PSU, nonprofit hope to turn parking spots into public-use areas
The block of food carts at Southwest Fourth Avenue, near Portland State University, is swarmed each day at noon.
Hungry students, staff and nearby office workers line up for everything from Thai to Turkish, soup to tamales, bento to bahn mi.
For those looking to spend $8 or less on a quick-and-hearty lunch, nothing could be more perfect.
There’s just one problem: There’s nowhere to sit and eat.
“When we leave (campus) for lunch, we don’t want to go back, because we have an hour break,” says Michael Coon, a graduate student at PSU’s School of Architecture. “The food carts are always an option, but there’s nowhere to stay and eat.”
That may soon change.
Coon is part of a small team at PSU hoping to create the city’s first public “Street Seats” — a program of the Portland Bureau of Transportation that allows for businesses or nonprofits to turn on-street parking into a public-use area.
The city already has 11 private Street Seats locations that function as outdoor seating areas for restaurants, but people must be customers at those establishments in order to use the space.
If the Fourth Avenue Street Seats application is approved, it would be public space for anyone to use, night or day, food cart customers or not. It would be run by a new nonprofit under formation, the South of Market EcoDistrict.
One of five pilot ecodistricts throughout the city, the SoMa district includes the 92-acre region bordered by Market Street to the north, Southwest Harbor Way Drive to the east, and I-405 to the south and west.
If PBOT approves the Fourth Avenue “parklet” proposal, it would remove two parking spots in front of the food cart pod between Southwest College and Hall streets.
The parklet would consist of a 32-foot wooden deck with a slanted polycarbonate roof, housing a variety of seating arrangements for up to 20 people, rain or shine.
The structure could be moved between locations.
And in true Portland style, it would be designed and built by students, with sustainable materials, plants for stormwater runoff, and partnerships with local businesses.
“Most people think of this district as a place to pass through; we want it to be a place to stay,” says B.D. Wortham-Galvin, a professor in the School of Architecture who worked on the project this past fall in a course called “Contingent Urbanism.”
Coon, a graduate student in the class, helped to bring the proposal forward and would help with the design and construction this fall if PBOT approves the Street Seats application in June.
The SoMa application is the first one in three years to answer the true spirit of the city’s call for Street Seats, says Sarah Figliozzi, a PBOT program specialist.
“What we don’t want to see is decking and picnic tables,” Figliozzi says. “We try to explain it’s an option to not extend cafe seating and just have public seating, so anyone can sit down and read a newspaper” without having to buy food at any one business to enjoy the space.
The city prioritized public designs over those to be used just during business hours.
More seats on horizon
Since 2012, eight Street Seats locations have popped up across the city, all of them (except one, from a design competition) serving as outdoor seating for restaurants.
Last year there were 17 applications; this year there were 10. That’s likely because there were more stringent requirements, including being able to show letters of support from their surrounding neighbors.
The city’s existing locations include The Analog Cafe, 720 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; Bartini/Urban Fondue, 2108-2118 N.W. Glisan St.; Enzo’s Caffe Italiano, 2529 N.E. Alberta St.; Mississippi Pizza, 3552 N. Mississippi Ave.; Oven & Shaker, 1134 N.W. Everett St.; The Portland Bottle Shop, 7960 S.E. 13th Ave.; and the Songbird Cafe, 6839 S.E. Belmont St.
There’s also the Street Seats winner of the 2013 Portland Design Week competition. It first had been installed outside of the Center for Architecture, 403 N.W. 11th Ave., for eight weeks and now will be donated to a school somewhere in the city.
Called LIFT, it is a wavy birchwood bench that contains its own grass garden, designed by Bob Trempe, an architecture professor from Philadelphia. The project cost $6,000 to build, which came from local design firms and other donors.
The SoMa EcoDistrict will have a lot of responsibility being in charge of the parklet. They’ll add the parklet to their liability insurance and must make arrangements to clean and maintain it.
They’ll design and build the space themselves, and will have to pay the city the lost metered revenue for the two spaces that will be removed.
Business owners in the district have been notified of the proposal. Todd Holden, owner of the Portland Center Liquor Store three blocks away at Southwest First Avenue and Lincoln Street, says his shop won’t be affected because he offers free parking, a fact he proudly advertises.
“(Availability of) parking is definitly a significant portion of why the business comes to us,” he says.
Another business owner who refused to be named voiced frustration at the proposal to eliminate parking spots. Business has been lost to the food carts, the owner says, and “it’s not fair.”
Figliozzi says the city tries to strike a balance between the public’s needs. “The Bureau of Transportation recognizes the public right of way has values for more than just moving people in vehicles, or the storage of vehicles,” she says. “We certainly recognize there has to be a balance.”
Liz Hormann, the EcoDistrict project coordinator, says her steering committee has just begun to raise funds and seek in-kind donations for about $15,000, which would include the estimated $2,144 per 20 feet in lost meter revenue to the city.
“We can leverage a real public space here,” Hormann says, noting that its visibility from cars and people on Fourth Avenue makes it the perfect pilot location.
Besides the SoMa parklet, the city also received applications for nine other Street Seats locations earlier this month.
They include: Bamboo Izakaya, 1409 N.E. Alberta St.; Bonfire Lounge, 2821 S.E. Stark St.; Brix Tavern, 1338 N.W. Hoyt St.; Dick’s Kitchen Belmont, 3312 S.E. Belmont St.; Lompoc Brewing, 1620 N.W. 23rd Ave.; McMenamins - Barley Mill, 1629 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; McMenamins - Greater Trumps, 1520 S.E. 37th Ave.; Ristorante Roma, 622 S.W. 12th Ave.; and Torta-Landia, 4144 S.E. 60th Ave.
The winner or winners of the 2014 Portland Design Week competition will be included in this year’s installations, pending their own public outreach and design development.
Idea borrowed from Bay Area
The inspiration for Street Seats came from the installation of parklets in San Francisco as part of their Pavement to Parks program.
There, the city’s businesses have been creating community and adding whimsy to their public spaces by installing grass, benches and potted plants in on-street parking spaces.
As of February 2013 the city of San Francisco had 38 parklets, and is now working through a wait-list of applications.
A nonprofit called Umbrella approached the city in 2008, wanting PBOT to introduce the parklets, based on San Francisco’s success. They sought funding from PBOT but did not receive it.
Four years later, PBOT came up with its own Street Seats rules and guidelines, with the big difference being that table service is allowed here.
“In Portland you can drink your beer outside in the sun; in San Francisco they are required to be signed as public,” Figliozzi says. “We are trying to strike that balance.”