NORTHWEST 3RD AVENUE, your liberation appears nigh.
Weekend street closures in nightclub-heavy Old Town have bedeviled businesses, cheered cops, and made a mint for towing companies since late 2012 ["Hot Time in the Old Town," News, Oct 23, 2013]. But as Portland City Council prepares to vote, once again, on extending the project next month, there's more neighborhood unity than ever around the polarizing closures.
The people of Old Town/Chinatown want them gone.
A stakeholder group convened earlier this year by Mayor Charlie Hales' office to study the policy has finally recommended it be killed—if not completely, then at least in its current form.
And Old Town's bar and restaurant owners have banded together like never before in the face of the closures, which they say have cut sales by 20 percent and made some once-viable businesses into money losers. A new coalition of more than 30 liquor-licensed storefronts in the area sent a three-page letter to the mayor's office this month, complaining the policy makes the neighborhood "less attractive and accessible to the public."
"It is not a sustainable situation for the health of our businesses and the neighborhood," said the letter from the months-old Old Town Hospitality Group, "and something must be done immediately."
Even the Old Town Chinatown Community Association, which gave its blessing last year to a one-year extension of the closures, now says the ordinance should be allowed to lapse, as scheduled, next month.
"We're doing more harm than good," says Howard Weiner, owner of Cal Skate Skateboards and chairman of the association, referring to the barricades' effect on businesses. "That's what we wanted to avoid."
Passed under then-Mayor Sam Adams, the closures cordon off Old Town's so-called "Entertainment District"—NW 3rd from Everett to Burnside, and NW Davis and Couch from 2nd to 4th—during the crush of bar traffic on Fridays and Saturdays.
The closures have meant reliable business for tow-truck operators, who swoop in each weekend to relieve inattentive drivers of their illegally parked cars. They also often make one of the city's busiest nightlife districts seem fairly desolate, with little of the "street carnival" atmosphere Hales repeatedly touted last year.
"This is known as the downtown prison camp because that's the way it looks," says Dan Lenzen, co-owner of Dixie Tavern at NW 3rd and Couch.
At the same time, the closures are credited with helping reduce crime in the area by around 30 percent on weekend nights, according to a report Portland police shared with Hales' office in August. Cops say the empty streets give them a better view of potential mayhem, and easier access to problems. (Even so, serious crimes actually increased slightly during closures in the first seven months of 2014, compared to last year, according to the police bureau.)
No one wants that overall progress in crime fighting to end, but Weiner and others complain the policy makes a still-beleaguered Old Town—always touchy about its reputation—seem unwelcoming. And since Hales' office has signaled it doesn't want to scrap the closures entirely, business owners (and the mayor's specially convened task force) have proposed a new arrangement.
Their plan—billed as temporary, until permanent fixes can be made—opens up NW Davis during closure periods, and keeps traffic trickling down a single lane of NW 3rd. They recommend starting the closures later, at 11 pm instead of 10 pm, and using them only during hectic summer nights and certain holidays. Also in the proposal: food carts and more street seating in the neighborhood's parking strips.
Bar and restaurant owners, meanwhile, are putting together a set of "best practices" meant to guide establishments with liquor licenses.
It's all an "excellent step," says Chad Stover, a project manager in Hales' office overseeing the street closures. But Stover says the mayor's office hasn't decided exactly how it will respond to the recommendations. And at least one facet common to all of them—that the ordinance controlling all of this die in favor of a less formal policy—seems unlikely.
"It's probably a little soon to sunset entirely," says Stover, "but this is the best progress we've seen."