Concrete Change 

Gentrification Meets Transportation in North Williams Bike Plan

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NORTH WILLIAMS is ground zero for Portland's transportation future.

During summer rush hour, 400 bikes and 800 cars rush up North Williams, competing for space with buses, pedestrians, and parked cars.

In the 2030 Bike Plan approved last year, North Williams is listed as a "Major City Bikeway," a street that's going to need reworking to be safe for thousands of daily cyclists if Portland hopes to hit its goal of tripling the rate of bicycling in the city by 2030.

But last week, the Portland Bureau of Transportation put the brakes on the street's remake, bumping back the deadline from June to September to choose a new design. Longtime residents have fought the city's plan to widen North Williams' bike lane, saying it's too much change too quickly.

That's because the city's plan to overhaul North Williams is not just a crucial test case of its ambitious bike plan—it's also one more concrete change in a neighborhood that's in the midst of a demographic upheaval.

In 2000, census tracts along North Williams were 46 percent black and 30 percent white. Ten years later, they're 26 percent black and 54 percent white.

Remembered as a street where Portlanders once locked their car doors while driving through, North Williams has suddenly become home to some of the city's poshest restaurants, bars, and apartment complexes.

Bikes are a physical reminder of the change: Bike traffic has more than quadrupled the past decade, with up to 3,000 cyclists a day now pedaling through.

In just the past four years, a dozen new business catering to cyclists have opened up, including four bike frame builders, an internationally known bike building school, two repair shops, a bike bed and breakfast, and (last but not least) a bike bar. The most recent major addition to the street is ecoFLATS, an 18-unit apartment complex that demolished an auto repair shop to make way for a building that boasts bike storage for tenants, but zero parking spaces.

The city has a couple of options for redesigning North Williams.

Right now, the street has two lanes for cars, two for parking, and one for bikes. According to engineering estimates, those two travel lanes can accommodate 1,700 cars an hour—double what the street actually sees in most stretches. There's also—officially—lots of extra parking, with 721 spots along a street has an average daily need of only 287.

The city could remove one of those travel lanes or parking lanes to make more room for either a widened bike path or a concrete-separated path called a cycle track.

The original preferred option was a classic compromise: Changing a car lane into a widened bike lane, except in the busy commercial stretch between North Cook and North Skidmore. At an open house about the project in April, a cyclist-heavy crowd of citizens spoke up strongly in favor of removing a car travel lane in the commercial stretch, too, since all those customers getting in and out of cars boosts the danger of "doorings."

But the delay in the project isn't really about the transportation stats. Among longtime residents, there's talk the city's transportation plan will push change too far.

"I've seen the street change a lot, I've seen the community change a whole lot," says Jerrell Waddell, a pastor at Life Change Christian Center who has been involved there for 16 years. "Portland wants to increase bicycle traffic and I think the bike community is forcing that on the community at large. I feel like this particular project is having an impact on gentrification."

Waddell opposes taking away car or parking lanes on North Williams, saying it will hinder Sunday commutes for his congregation, most of whom drive.

North Williams already has a harsh history of top-down change. Many of the street's still-vacant lots are scars of the hotly protested Emanuel Hospital expansion plan in the 1960s. Blocks of African American homes and businesses were razed before the hospital ran out of money.

"The history in that neighborhood is development that has been totally oblivious to the local neighbors," says Gary Marschke, vice chairman of the North/Northeast Business Association and a supporter of the redesign. "The result is an inherent distrust of new projects."

Citing controversy and need for greater public communication, the transportation officials announced last week they would slow down and meet with more community members.

"There are both technical and community issues to be resolved," Project Manager Ellen Vanderslice said in a statement.

Business owners along the stretch seem to agree with the city's plan to put the brakes on swift change.

"We should wait," says Pix Patisserie owner Cheryl Wakerhauser, who has been on North Williams for six years. "Things are changing so fast, I feel like we're going to spend a bunch of money to make these changes and then the street might be completely different in a few years."

Correction: This article originally described ecoFLATS as a 72-unit complex. It is actually 18 units.

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