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January 4, 2014

'The private sector understands opportunity': How Portland scored its latest biking win

By: Michael Andersen

Woman pausing on country ride watching golden hour sunset

On Monday, we shared the almost shockingly good news from Portland that a protected bike lane has helped catalyze a massive bike-friendly private development nearby. The story of this project and the way it’s helping create a “second downtown” on Portland’s east side was one of the most exciting stories we shared in yesterday’s national report on the economic benefits protected bike lanes can deliver.

After Monday’s post went up, I got an email that deserves a follow-up post of its own.

It’s from someone who hasn’t commented publicly on the project in months: former Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Tom Miller, the driving force behind the Multnomah Street redesign, who took heat at the time both from neighborhood advocates (some of whom favored a different street in the area going entirely car-free) and from anti-biking skeptics (who questioned the relevance of the $175,000 project).

Miller’s reflections on how it’s turning out are candid, interesting and persuasive (emphases mine):

I was thrilled when a traffic count analysis revealed that a road diet was technically possible. Multnomah is the spine and main street of the Lloyd District. The city has assigned great aspirations to the Lloyd for decades – most of which have gone unfulfilled for a variety of reasons. … A well-designed bikeway foremost makes the street safer for all users. It can also help develop a sense of place. It was my belief that investment in a world class bikeway could help catalyze the private sector to rethink Multnomah’s potential as a main street. In other words, not just a travel corridor, but a place. A place you want to be. 

PBOT went first and did its part. It used an embarrassingly modest sum of resources given its dire financial situation to send a signal that Multnomah can and should add more value to the community than it has historically been called upon to provide. We need more from Multnomah.  

And that’s exactly what’s happening. Multnomah is at the early stages of realizing its latent potential as both a great street and a great place. What’s really encouraging from my perspective is American Assets Trust’s master plan for the super block. American Assets Trust is a big, institutional player. They’re not a funky, bleed-green Portland-based developer. Yet their master plan embodies Portland’s values, including the world-class bikeway at its doorstep. They’re not obliged to do so, they simply think it’s a good business decision.

Ditto with news that the mall is considering a front door that welcomes people from Multnomah. Activating the mall’s southern flank would have the residual benefit of putting more foot traffic in Holladay Park. The park is a terrific community asset (great trees!) whose historic lack of foot traffic has unintentionally sheltered drug deals and other undesirable behavior.

Imagine what all the surface parking on and around Multnomah can become. When you consider the unique combination of its location, aspiration, and potential it is my belief that Multnomah can become one of America’s truly great streets.    

I’ll close on a note of caution. Multnomah’s enduring success rests not on the city but squarely on the shoulders of its adjacent property owners. A world class bikeway does not make a great street. People make great streets. A world class bikeway can make a humble contribution. But how the private sector chooses to activate Multnomah will ultimately determine whether it blossoms into one of America’s great streets.

So far we’re off to a great start. Far better than government, the private sector understands opportunity. We’re all bearing witness to that right now.

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