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Obsolete Highways Make Way for Creative New Neighborhoods

Downtown Portland used to be a pretty dreary place. As recently as the 1990s, we had lots of empty storefronts and abandoned buildings. Urban renewal expressways had literally bulldozed multiple-block zones into bleak oblivion, in order to drain traffic and economic activity out of downtown and into the suburbs.

But a few people saw opportunity in the city's old, half-abandoned buildings. Pioneering gallery owners, chefs, and businesspeople bought them on the cheap, renovated them, and incubated Portland's creative economy to bring downtown back to life.

Now Portland's population is growing again, and empty storefronts downtown are an increasingly rare commodity. Which is great — but will the next generation of young artists and startup enterprises be able to find the cheap studios and apartments they need to be able to live and work here?

It's certainly a cause for some concern, but I'm optimistic that the answer will be "yes." Where lots of prosperous cities begin to turn up their noses to newcomers and change, the fairly recent memory of Portland's derelict past has made the city's politicians and business leaders more inclined to welcome and make room for newcomers and growth.

Some of the city's biggest opportunities, right now, lie in those 1970s-era urban renewal blast zones, still empty after over forty years, that encircle downtown with unsightly highways. Long regarded as eyesores, these overbuilt roadways are becoming unsustainably expensive to maintain; yet the acres of downtown real estate that they occupy contain tremendous opportunity to replace traffic and car exhaust with environmentally-friendly, walkable urban development.

Take, for instance, Spring Street, a short 4-lane divided highway that inexplicably runs half a mile between the Old Port and the West End. Its construction in the 1970s demolished a vibrant inner-city neighborhood and earned the condemnation of the famous architect Henry Cobb (who would go on to design the landmark Payson Building of the Portland Museum of Art).

But in an event last fall and earlier this summer, designers and planners from the Portland Society of Architects got together to rethink what Spring Street could be. They imagined it as a new bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly route with abundant street trees, and as a corridor to channel new valuable new development extending west from the downtown business district (see the "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" sketch at the top of this post).

Since then, city planners and area property owners have embraced the concept of narrowing Spring Street to a normal, 2-lane city street, and freeing up adjacent land for wider sidewalks, restored cross streets, and new development. As it happens, there is money budgeted to repave Spring Street in the next couple of years, so these ideas could become a reality relatively soon (if you're curious about the details, here's a recent column I wrote about the plan in the Portland Daily Sun).

Once planners polish off designs for Spring Street, they'll turn their attention a few blocks away, on the other side of downtown, to the even larger urban renewal scar along Franklin Street.

Once envisioned as a 3/4-mile stub freeway from Back Cove to Commercial Street, its construction cleared four lanes plus a block-wide median strip across the middle of the Portland peninsula (the era's subtly racist urban planners charted the expressway's course so that it would bulldoze most of Portland's Armenian, Jewish, and Italian neighborhoods). Restoring Franklin Street's historic form as a narrow neighborhood street will make it easier for East Enders to walk downtown without dodging traffic — but it will also make partial amends to the city's immigrant communities by creating new neighborhoods and affordable housing opportunities in the same districts from which they were driven out four decades ago.

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