Hot Time in the Old Town 

Street Closures Could Be Spark for Much Larger Nightlife Zone

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OLD TOWN'S controversial street closures won't be denied.

Yes, the weekly barricading of NW 3rd and other adjacent streets off Burnside has business owners exasperated and social service providers indignant. And, yes, it tends to make one of the city's most nightclub-heavy stretches feel fairly eerie—more a besotted evacuation zone than a go-to entertainment hub.

But not only are commissioners eager to extend the closures for another year this Wednesday, October 23—staffers in the city's neighborhoods office are actually hoping they'll be the seed for a much larger nightlife zone sprawling over the rest of Old Town, Chinatown, and a portion of downtown.

Portland, it appears, is itching to emulate cities like Austin and Vancouver, BC, in creating a designated "entertainment district." That could mean a vast expansion of the city's current zone (though not necessarily the street closures). It also potentially means thousands in new yearly fees for business owners.

And city staffers are openly discussing policies that would push revelers away from NW 3rd in hopes of creating a buffer between boisterous bar activity and the transitional and clean-and-sober housing that dots the neighborhood.

Those revelations come in a report written last month by Theresa Marchetti, a liquor license specialist with the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement. It's being aired widely around city hall and has even drawn public plaudits from Commissioner Amanda Fritz.

"The current [street closure] area is not ideal for nightlife venues as they share storefronts with social service providers and vulnerable residential populations," Marchetti writes. She notes: "Evaluation of the whole of Old Town Chinatown is needed to assess whether the venues on 3rd Avenue are appropriate."

But the report comes with several questions still looming over the current project, first rolled out in December and extended twice at the urging of Mayor Charlie Hales.

The street closures are extremely popular with cops, who say they've helped reduce crime almost 30 percent in the bar-heavy district. And they've won the qualified support of the Old Town Chinatown Community Association.

But no one's sure how the city plans to keep paying for the $4,000 monthly cleaning bill for the closures. Most of the strategies Hales' office has mulled have proven impractical, staffers say.

And the policy continues to result in at least a dozen tows a week—and 643 total from December of last year through October 12—a minimum $188 charge for unaware drivers.

As for Marchetti's various recommendations, it's too early to say what will come of them. They could be adopted in a forthcoming "Old Town Chinatown Action Plan" being created by the Portland Development Commission, taken up by another city agency, or ignored. But they're the best insight yet into Portland's plans for resolving persistent hand-wringing over downtown nightlife.

Under the proposal, businesses in the newly huge entertainment district (see map) would apply for new "entertainment licenses" separate from their liquor license. The measure would give additional leverage to city officials concerned that concentrated pockets of bars create crime and safety issues.

"Simply enforcing [noise and liquor complaints] is reactive at best, and at worst a resource drain," Marchetti writes. "Entertainment licensing, a strategy in use in many other cities, would be a proactive strategy."

But the permits could also be costly. Milwaukee's entertainment licenses, explicitly called out as a success in the report, cost from $150 to $2,000 annually, depending on a venue's capacity. Marchetti says she doesn't know if a similar fee structure would be part of a policy here.

Her report also recommends establishing a "Traditional Chinese Night Market" in Old Town, starting a loan program to help soundproof aging buildings, and creating a targeted prosecution zone in the entertainment district to combat low-level crime.

Most sweepingly, though, Marchetti repeatedly suggests the nightclubs along NW 3rd may have to go—or at least dramatically change their ways.

That sentiment will find agreement in social services providers like Central City Concern, which has argued the nightclubs cast Old Town as a place for debauchery. Of course, it's not likely to win over NW 3rd's established bar owners, who feel the street closures have been pushed on them, and have largely refused to take an active role in the project.

Hales has acknowledged the predicament he's both inherited and championed.

"We didn't have a community organization come to us and say, 'We want to have a street festival,'" he said at a hearing earlier this month."We backed into this. We're in effect trying to grow, in a Petri dish, the civic structure we need to keep this going."

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