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A Temporary Armistice

Mayor's Plan to Solve NW Portland's "Parking Wars" Still Has Some Critics

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MAYOR SAM ADAMS strode into a cramped conference room in his office last Friday, November 30, pointed to the small map of Northwest Portland over his shoulders and made a bold declaration: After decades of acrimony between residents and businesses, he had brokered a "truce" in the neighborhood's vaunted "parking wars."

Adams' deal—essentially a reworking of a city plan first drafted in 2003—would put parking meters on streets whose occupants have long resisted them: NW 21st and 23rd. It also would require parking permits for people who live in the dense, increasingly congested area. The whole thing would be hustled in front of city council on Thursday, December 6, and go into place in as soon as 18 months.

"It's been my obligation to take on issues that have been ignored or delayed in terms of council action," Adams said. "It's time to put the parking wars to rest."

The conflict, however, may not be as settled as Adams hopes. Some residents, hoping to clear spaces in front of their homes, broadly support the plan. But businesses—remembering the pain of lost revenue amid streetcar construction—worry the meters will crush their bottom lines by keeping shoppers away.

"People don't really come down here now," says Mary Pham, owner of Hair Mechanix, on NW 21st between Northrup and Overton. "I don't really see how meters are going to make people more likely to come here."

Parking in the neighborhood—a collection of popular bars, stores, and restaurants surrounded by apartments and houses—is a hassle. Less than 10 percent of the area's 10,000-plus spots have a time limit of an hour or less. Many spots have no time limit at all.

"The status quo is not an option," said Ron Walters of the Northwest District Association, appearing alongside Adams.

But the debate comes at an especially sensitive time. Neighbors already are closely watching plans to plop down hundreds of apartments, along with retail and office space, on a large industrial plot near NW Thurman owned by the Con-way freight company.

The Con-way plan would add 1,266 housing units (plus parking spaces), nearly double the existing office space, and add roughly 150,000 square feet of retail space. The Con-way plan, however, specifically looks to discourage automobile trips to the neighborhood.

It also comes as the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) looks to shore up its leaky finances—and as Adams looks to add to his record of accomplishments with less than a month before he leaves office.

Without the meters, Adams warned, PBOT would run a deficit within the next five years. The money won't "begin to plug" a larger gap in PBOT's budget driven by unreliable gas-tax revenues, Adams admits—but every little bit helps. PBOT tells the Mercury the plan will cost $2.1 million a year to operate, with $2.27 million in startup costs—but then turn an annual profit of about $2 million. Revenue could go up if the city looks more closely at ideas like charging market-rate prices for meters ["Rough Road to Prosperity," News, Nov 28].

Thursday's 3pm hearing, which could be the first of two hearings before a vote at the end of this month, is expected to draw a large crowd.

City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who joined Adams at last week's news conference, also wants her colleagues to consider a handful of amendments—the biggest one requiring the city to phase in the plan over the next year and a half. Fritz also wants to add a nearby charter school to the district and help ease the burden of buying $60 permits for low-income residents.

Skepticism, however, runs deep. The Nob Hill Business Association, which had endorsed the 2003 plan, has since removed its support of the latest proposal. Residents also worry the new time limits, which would last only until 7 pm, won't actually make it easier to park in front of their houses.

Jeff Baldwin, owner of the former Northrup Food Center and a third-generation neighborhood resident, calls the plan elitist and thinks meters will destroy the quaint feeling of the area.

"I remember when it was a neighborhood," he says.

Another business owner­­­â€”who declined to identify himself, citing neighborhood tensions over the years—invoked the lost revenue from streetcar construction. He said his business lost $500,000 then and thinks making people pay to park will have a similar effect on his neighbors. Northwest Portland, he says, "isn't ready for meters."

Fritz apologized during Adams' press conference for the short notice—she usually prizes public rumination, but said it shouldn't be "endless."

"There's been a lot of process," she says. "It will probably be a robust hearing."

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