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Portland - April 2004

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Portland — Ours is a Streetcar Named Development

Portland Tribune, April 30, 2004

Supporters see potential for growth in plans for loop on Portland’s east side


The Portland Streetcar is trying to grow up. Since its 2001 opening, the streetcar has kept a low profile along its 2.4-mile path, not very big and not very fast, a little brother to light rail and an even littler brother to the big Amtrak trains. Now the streetcar is getting ambitious. It’s already building its way east to RiverPlace, and plans are in the works for a line to the South Waterfront area and Lake Oswego.

But its boldest plan calls for a loop across the Broadway Bridge, through the Lloyd District, south through the central east side to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and back across the Willamette River to RiverPlace, where it will join the existing line. Portland Streetcar officials call the proposal the Ringstrasse Concept, named for the grand boulevard encircling the city center of Vienna, Austria.

What originally was known as a people “circulator” could turn into a grown-up commuter service, spur new development in the Lloyd District and create stronger ties between downtown Portland and the inner east side. The loop could cost $80 million. Final routes, price tags and methods of payment are still unclear, although money from the federal government and from an urban renewal district probably would both play a part. “Everybody will get the opportunity to participate,” said Rick Gustafson, director of the Portland Streetcar. “If it’s going to be done, it will be done with a lot of different people.”

Some money already may be on the way. U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said the transportation bill passed recently by the U.S. House included $1.5 million to plan for expansion of the streetcar to the east side. The bill has not passed the Senate, though, and President Bush has threatened to veto it unless Congress cuts the price tag. “Pork?” Blumenauer said. “I’m sorry, but this is how transportation money should be spent, to leverage jobs and economic development and help people.”

In nearly three years of operations, the Portland Streetcar has averaged about 5,700 boardings a day, more than the 5,000 or so expected. And like light rail, Gustafson said, it’s been surprisingly popular on weekends. But in more practical terms, the streetcar has proved to be a lure to new businesses and new residential development in the Pearl District and West End. Gustafson said the streetcar already passes through $1 billion in new development in the Pearl District and West End. The developments there probably would have taken place without the streetcar, said Homer Williams of Williams and Dame Development. But it’s been a significant selling point.

“People look at it as an enhancement to their urban living,” Williams said. “It’s a very important piece of the question, more so than anybody thought. It’s been a very pleasant surprise. This is one of the things that differentiates Portland from other cities.”

The city, Williams said, has lost more than 700,000 square feet in office space in the economic downturn, but buildings in the new Brewery Blocks have added that much, its occupants lured in part by the streetcar. Robert Ball, a developer in the Pearl District, agreed. “If the streetcar went away we would still see downtown urban living,” Ball said. “But it’s a valuable piece. It adds to the overall picture and the increasing demands for products in the downtown core area.”   

East side takes a look
The RiverPlace extension, six-tenths of a mile, is set to open next March. Negotiations for the extension to Southwest Gibbs Street and the planned South Waterfront development, another six-tenths of a mile south, should be done by September and could open sometime in 2006, Gustafson said.

Cost estimates for that extension run about $22 million, but Gustafson hopes to see that number shrink. Most of the money would go to road construction, utility work and two new cars. The goal, he said, is to operate trains every 10 minutes.

The east-side loop, though, excites supporters the most. They want to use the streetcar as a tool to attract development, much like TriMet has used light rail to lure new development to the west side.

The proposed route would take the streetcar across the Broadway Bridge to Northeast Weidler Street, south on Northeast Seventh Avenue, west on Northeast Oregon Street and south to OMSI on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Trains heading north through the east side would use Grand Avenue. From OMSI, the train would cut back across the Willamette River to RiverPlace on a new rail bridge being planned for the Milwaukie light-rail line.

The city hopes the line would mean new development — retail, office and residential — in the area called Lloyd Crossing, which is bounded by Northeast Seventh Avenue, Broadway, Oregon Street and Grand Avenue. A task force is studying possibilities for the area, Gustafson said. “East side has great potential,” he said. “There’s enormous support for it. There’s a lot of very strong interest in the streetcar.”

A financing plan hasn’t been worked out, but one source of money could be a local improvement district. On the west-side streetcar line, local businesses formed such a district and raised $9.6 million of the $56.9 million startup costs, about 17 percent. Costs were apportioned based on the size of the business and its proximity to the line.

An east-side local improvement district hasn’t been proposed, so business owners know they’ll wind up paying something but haven’t seen any numbers, said Peter Stark, president of the Central Eastside Industrial Council. In informal discussions, board members seem excited about the streetcar but are insistent that it follow the MLK-Grand Avenue alignment, the neighborhood’s main retail corridor.

“If they move it east, you’re blowing out all the industrial businesses,” said Michael Bolliger, owner of the insurance company Bolliger & Sons at the east end of the Morrison Bridge. “It would be a big, big issue for us.”

Anything farther east, Stark agreed, could interfere with the character of a neighborhood that has more than 1,100 businesses and 17,000 jobs.

Area’s wary of change
Stark said council board members see the streetcar attracting new retail and restaurants to MLK and Grand Avenue, offering amenities to employees and generally strengthening the district’s business climate. Stark said the area is wary of quick change. “We believe moving slower and allowing our district to change at a slower pace is absolutely appropriate,” he said, “especially in today’s economic climate.”

Running the streetcar south to Lake Oswego, about a 4-mile trip, would offer its own complications. Many of the residential buildings south of downtown Portland in Johns Landing were built next to the tracks. And farther south, in Dunthorpe, the tracks also pass extremely close to the homes in one of the region’s most affluent neighborhoods.

Gustafson is especially cautious, he said, choosing his words carefully, because the neighborhood also is home to many high-powered lawyers. “This isn’t just a passing deal,” Gustafson said. “It’s very serious to the value of their investment in their homes. It’s the whole livability issue, and it can’t be treated lightly. We need to work something out.”

Two-thirds of the streetcar’s $2.4 million annual operating budget comes from TriMet, with the rest coming from fares, advertising and the new parking meters in the River District. The city paid $906,000 for this year.

The RiverPlace extension is expected to boost the city’s subsidy by $200,000, and the subsidy probably will grow as the streetcar expands. The streetcar is operated by a private, nonprofit company, Portland Streetcar Inc., but was built with public and private money.



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