Southwest Lincoln Street in Portland is a pretty short street. It only runs from First Street to Fifth and then again as a short one block stint from approximately Broadway to Park, but getting to that small section might take some serious local knowledge. For the most part people are familiar with the First to Fourth Street section mostly due to the Urban Renewal scar from the 1950’s with its towers in the park and complete disregard for history. Lincoln Street was one of two East-West streets that were put back in a new wider format after the razing of the neighborhood, and due to that most are familiar with the street as a way of bypassing freeway ramp backups. The street was rebuilt to be rather useless then, with the only focus being on automobile traffic and how to keep them safe from running over pedestrians. Over the years crosswalks had been added, but really not much has changed. The street was useless in the sense that it was a road, not an urban street, built for cars to go four blocks before it ended in a single story office building. The good idea at the time was that the majority of people wanted this kind of development in the post-war era, and also as an excuse to clear less desirable neighborhoods as the white flight to the suburbs worried city planners. Anyway, there is a lot of documentation of South Auditorium Urban Renewal in Portland out in the world already, but something new is about to unfold for this street.
The street is dug up once again, this time for the Portland-Milwaukie MAX light rail project. The regional transit operator needed to widen the street (pdf) to accommodate the new line. With the new construction the street is getting revamped to re-include users like bicycles and street-frontage style businesses. Unfortunately, this also (apparently) required the razing of the trees that were the only saving grace of the street, but the agency has said it will plant more than double the previous amount of trees in their stead. Just add another 50 years and the trees will be back to their previous splendor. It wasn’t until they cut the trees down that I noticed how much this project will change the area. The street, which previously felt like a gated community causeway, is now an open connection from PSU to the river. It is not done yet, but when it is replanted and finished I think it will be welcomed as a reconnection of the urban fabric and the removal of the psychological barrier which holds most of this area back from being part of the larger city. The most important part of the reconstruction is the reconnection to Front Avenue (I have a hard time calling it Naito Parkway still), as the now cut-in-half superblock gets split into much more human scale pieces. Lincoln used to run from the hillside over the old rail yard and down to the river via a short bridge, and now, ironically, we are rebuilding that connection.
The importance of such a street reconstruction cannot be underestimated. The entire southern part of downtown is a snarled mess of freeway ramps, pedestrian impediments, and hostile environments created mostly by the building of I-405 and the Urban Renewal projects of the 1950’s and 60’s. If the street is redone well, we can expect new development to follow, especially since most of the buildings are now outdated and approaching retirement age. I suspect PSU will go first with its acquisition of the old Doubletree Hotel in its campus expansion plans, and the student housing construction boom taking place. Regardless, any new buildings will have to adhere to Portland’s current standards of street friendliness and help the area return to the urban place it once was. Also, there are several blocks of unbuilt land between Harbor Drive and Naito (between Lincoln and Market) that are owned by the city and ODOT that the Portland Development Commission has been eying for possible redevelopment for years. The primary reason for the disinterest so far has been the lack of connections to the parcels and the highway-esque nature of the area. With both Harrison and Lincoln streets now connected to the new South Waterfront area with new transit connections and the surrounding streets mostly getting rebuilt with pedestrian scale in mind, it is only a matter of time before the private market sees the value of these sloped blocks. As far as urban design goes, the new light rail line will stop at the mid-point of Lincoln Street which is a perfect location and catalyst for re-envisioning the area. Soon you will be able to step off the MAX and head down the existing pedestrian-only path as it carves its way North through the labyrinth of international style on its way to the original Portland street grid of downtown. If you take this path, be sure to stop by the three fountains along the way, as the Halprin designed fountains and walking paths are the only real aspects of the Urban Renewal era worth keeping.