The much-debated "entertainment zone" clustered around NW 3rd and Couch may be getting an upgrade.

The zone would expand to cover all of Old Town Chinatown and even reach into Downtown Portland, under a new proposal by the city's Office for Neighborhood Involvement, largely absent the weekend street closures that mark the area now. Not only that, but business owners would have to obtain special "entertainment licenses" under the proposal, and city officials would consider partnering with the prosecutors for stepped up enforcement in the expanded district.

The recommendations come in a report [pdf] that's circulated through city hall since last month. It was written by ONI Liquor Licensing Specialist Theresa Marchetti, who earlier this year was part of a Portland delegation that flew to Austin on the taxpayer dime (no word how much it cost, yet) to study that city's vaunted entertainment districts. Marchetti also researched policies in Vancouver, BC, San Jose, Milwaukee and the Tampa Bay area.

The report says street closures in the current target area—a swath of NW 3rd and adjacent streets in the heart of Old Town—are probably too myopic to serve Portland in the longterm. Marchetti recommends expanding a designated "Entertainment District" for blocks in every direction. Here's what that zone might look like:


In Austin, Marchetti notes, "the Entertainment District designation does not only encompass the areas where bars are congregated, but incorporates a larger vision for where Austin anticipates and encourages entertainment to grow. ... Portland would do well to emulate Austin's broad and longterm vision."

There are a lot more recommendations. Marchetti suggests the city might set up a low-interest loan program for bars that want to dampen sound in their aged building, and might zone specific blocks for targeted activities. And she suggests establishing a "Traditional Chinese Night Market" in Old Town.

"In order to achieve a positive Entertainment District that attracts diverse populations," Marchetti notes, "nightlife must be dense enough to attract a critical mass."

The report—lauded by Commissioner Amanda Fritz at a hearing on the Old Town street closures yesterday—comes as city council is preparing to expand those closures for another year. At Wednesday's hearing on the matter, commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman were absent. But it seemed clear from comments by Fritz, Commissioner Steve Novick, and the effort's champion, Mayor Charlie Hales, that votes exist to keep it going.

That's great for cops, who say crime's down nearly 30 percent during the street closures. And those with a stake in the neighborhood have warmed to the weekly barricades. The Old Town Chinatown Community Association voted earlier this month to stand behind a year-long extension.

Indeed, most of the people who spoke at yesterday's hearing were supportive—a change from better-attended hearings on the street closures, where testimony was largely opposed.

But there are still large questions and upset parties. Many of the owners of the closure area's six bar/restaurants feel business is being hurt. And the folks who live in the neighborhood—many of them residents of transitional housing—don't like the bar/club noise, period, or that the closures seem to legitimize activity they see as disrespectful.

Others feel the focus on entertainment mars public perception of a neighborhood that's got a less-than-stellar reputation to begin with.

"Unfortunately, the media attention recently on Right 2 Dream Too, in addition to the street closures, is creating a dismal perception," said Gloria Lee, a member of the community association with long ties to the neighborhood.

And Marchetti's report suggests the closures may not be the best long-term strategy for combatting the booze-fueled chaos that can envelop Old Town on weekends.

"Given the current make-up of 3rd Ave, the Street Closure is an effective crowd management tool," she writes. "However it may not be supported in the long term, and the City should have the flexibility to discontinue it if necessary.'

Interestingly, Marchetti says the city is better off not offering amenities—such as so-called "European-style urinals"—with its closures. The city spends about $4,000 a month on those and other services, contracted through the Portland Business Alliance.

"Those resources," Marchetti says, "may be better spent on some of the other recommendations here."