THE TOW TRUCKS creep in after 10 pm.
Let loose among the cars sitting on the wrong Old Town street on the wrong day of the week, they are lupine and sinister—a roving, predatory pack. Winches howl, and before long the trucks have picked NW 3rd clean while police and revelers look on.
Welcome to what might be Portland's newest "entertainment district." Right now, it's a little eerie.
Every Friday and Saturday night since late December, the city has shut down NW 3rd from Everett to Burnside, along with adjacent streets, during peak bar times. The goal was to free up space around Old Town's clustered bars and clubs from 10 pm to 3 am, eliminating potential mayhem from drunk and/or careless drivers and giving cops a better vantage point for patrolling the oft-rowdy multitudes.
The trial run ended last weekend and, from a safety standpoint, appears to have been a success—or at least not a failure. As the Mercury first reported last week, the Portland Police Bureau says officers fielded more calls during the project than the same period last year, yet dealt with about 30 percent less crime.
Mayor Charlie Hales is leaning toward keeping the program, a spokesman said, but there's work to be done if the closures continue.
Business tenants say the district has so far failed to strike the welcoming tone found in similar areas in other cities. Well-known bar districts like Bourbon Street in New Orleans or Memphis' Beale Street are frequently brought up when discussing what Old Town could aspire to be. Right now, it's nowhere close.
Most people still use sidewalks—even crosswalks—during the closures, while mostly deserted NW 3rd is left to watchful officers. Figure in the towing—which sources say peaked in February and tapered off with the addition of more-visible signage—and some business owners fear the street closures are more intimidating than celebratory.
"Looking back, we wish we could have approached this idea from all angles," Mike Reed, general manager of the Boiler Room, wrote to city officials in March, "combining efforts to make the entertainment district a true destination, utilizing city marketing tools, resources, and funding to beautify the neighborhood in conjunction with blocking off the streets."
Among the improvements Reed suggested: allowing food carts into the closure zone and expanding bar seating out into the street.
"We're hoping the city approves at least a six-month extended 'pilot' period, if not a year," the letter said.
"Growing pains," said Jeff Plew, a vice president of Concept Entertainment Group, which owns Dixie Tavern. "If we're going to continue, we need to make it more like you'd see in other cities—more approachable."
Hales was at least willing to get a look of his own. The mayor, his hair less-coiffed than usual, spent three hours or so walking the district on Saturday, March 30.
"I'm here to see the pluses and minuses," said Hales, who nodded to comparisons of the district to Bourbon Street. "I appreciate the fact that we tried something. Now it's time to evaluate it."
Along with business concerns and safety boons, Hales should look at cost. The Portland Bureau of Transportation spent close to $30,000 closing streets, putting up signage, and providing parking enforcement during the three-month pilot period, says spokesman Dan Anderson. Those continuing expenses might not jibe with the mayor's back-to-basics refrain, with its emphasis on street paving.
"My first impression is that it's pretty lively," Hales said Saturday night. "And it's pretty safe."
No one's disputing that. Pedicab drivers, bar employees, cops, and residents of the district's social-services housing all told the Mercury the closures have made for a less-chaotic Old Town.
"Shit, I was down there one night where I saw a car run right into Dirty [nightclub]," said Kyle Kautz, manager of PDX Pedicab.
But he sees a trade-off. Bikes aren't allowed on the closed roads unless they're being walked, so pedicabs—accustomed to making a few quick bucks from bar-goers wishing to be whisked to a spot a block or two away—are missing out, Kautz said.
"It's definitely safer," he said. "But does it hurt business? A little bit."
Neighbors also are cautiously supportive.
"There's been mild improvement in noise and kind of general chaos," says Stacy Kean of Union Gospel Mission. "Without the cars and the sidewalks being overcrowded there's less conflict."
Said one guy smoking outside an apartment building on NW Couch last Saturday: "Nobody's dying. Nobody's getting run over."
Not that the strife that follows inebriated masses has been eliminated. Cops documented 11 assaults in the district during the pilot period—down from 25 over the same period last year. During a visit to the area last weekend, the Mercury noted two fights that drew cops—one of them outside the zone, across Burnside.
There also have been two robberies during the pilot, with liquor law violations and drunk driving arrests also up slightly. But larcenies, dramatically, fell by more than half—27 this year, down from 58 in 2012. Vandalism decreased, too.
Police admit none of this is necessarily because of the road closures.
"Given the very small time periods examined and the lack [of] a control area, it is impossible to definitively attribute changes in the entertainment zone to road closures, improved police surveillance, or any other cause," according to a bureau report obtained by the Mercury. "Furthermore, it is possible that variations related to the weather or time of year would render this model less effective (during busy summer months for instance)."
Cops aren't the only ones looking toward summer. Most people the Mercury spoke to nodded to the city's warmer months—when the district sees the bulk of its business and problems—wondering whether an entertainment zone might blossom then. In the short term, though, businesses and residents want to know how Hales is going to come down on the district.
"We all think it's a good idea, if they want to continue, not to stop and start. So that's the biggest issue," says Plew. "You're already training people."
—The Mercury's Denis C. Theriault contributed to this report. Full disclosure: Author Dirk VanderHart is a KJ at the Boiler Room.