THE PORTLAND BUSINESS ALLIANCE (PBA) has had the dream for years: flushing panhandlers out of the city’s commercial core.
Since at least 2013—the year former Mayor Charlie Hales took office—the city’s chamber of commerce has circulated a map among officials highlighting downtown blocks it wants the city to label as off-limits for daytime sitting.
The PBA’s fantasy [PDF] makes a fortress of the Pioneer Place Mall, preventing homeless people from perching on nearly any sidewalk in the area from 7 am to 9 pm. It ropes in sections adjacent to Old Town, too, and includes other blocks here and there.
The organization’s argued that all tools need to be used to curb dangerous-feeling activity, but the sales pitch hasn’t had much effect.
Under city policy, the Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) can prevent people from sitting on downtown sidewalks only when pedestrian safety concerns or design issues justify such a move. So while in 2014 the PBA requested the addition of nearly 90 new block faces with this no-sit designation, PBOT wound up approving just eight.
This year, though, Christmas comes early for the PBA. With the city’s homeless population growing and Columbia Sportswear’s Tim Boyle threatening to pull out of downtown if thefts and unsettling interactions with its denizens aren’t curbed, Mayor Ted Wheeler’s not leaving the calls up to PBOT.
After consulting business leaders, Wheeler recently directed the police bureau to ask PBOT to add eight new block faces to the no-sit list. Officials say such a move is allowed under city law—absent PBOT’s usual analysis— though it’s not officially laid out anywhere in policy. The block faces include two near the Safeway on Southwest 10th, three near the downtown Galleria, and—surprise!—two near the Columbia store on Southwest Broadway.
We’ve seen something like this before. In 2013, Hales opted to battle a protest encampment outside City Hall by designating the area a no-sit zone during the day. Hales was dealing with city employees. Wheeler’s responding to business interests.
The mayor has had an earful from those interests in recent weeks. Boyle’s not the only downtown business owner railing against an environment some argue is unsafe, though his descriptions of frequent car break-ins and on-street death threats in an Oregonian op-ed clearly held sway. Wheeler also held a closed-door meeting with roughly 75 PBA members last week, bringing in officials from the county, police bureau, and district attorney’s office to weigh in.
On Tuesday, the mayor even made a trip to Seattle, in part to discuss livability issues with officials at Amazon, Vulcan, and Nordstrom, according to Cox.
The concerns Wheeler’s hearing are not much ado about nothing. Homelessness is a huge, ugly, and growing problem with troubling offshoots.
But let’s also remember that merely pushing these issues out of sight—long a staple of the PBA’s pitch—isn’t a strategy for solving them. It’s a way to forget.