Irvington residents were lobbying to bring back the barrier. The city pushed back hard on the idea, saying it had already been tried and had failed miserably, end of story.

Although obviously this wasn't the end of the story, as residents eventually found a different pot of money to tap into. Construction of the present-day barrier was finally approved in March 1972, apparently with little controversy. The approval came not from the city council but the local "Model Cities Planning Board", the local arm of a federally-funded urban renewal program. Much of the article is concerned with the creation of NE Portland's Woodlawn Park, which required demolishing several dozen "blighted" houses. But that's a story for another post entirely.

The 16th & Tillamook diverter comes up in the comments at BikePortland now and then, some praising it for blocking auto traffic, others grumpy about a large and potentially dangerous bump in the curb here. Meanwhile it was given as an example recently when the Transportation Bureau consulted the city fire department about some bike-friendly traffic changes they wanted to make elsewhere in town. Apparently this is one of only a small handful of diagonal traffic diverters in the city, and the fire department specifically advised against making any more like this as they block through traffic and present an obstacle for turning fire trucks. Which just goes to show that you can't please all the people all the time, unless maybe you switch to bike-based fire trucks.

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