With Old Town's busy nightlife, should the streets go car free?

With Old Town's busy nightlife, should the streets go car free?

PORTLAND, Ore. - Folks in the Old Town Chinatown neighborhood of downtown Portland are floating an idea to create a pedestrian zone during the busiest nights of the week.

The topic, which at this point is just an idea that is being discussed with the public, came up during a neighborhood association meeting on Wednesday. Dozens of folks - including those who work in housing, those who own bars/nightclubs/restaurants in the area, the Union Gospel Mission and representatives from the Chinese community - attended the meeting to talk about the idea.

Under the proposal, a few of the neighborhood streets (specifically Northwest Couch between 2nd and 4th Avenue, Northwest Davis between 2nd and 4th Avenue and Northwest 3rd Avenue from Everett to Burnside) would close to traffic from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Both vehicles and bicycles would be barred from entering the area.

The goal, according to Mike Boyer with the city's Office of Neighborhood Involvement, is to increase safety during those hours.

One problem is that police say they are getting too many calls about issues between pedestrians and traffic. And with so many people heading down to Old Town to have a night out, the sidewalks are filling up on Friday and Saturday nights, clogging the walkways.

The street closures would extend the sidewalks quite a bit and give everyone a little breathing room. Right now, when the clubs and bars in the area get packed and there are long lines of people waiting to get in, it can be hard for folks to get through. And with the streets clear, there wouldn't be any incidents with pedestrians and vehicles.

If the proposal did go into effect, there would be four police officers, plus a sergeant, stationed there to keep an eye on things.

Also, taxi cabs, limousines and pedi-cabs would have a designated area to line up at to pick up passengers. The idea behind that was to make sure the cabs that show up to give folks a ride home are licensed and legitimate (it's similar to what's done at the airport). There was also an idea tossed around about perhaps having police cadets or reserve officers patrol the taxi area.

Map courtesy of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement

According to local business owner Howard Weiner, who also serves as the Chair of Public Safety and Livability for the Old Town Chinatown Neighborhood Association, the idea is based on similar models that have been done in other cities, like San Francisco.

So what do folks think about the idea? Here are some of the comments we got:

"No cars and people walking - that would be awesome, like a big block party," said Eva Giacomo. "It would be really fun.

"It's just a lot safer," said Christina Weber. "I mean less chance of people being hit by a car, people being stupid and stumbling out into the road when they shouldn't be."

"You know they're drunk and going out of bars - so they cannot get hit by a car," said Michael Gelbke.

"I don't think it would be that good of an idea," said Jordan Tromblee, who works as a restaurant server in Old Town and worries that police would not have good access. "This isn't that safe of a neighborhood. There are a lot of homeless shelters around here that get kind of crazy. Friday and Saturday nights, all the clubs open up and there are people so drunk they are falling asleep on curbs and getting sick."

This isn't necessarily new for Old Town. Police already shut down Couch Street on weekend nights and this would simply be an extension of that. And if the proposal does end up going through, it would be a pilot project to see if it works or not. Nothing would be set in stone until the neighborhood, the city and the police agree that it is working.

Of course with any new idea comes concerns. Here are some of the general ones that were raised at the neighborhood association meeting:

  • Can the neighborhood afford to lose parking spaces? Can the ones that are lost be absorbed in close proximity?
  • Will those who live in housing still be able to easily access their buildings? Would it create a problem for those with limited mobility?
  • Will emergency responders have trouble gaining access to the buildings in the area?
  • Will the bars and nightclubs be leaving their doors open during those hours? Will that create a noise problem?
  • Will there be an increase in the amount of trash that ends up on the streets?

Dan Lenzen with Concept Entertainment, a group that runs some of the night spots in Old Town (like the Dixie Tavern) and also owns property there, is looking carefully at the proposal.

His group has not yet formed an opinion on whether they think it's a good idea or not. Right now they are simply looking at the options on the table, offering their opinions and being a part of the process.

Of course the reason behind it all is safety and we talked to Lenzen to get his thoughts.

Lenzen said while he feels that Old Town is a relatively safe area in the evenings because of the robust night life with lots of people around, he does see how something like this could make folks feel more at ease, namely because they could spread out more.

"I believe the customers could feel a little safer because they won't be intimidated by the close passage of somebody that might scare them," he said.

And he thinks that eliminating some of the vehicular traffic could help keep the noise level down.

"I think you're going to have a better livability situation in that there is less noise related to automobiles and loud stereo systems," Lenzen said.

Lenzen also believes it could help with some of the problems that police encounter in the area but he worries that those problems might end up in another part of town instead.

"It's the displacement principle," he said. "Police deal with it all the time. If they displace problems, they go somewhere else for a little while."

Another concern that Lenzen has is not having close enough parking for his employees during those hours. For those who work after dark, the closer they can park, the safer they feel (which is true for any part of town). Lenzen said his labor costs would go up because he would have to make sure there was extra staff to escort employees to their vehicles once their shifts ended.

Of course, this is all very early in the process and at this point it's just an idea that's being discussed. There will be plenty of time down the road for those who would be affected to hash out their concerns and for the public to get involved as well.

KATU Reporter Patrick Preston contributed to this report.