Mayor Charlie Hales seems as surprised as anyone that crime-stopping efforts in gin-and-tonic-happy Old Town are suddenly popular.
"This has gone from management of a liability to an opportunity," Hales said earlier this afternoon, at a hearing on the weekly street closures that have raised hackles in Old Town/Chinatown since they began in December 2012. "This could be really great."
As first reported by the Mercury, Hales bucked the will of bar and restaurant owners by insisting the weekend closures of Old Town's "entertainment district"—currently NW 3rd from Everett to Burnside, and NW Davis and Couch from 2nd to 4th—continue as a formal matter of city law.
City council today took its first, and probably only, substantive look at extending the street closures for another year, and commissioners were mostly glowing as they announced their unanimity behind the measure.
But the closures have always earned council approval. What is new is how supportive Old Town businesses are of the notion. Just a few months ago, word that Hales wanted to extend the closures for a third time might have drawn street-fee-caliber outrage from Old Town's businesses, neighbors and social services. Knocks against the program range from reduced business, to the eerie atmosphere the closures cause, to a concern from neighbors that the program tacitly approves irresponsible drinking.
Pretty much the only consistent positive to come out of the project has been a reduction of crime—though serious crimes have ticked up in the entertainment district recently, led by an increase in aggravated assaults.
Today though? The ordinance Hales put forward was lauded by the Old Town Chinatown Community Association (which has recommended, with two other groups, the closures end), by business owners, and even by a couple guys who show up on weekends to make sure cops are behaving themselves.
The thing is: That support isn't because people have warmed to the closure. It's because they can sense its demise is near—at least in the current form.
Embedded in the new ordinance is an explicit commitment by the city to experimenting with the barricades and tow-trucks that proliferate in Old Town on weekends. That might mean less streets are closed, or that the barricades only come in during certain seasons and busy holidays. It could mean some streets—like NW 3rd—allow a lane of traffic to trickle through. Or that closures begin an hour later.
No one really knows what it means, just that it probably is going to change much-loathed situation that's in place right now.
"My thoughts are, over the next year we’ll … shift the focus from the mayor’s office to the community," said Howard Weiner, owner of Cal Skate Skateboards and chair of the Old Town Chinatown Community Association. "Try different ways of closing the streets, try to get it right. Businesses can prosper, people can be safe."
"We support the passage because it calls for immediate testing," said JE Isaac, a principle with Portland PR firm CFM Strategic Communications, representing Old Town business owners. "Unless action is taken now, we fear that we may lose more of these businesses, which could cause a downward spiral."
All that hope is predicated on real movement—from the mayor's office and others.
Happily, there's momentum. A "pop-up plaza," temporary protected bike lane and other alterations to NW/SW 3rd that were showcased in an experiment two weeks ago offered a sense of what's possible for the neighborhood.
That experiment has been largely viewed as a success, with Commissioner Steve Novick gushing today: "It should have been obvious to me that the proper use of that space is ping-pong tables." There are no signs that the configuration will become permanent, though. Its organizer, the volunteer group Better Block PDX, hopes to do another, extended test run.
And it's not just the management of a string of woebegone blocks that might benefit from this discussion. As Commissioner Amanda Fritz made clear, what happens in Old Town may end up being a template for discussions about how we use public space in other parts of the city (she name-checked the Hawthorne District).
"We do need to have a broader conversation with all our neighborhoods," she said.
Commissioner Nick Fish, meanwhile, repeatedly voiced concerns about reduced sales for bars and restaurants due to the closures. He got Hales to agree to a formal report on the project's progress in six month, complete with a survey of businesses.
"If all you hear form us in six months is a report," said Hales, nodding to the optimism for experimentation in the room, "that wont be a success."