I’m a big fan of anything that forces people to think about the impacts driving has on our lives — especially when it comes to how much of our streets and public spaces are dominated by cars. That’s why I’m a huge supporter of the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s Healthy Business permit program.
On a recent sunny Saturday I rode around town and was amazed to see just how successful this program has become. On street after street, I saw dining tables, chairs, umbrellas, and lounging spaces on what used to be parking spots and traffic lanes. These were serene sights in a city many believed was “under siege” in a war between “violent anarchist mobs” and police.
Since it was launched in May, PBOT staff have worked furiously to keep up with demand. So far they’ve issued a jaw-dropping 657 permits.
Similar to their sidewalk cafe permit, PBOT (and their partners at the Bureau of Development Services, who oversees parking lots) is giving business owners relatively free rein to use parking spots, parking lots, and streets to seat customers. In response, opportunistic Portlanders are creating new commercial spaces with a wide array of materials. Some are framing-in sturdy structures with foundations and roofs, others are simply placing a few chairs and some rope in the street.
The program has so far managed to avoid major controversy, but it’s not without critics.
Dr. Marisa Zapata is director of the Portland State University Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative and a member of Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s new Racial Justice Council. Last week she expressed concerns about the program on Twitter. “Looks like a lot of formerly public land now being used privately,” she wrote. “Do I get to sit there if I buy nothing? What other public uses could have been done here instead? Maybe expanded sidewalk for walking or micro mobility or hand washing stations or?”
PBOT says the program is no different than their sidewalk cafe permit and that business owners have the right to manage the space however they see fit, as long as it meets permit requirements for public access, pass-through traffic, and so on.
From what I’ve seen, most of the spaces use the curbside lane formerly occupied by parked cars. There are a few street-wide plazas, but those are the exception rather than the norm.
It’s great when several businesses link the spaces together, like this example on N Mississippi Ave:
Another double on NW 13th at Hoyt:
Many of us feel NW 13th should be a carfree promenade and this permit program has helped validate that vision:
Rogue Brewing on NW Flanders has a simple but effective design, giving each party their own, physically-distanced deck:
NW 21st is lined with new seating areas:
This one in front of Cafe Mingo isn’t that nice to look at but it gets the job done:
At NW Glisan and 21st there’s outdoor dining on both sides of the street!
The plaza on SW Harvey Milk between 12th and 13th is a sight to behold:
While these all look a bit different, they have something in common: They remind us that streets can have a much higher purpose than simply moving around and storing large, toxic, loud, dangerous private vehicles.
It will be sad to see them all torn down at the end of September. Hopefully we can find a way to keep them up and/or make this an annual program — Covid or no Covid.
(For more plaza goodness, don’t miss our previous coverage of the “Rainbow Road” plaza on SE Ankeny at 28th.)
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
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