Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Islands could calm Sunset sidewalk 'storm'

The City has decided to build a much needed sidewalk along a two-block stretch on Sunset Boulevard in our Hillsdale neighborhood.

The problem is that many homeowners on the stretch object to a sidewalk in front of their houses.

I’ve been following the story for nearly a year and have come to know its painful and, at times, absurd twists and turns.

Some of the homeowners say that a sidewalk will ruin the landscaping they have done...in the public right-of-way. It no doubt would, but isn’t it for the owners — the public — to decide how to best use public land?

At a January 31 meeting devoted to the issue (and well reported on by the Oregonian's Rebecca Koffman HERE), I mustered the nerve to suggest that the right-of-way-encroaching homeowners pay the City (that’s the rest of us) for all the years of use. The money could be used to build a better solution to our Sunset sidewalk needs.

Hold that thought for...seven short paragraphs.

Some of the homeowners say that the sidewalk will be “within feet” of their bedroom windows. Without getting specific about the actual number of feet, they seem to suggest pedestrians are would-be voyeurs, or worse, and will intrude on privacy.

One man said that his 92-year-old mother’s bedroom window would be exposed to, one would assume, dangerous, peeping pedestrians.

To these people I say, “That’s why God created Venetian blinds and deadbolt locks.” Some might add, “...and Smith and Wesson 45s.”

As is often the case in such matters, there’s the appeal based on seniority of another kind. “I’ve lived here 25 years.” “I’ve lived here 48 years.” To which some poor soul is forced to say, “I’ve only lived here eight months but....”

Well, I’ve lived here 25 years (which is apropos of precisely nothing) and, regardless, I say it’s time for pedestrian safety on Sunset Boulevard.

One group actually advocated maintaining the “rustic” nature of the neighborhood. This neighborhood hasn’t been “rustic” for well on 70 years. And even then it was more “rural” than “rustic.” More dairy barn than log cabin.

Sorry, seniority and nostalgia for frontier life doesn’t give homeowners the right to put on hold sidewalks for increasing numbers of pedestrians, including school children.

It was in the midst of this wailing and gnashing of teeth at the recent “Sunset sidewalk information gathering meeting” that I could no longer contain myself. With about 40 neighbors and four city officials in the Library meeting room, I blurted out, “So no one wants a sidewalk in their front yard. I’ve heard of NIMBYs — not in my BACK yard — but you folks are a new breed: NIMFYS....” No one laughed.

Sad to say, this isn’t a laughing matter.

And then I shared a moment of inspiration, or lunacy, depending on your point of view. “If none of you wants a sidewalk in front of your house, let’s solve the problem by splitting the difference. Let’s put it down the middle of the street!”

No one said anything but they were probably thinking, “The old coot has really gone off the rails this time....”

Since that meeting, the idea of a sidewalk down the middle of the street has stayed with me. I’m certain there all kinds of problems with it, but I’ve been moved to translate my words into picture (below). Look for yourself. The rendering is of the stretch between Pendleton and Dewitt and shown in the photo above.

A similar island (with shade trees) would go from SW Pendleton to SW 18th Drive.

Any sidewalk solution also must address other needs beyond grannie’s privacy and long-lost rusticity. The solution must include an uphill bike lane, storm water retention, sidewalk permeability, parking and motorist/pedestrian sight-lines.

My less-than-masterful sketch offers no parking, particularly for library staff (Yes, that distant building, is our library.) My answer: get the homeowners who have been using public right-of-way for decades to pony up “rent” for the past and the future. The city should use the money to buy off-street parking space. In particular, purchase the house and lot across from the library on Dewitt Street and turn part of the land into a modest parking lot. The addition would be adjacent to Dewitt Park, thus visually integrating the park with busy Sunset Boulevard.

Sure, folks might feel a little vulnerable walking on an island in the middle of the street, but no less so than they do now walking along an exposed, curb-less shoulder. Now all that stands between walkers and death is caution and a white fog line.

On the islands we could have bollards and trees on either side of the sidewalk.

The protesting homeowners would have to get used to having no pedestrian paths directly in front of their houses. But isn’t that what they asked for?

The presence of the two islands, their discrete flashing yellow lights and “zebra striping” would also slow down vehicular “boats” that now cruise at speed down the hill.

Finally, the islands would make Sunset Boulevard true to its name. With tree-lined pedestrian islands, Sunset Boulevard would be a true boulevard. Maybe when our rustic ancestors named the street those many years ago, they had just such a scheme in mind.

(While we are at it, let’s underground the utilities in these two Sunset “gateway” blocks. It might be contagious and spread to cleaning up wire-and-utility-pole-blighted Capitol Highway.)


  1. "As is often the case in such matters, there’s the appeal based on seniority of another kind."

    From the perspective of a young family, this gets to the heart of the problem.

    Hillsdale (and indeed most of the outer SW neighborhoods) are full of seniors (or the senior-ish: late 50s, early 60s) who are actively hostile to the infrastructure young families and newcomers need. The house prices are bad enough, mix in the lousy walkability, bikeability, and transit...the basic message, loud and clear, is: "young people stay away." And by "young" I mean "thirty- and forty-something!"

    The image, overwhelmingly, is of aging Baby Boomers clinging to a nostalgic vision of THEIR young adulthood: endless motoring through the woodsy Portland hinterland. That vision doesn't fit Portland in 2012. And this is not a recipe for a future-oriented neighborhood with prospects for growth and improvement.

    Lord knows what will happen when all those Boomers get too old to drive. Maybe THEN they'll finally want sidewalks. (Or, from my selfish viewpoint: maybe there will be a huge sell-off as they move into assisted living, finally driving down house prices in SWPDX.)

    There's a reason the hot neighborhoods for young families are places like Lentz, Alberta, and St. Johns. They aren't as convenient to downtown as Hillsdale but they offer an excellent environment for raising kids who aren't dependent on being chauffeured around in cars.

  2. Has a sort of European flair, but I'm afraid it means too many intersections to cross on foot. Keep the ideas coming though.

  3. Marilyn11:21 AM

    Rick, your creative mind never rests! Your excellent post addresses all the issues and then proposes a never-considered solution which seems unlikely, but so does every new idea.

    Hillsdale is no longer rural or even suburban, it's a part of urban Portland that happens to be woodsy, and we need sidewalks. I hope it doesn't take an injured or dead pedestrian to make the point; I have lived here for 29 years and seen some narrow escapes. We'll get underground lines, too, in this great neighborhood. Hope it all happens in my lifetime.