Reimagining Lombard
Author: Heather Quinn-Bork
Posted: September 26, 2013

Students and neighbors create a safe, pleasing and even enviable plan for busy North Lombard Street.

VACANT LOTS overgrown with weeds, and business fronts splattered with sloppy graffiti dot a two-mile stretch of North Lombard Street between Chautauqua and Martin Luther King boulevards. The four-lane corridor in north Portland feels more like an unsightly obstacle than a neighborhood hub. Urban and regional planning graduate students set out to change this by working with the surrounding community on the plan Lombard Re-Imagined.

"The street really acts as a barrier between neighborhoods because it's such a highway. When you're walking on Lombard, you don't feel like you're anywhere," says Kathryn Doherty-Chapman, project manager for the student team, which named themselves Swift Planning Group after the historic Swift Meatpacking Company that once owned the entire area.

Swift Planning Group was formed as part of the Master of Urban and Regional Planning workshop in the College of Urban and Public Affairs. Each year, student teams take on projects that help local communities with planning issues. Most of the projects are based on proposals from community members—somewhere between 40 to 60 submitted each year. This past year, in addition to Lombard, student teams took on five other community needs, including plans for housing in downtown Oregon City and anti-displacement in Portland's Cully Neighborhood. Each project serves as the culminating work for earning a master's degree.

"This is not a theoretical project," says Ethan Seltzer, workshop adviser and professor of urban studies and planning. "This is an actual project with real people who have things at stake. We want our students to experience the implications of interacting in that environment."

THE SWIFT Planning Group received its proposal from the Kenton Neighborhood Association. Lombard Street runs through Kenton as well as the Piedmont and Arbor Lodge neighborhoods. In addition to Doherty-Chapman, the team consisted of Rebecca Hamilton, Brian Hurley, Jodi Jacobson-Swartfager, Zef Wagner, and Jake Warr. All earned their MURP degrees in June.

The students reached out to area residents through walking tours and surveys, by attending neighborhood association meetings and by setting up a website and an associated Facebook page to organize their efforts. They were amazed at the enthusiastic response they received.

"We were expecting to have to create some sort of interest in this street. And personally, I went into this project thinking the attitude was going to be, 'Oh, it's just a highway, nothing can be done,'" says Warr, technical lead for the Swifts. "But it turned out that there was all this untapped energy."

Based on the community's responses, the team identified safety as the most pressing problem, since the street is part of the fast-moving Highway 30 bypass. First on the students' recommendation list was street crossing improvements for walkers and bicycles. They suggested adding flashing beacons, curb extensions, seven new crosswalks, and making substantial changes to the I-5 crossing. Students also urged completing the gaps in the bicycle network surrounding Lombard, adding more bike racks, and improving TriMet bus stops and shelters.

Many of the recommendations from the team centered on "place making"—showcasing the history, character, and identity of the area by adding greenery, benches, murals, decorative lighting, and gateway signs to the neighborhoods.

Every recommendation in the students' final report, which is linked to their website, includes programs and agencies that can help. However, the team's ultimate suggestion—reconfiguring North Lombard from four lanes to three, including a middle turning lane—will require coordination with the Federal Highway Administration.

For the Swifts, the Lombard Re-Imagined project underscored what attracted them to planning in the first place: the desire to create actual change within real communities. To ensure that their vision has an afterlife, the team set up a Friends of Lombard organization, and community members were eager to participate. The new grassroots group will be responsible for seeing that the project's recommendations make it to the street. 

Heather Quinn-Bork is a PSU creative writing student and a graduate assistant in the Office of University Communications.

Two decades of urban improvements 

Graduate students in the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program have taken on assignments such as Lombard Re-Imagined as final projects for 20 years. In that time, the team projects have earned seven national awards. In 2012, Portland Mercado—a Latino community market planned for the Mt. Scott-Arleta Neighborhood—won student awards from the American Institute of Certified Planners and the American Planning Association Oregon Chapter. But more impressively, the Portland Mercado project recently received an $800,000 grant from the federal Office of Community Services to actually build the market, which is now slated to open in summer 2014.

Caption middle right photo: Jake Warr and Kathryn Doherty-Chapman were part of a team of graduate students asked by the Kenton Neighborhood Association to create a new vision for the four-lane North Lombard Street.