• Better Block PDX

As we report in this week's Mercury, bar-heavy Old Town has had it with the weekend street closures the city's thrust upon it since late 2012. Three separate groups—a bar coalition, the neighborhood association, and a task force convened by the mayor—have now recommended the closures end.

But then what?

It's too early to say how the recommendations will be received by Mayor Charlie Hales and the rest of city council, but pretty much everyone agrees there's no going back to uninhibited auto access to the so-called "Entertainment District" (NW 3rd from Everett to Burnside, and NW Davis and Couch from 2nd to 4th). Because even though the barricades bring issues (reduced business, high numbers of tows, and an eerie ambiance to name a few) cops also say they've helped cut crime by something like 30 percent [pdf].

As a middle ground, the groups looking at the problem have suggested, among other things, leaving a single lane of NW Third open during peak bar periods, and providing more food and seating options in the lanes that remain closed. Those proposals bear a likeness to a "street festival" atmosphere talked up by Mayor Charlie Hales last year—one that's so far failed to materialize.

If all goes well during a trial period, Old Town stakeholders say they'll push for permanent fixes to the district: narrowed streets, more crosswalks, better bike lanes—much of which they hope will be paid for by the city. A more pleasant, more walkable Old Town/Chinatown, they say, can spur some of the positive change the neighborhood has long been seeking.

As to what that looks like in practice: We're about to get a taste. The Old Town Hospitality Group (that bar-owner coalition I've been talking about) is teaming up with local transportation activists Better Block PDX early next month to give Old Town a sense of what more-livable streets might look like.

From the morning of Friday, October 3 to the night of Sunday, October 5, Better Block plans to cut NW Third down to one lane between NW Everett Davis and SW Ash (it's currently three lanes). The group will create a bike lane protected by planters in the space, bring out seating for public use, and install at least one temporary crosswalk. All with the city's blessing, of course.

"It’s really an opportunity to reimagine what that district can look like," says Boris Kaganovich, a TriMet engineer and Better Block member who's running point on the project. More importantly it's a way to show Portlanders how better planning can improve the urban landscape in a way that's temporary enough to not draw the usual bluster about lost parking spaces and special treatment for cyclists. And, Kaganovich says, the group will be recording key intersections throughout the area all weekend, amassing evidence for how a redesign would affect traffic patterns.

If all goes well, Better Block will have ammunition to lobby for permanent changes in Old Town as the city prepares to pour redevelopment money into the area. And it will have a new model for spurring positive change in Portland as a whole.

"This isn't just Old Town," Kaganovich says. "Part of what we’re trying to come up with is a new way to do street redesign."