FOR ALMOST two years, Old Town slumped and scowled under the weight of Portland City Hall-mandated barricades.
Friday and Saturday street closures, conceived initially to help cops overwhelmed by weekend bar traffic, chafed at business owners and residents alike. Calls from Mayor Charlie Hales that property owners should pay into a special fund to improve this roped-off "entertainment district" went ignored, as did the city's announcement that Old Town's bars could apply to put tables out in the streets.
It looked, until very recently, like another failed effort to help revitalize the huddled mass of Portland's skid row, that bastion of unrealized commercial promise in the city center.
Now that's all changed. Old Town businesses just came out in favor of a year-long extension of the street closures. More important: For the first time, they're considering taxing themselves to help pay for major improvements.
"The conversation has started," says Dan Lenzen, part owner of the Dixie Tavern and a co-founder of the Old Town Hospitality Group, a collective of more than 30 bars and restaurants. "It's time to pull all the parties together and get a cohesive direction."
For years, Portland has used so-called local improvement districts (LIDs) to fund transportation fixes throughout the city. Under the arrangement, a neighborhood can elect to impose new fees on itself, with those fees then going toward a specific project or projects.
The city also has two "enhanced services districts" where property owners pay into a fund for security patrols, trash cleanup, and more. The massive downtown "Clean and Safe" district, established in 1988, is the largest of these. The other one's in the Lloyd District.
With growing agreement that businesses should help spur a more-welcoming Old Town, a similar notion could be on the table.
"It's one in a long list of ideas," says Howard Weiner, owner of Cal Skate Skateboards and chairman of the Old Town Chinatown Community Association. "Whether those ideas are palatable remains to be seen."
That the conversation is happening at all is striking. Last year, Hales repeatedly encouraged Old Town businesses to pursue an "enhanced services district" in the neighborhood that could help pay for street closures, and create a "festival" atmosphere. No one budged.
But lately, the area has had success with experimentation. Earlier this month, the group Better Block PDX obtained permits and the blessing of local institutions to convert a lane of traffic on NW/SW 3rd into a bike-dedicated thoroughfare. The project also created a pedestrian plaza near Ankeny Alley and installed new stop signs and crosswalks.
It wasn't perfect, but the experiment looked a lot more like the Old Town that Weiner, Lenzen, and others envision.
"It's the only area I know of in downtown that doesn't have traffic softening," Weiner says. "How do we get to that sweet spot? And how do we pay for it?"
The people at Better Block, a volunteer group made up of transportation advocates, say that's simple. Businesses need to do it themselves—at least at the beginning.
"The more we can do without city money, the more we build goodwill," says Boris Kaganovich, a TriMet planning engineer who helped lead the Better Block effort in Old Town this month. Kaganovich has been quietly pushing a new fee district among businesses. "They don't want to be left with the entire bill."
Old Town's newfound comity was on display on Wednesday, October 15, at a hearing over whether to extend the closures another year. Heretofore resistant businesses were happy to keep the project, they said, so long as the mayor's willing to tinker with how it's configured.
Because there's one thing everyone in Old Town still agrees on. The closures, in their current form, need to end.
"This has gone from management of a liability to an opportunity," a buoyed Hales said at the hearing. "This could be really great."