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Friday, October 25, 2013

Uses for Unbuilt Streets

I am very excited to follow a program that will create community uses within the right of way of unimproved streets.  The program was recently announced by the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT): http://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/63612.

According to PBOT:
The concept came from Mayor Hales, who thought the City should try to empower communities to help determine what their neighborhoods look like by creating something useful and attractive. Many homeowners on unimproved streets have said that expensive paving projects are not what they prefer, but lower cost alternatives such as placing benches or gardens in the public right of way would still require a City permit. 
These sorts of uses raise some challenging issues, and yet they may also provide very fertile ground for experimentation that could ultimately shape the long-term treatment of other streets that have already been "fully improved."

While the clear premise is that any street selected currently carries traffic well enough in its existing condition, and there are no short-term plans to pave and widen the street, the first question that arises is whether the full right-of-way may become necessary for street purposes in the future.  Creating community uses there now could compromise the ability to reclaim the property for transportation uses later.

Even if there are explicit statements and written agreements that community uses are only temporary or conditional, the constituencies that grows around community spaces can become quite powerful.  I once worked for an Assistant DOT Commissioner elsewhere who was fond of saying, "Once you let them plant a tree, you'll never get it back." He had some recognition of the interests of communities that had unkempt vacant City land that was designated as the site of some future street, but he was generally antipathetic toward anything that might compromise his agency's ability to build roads.

Not long after, New York City proposed building more affordable housing by recapturing City-owned property that was used as community gardens.  There were many issues and questions about the motives of City officials, the role of developers, affordability of the new construction, etc., yet it was very clear that there was an intense resistance among the community groups to surrendering the sites where they had toiled together to grow not only vegetables but also a stronger sense of community.  As it considers the criteria for selecting its pilot projects, PBOT should give careful consideration at each location to the possible long-term needs by different modes for street space in the future.

Another question that the City lawyers in Portland are likely already considering is liability.  Immunity, responsibility, and exposure are generally well understood when the City designs and constructs streets, or inspects and accepts them from developers.  More novel uses installed on less developed property carry more risk, and a typical municipal policy is to require community groups to carry their own insurance as a condition for their permit.  For many community groups, there can be an issue of not only cost, but also the challenge of incorporating a formal legal entity.  I suspect insurance requirements are the main obstacle community groups currently encounter with Portland's current permit requirements.

My perspective is that community groups that are interested in improving unused street space are almost always prepared to make substantive personal investments on improvements that benefit a broader public.  Requiring them to purchase insurance diminishes the resources they can invest in the public realm, if it does not discourage them from doing it at all.  Coverage by the City, on the other hand, is far more cost effective, since it can spread the risk across all the sites.  By spending a modest increment on the additional liability, the City can leverage a much greater private investment in these improvements to its public spaces.

The part I am most interested to follow is the innovativeness that may emerge.  By encouraging each local community to develop its own improvements, original treatments are likely to emerge.  It is entirely possible that some of the results could inspire attentive planners and engineers at PBOT to develop new concepts for redesigning fully paved streets with similar characteristics that were built during the same era as the unimproved streets.  I can already imagine that the pilot projects could be effective demonstrations for a rebalancing between roadway width and green infrastructure.  Even if there ultimately are no transferable concepts that grow out of this effort, the program will be a success if the individual blocks can create something as simple as a small, scraggly garden where they enjoy working and talking with their neighbors.

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