THE CHANGE was quick and easy.
On November 21, not long before Mayor Ted Wheeler and other officials met with business owners upset about what they say is unsafe activity downtown, a Wheeler staffer named Kyle Chisek fired off an email to employees at the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) and the Portland Police Bureau (PPB).
Chisek listed a series of block faces where Wheeler wanted to prohibit sitting from 7 am to 9 pm every day, each long targeted by the Portland Business Alliance. They included sidewalks near the Galleria on Southwest Morrison, outside the Safeway on Southwest 10th, and outside Columbia Sportswear’s flagship store on Southwest Broadway.
“PPB plans on initiating walking beats,” Chisek wrote, according to emails obtained via Oregon public records law. “Based on conversations with staff,” he added, “PBOT will install the signs tomorrow at these locations.”
And so it was. Today the blocks bear signs that read: “This sidewalk is for pedestrian movement only. Please keep clear.” Sitting there during the day is punishable by a fine of up to $250.
But if hanging those signs was easy, the fallout the mayor now faces is anything but.
While Portland’s had its current rule enabling no-sit sidewalks on the books since 2010, Wheeler’s recent expansion—and the fact that it plainly came at the behest of business owners like Columbia’s Tim Boyle—has been met with anger from activists and civil rights groups alike. It’s got a lawyer who had a hand in dismantling Portland’s former anti-sitting law crying foul, and also raises questions about whether these new no-sit zones were created in line with city policy.
“Looks like the same ol’ same ol’,” says Clayton Lance, a St. Helens-based attorney who in 2009 helped convince a judge to eviscerate a controversial “sit-lie” law prohibiting sitting and lying on downtown sidewalks between 7 am and 9 pm. “Not constitutional. Period.”
Wheeler’s decision has also spurred protest.
On Saturday afternoon, dozens of activists sat outside the Columbia store, bearing signs saying “The sidewalk is public and we will sit here,” and “Making hardship harder won’t make it go away!” and “Mayor for sale!!!”
Their presence begat yet another sign, taped to the inside of Columbia’s locked glass doors: “Store closed today, we apologize for the inconvenience.”
“Ted Wheeler and Tim Boyle made sitting on the sidewalk illegal,” said Aaron Roussell, one of those perched in the rain outside of the store. “There’s been a steady criminalization of homelessness.” The city didn’t take the protesters’ bait—police on hand explained they’d been instructed not to ticket activists for sitting. But with future protests outside of Columbia possible, the détente might not last.
In the meantime, it’s worth examining the process Wheeler used to outlaw sitting on the eight block faces.
Under Portland’s Public Sidewalk Management Plan, most downtown sidewalks have a small ribbon of cement near the curb where people are allowed to rest. But when city council enacted the plan in 2010 (shortly after its sit-lie policy had been disemboweled) it also allowed officials to prohibit sitting during the day “in response to a heightened threat to life or safety.”
In order for PBOT Director Leah Treat to make such a call, she needs to be able to show that a certain block has distinctly unsafe factors. It could be near a food cart pod, for instance, or next to MAX tracks. It could be a block where a “critical mass” of pedestrians makes sitting unsafe.
The city has been fairly restrained in making these designations. As we pointed out last week [“Hall Monitor,” News, Nov 29], the PBA called on PBOT to prohibit sitting on roughly 90 downtown block faces in 2014. The bureau wound up putting signs on just eight, and homeless advocates the Mercury spoke with at the time believed the process had been fair.
But it turns out there’s a far less meticulous method: PBOT says it will put “no sitting” signs on any downtown block at the request of police.
“They’re the public safety professionals in the city,” says bureau spokesperson John Brady. “If they come to us and say, 'We believe this threat exists and we want you to take these actions in the pedestrian use zone,’ we’ll do it.”
Asked where that’s allowed under city policy, Brady pointed to the ordinance council enacted in 2010, which says the city may prohibit sitting “only in response to a heightened threat to the life or safety of non-pedestrian users.” But Portland police don’t appear to have made a claim that the sidewalks in front of the Galleria, or Safeway, or the Columbia store amount to any such threat.
In the email chain where Wheeler’s office requested the no-sit designations, PPB Commander Robert King said only that he approved of new signs, which are being paired with foot patrols to quell business owners’ complaints. The only mention of a threat to non-pedestrian safety on the blocks, in fact, came at the urging of PBOT manager Christine Leon, who had to force the language on Wheeler’s office to make the arrangement legit.
“Is this the affirmation memo that these block faces, with the sidewalk managed in their current configuration related to the sidewalk management plan, include safety concerns as noted by PPB to non-pedestrian users?” Leon wrote. “If so, then yes; we will proceed with work orders.”
“It is,” Chisek replied. “If you need more we can do that—but yes!”
Neither the mayor’s office nor PPB responded when asked how the new no-sit blocks constituted a “heightened threat” to non-pedestrians—and how the city had coincidentally decided as much after Boyle and other business owners complained.
Wheeler, in a November 30 tweet, wrote: “It’s irresponsible to conflate homelessness and crime. We can address safety issues with common sense enforcement. We can address homelessness with compassion.”
In the face of outcry, the PBA also issued a statement earlier this week, arguing that its push for no-sit zones “is not about individuals experiencing homelessness,” and is instead “designed [to] ensure the city’s public spaces remain safe, accessible, and welcoming to everyone.”
Plenty of people disagree. Since the Mercury first highlighted the expansion, homeless advocates and civil rights groups have been monitoring the issue.
“We’re incredibly disappointed to see this type of really regressive policy proposal,” says Kimberly McCullough, policy director for the ACLU of Oregon. “Really it’s only going to cause more harm than good.”
While it remains to be seen how robust enforcement will be in the no-sit areas, McCullough believes they have the potential to ensnare vulnerable people in the justice system. The ACLU also takes issue with the broad policy of prohibiting sitting on any block at the PPB’s request, rather than identifying specific safety threats.
“If they’re not going to follow that narrow reading, then where does it stop?” McCullough says. “Under such a vague standard, it could be expanded throughout downtown and then we’re back to where we started.”
One person who doesn’t share her concern: City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees PBOT. Asked whether Saltzman supports a scenario where cops can effectively prohibit sitting on any downtown block with no explanation, his Chief of Staff Brendan Finn said yes.
“Dan supports Portland’s Sidewalk Management Plan and its code language where the Portland Police Bureau can request that PBOT designate sidewalks as Pedestrian Use Zones if PPB deems it necessary to protect visitors and residents in Portland,” Finn said.