A tale of two committees
By Allan Classen
Political divisions may abound elsewhere, but it is muted in the neighborhood associations covered by the NW Examiner. Meetings are generally friendly, motions typically pass without controversy and differences of opinion seldom harden into lasting rivalries.
The Northwest District Association, however, has become a house divided. Its two most active committees—the Planning Committee and the Transportation Committee—consistently disagree when topics touch the domains of both bodies.
Third-year NWDA President Ciaran Connelly considered the situation such a minefield that he created a special task force to work around it. It had to do with parking structures, an issue that has pitted neighbor against neighbor and residents against businesses for a large share of the association’s 51-year history.
The topic came out of hibernation because business interests have advocated that a share of local parking meter revenues be reserved for projects expanding the parking supply.
The issue obviously falls into the realm of the Transportation Committee. But it is also a land-use matter. The 2003 Northwest District Plan set out four sites in which underlying zoning restrictions were modified to accommodate commercial parking structures in residential areas.
Instead of assigning the parking structure issue to either the Transportation or the Planning Committee, or both, Connelly decided an all-new task force—with himself as chair—was needed.
The reason, he told his board, was that the two committees are “not having joint conversations” but instead are “talking past each other.”
Connelly got involved in NWDA through the Transportation Committee and favors measures to get people out of their cars. If anyone could see an advantage in moving this issue to a body controlled by a policy ally, it would seem to have been Phil Selinger, who chaired the Transportation Committee off and on for seven years until early 2020.
But Selinger was not on board with Connelly’s approach. Selinger said the two committees were in communication through his attendance at Planning Committee meetings as a liaison.
“We’re not talking past each other,” Selinger said at the September board meeting when the task force was proposed.
Selinger later told his committee that Connelly “had the notion that our two committees don’t get along with each other,” a conclusion he disputed.
He was not the only one questioning Connelly’s move. Board member Noel Johnson argued that the ad hoc committee was unnecessary and would be inefficient, inviting confusion as to which subset of the organization held the rudder.
While no one spoke for the motion creating the task force, the board approved it and appointed two members from each committee. The task force met once to begin reviewing history and setting its course, but nothing of substance has been reported on its progress.
Meanwhile, the rift between the Transportation and Planning committees grows.
The Transportation Committee produced a letter praising the controversial Northwest In Motion plan involving street diverters, bike lanes and pedestrian enhancements in Northwest Portland. The Planning Committee acknowledged that NW In Motion is essentially a transportation project on which it should defer.
The Planning Committee did ask the Transportation Committee to tone down its rosy assessment of the city program, but none of its suggestions made it into a preliminary letter advising Portland Bureau of Transportation staff. When the topic came before the board of directors, Connelly refused to entertain amendments, saying “some things are not conducive to conditions.”
Connelly later apologized for “mishandling” board member Steve Pinger’s attempt to offer amendments.
The board will take another look at the issue at its July 20 meeting, which comes three days before the City Council addresses Northwest In Motion (Thursday, July 23, 2 p.m.)
The board may seek middle ground, but it is being pulled in opposite directions. The Transportation Committee supports NWIM unanimously while the Planning Committee opposes it, also unanimously. To accentuate the either-or stakes, PBOT staff has advised that the council intends to vote up or down on the whole plan without amendments.
If the committees talk past each other, it may be because they do not think alike. The Transportation Committee is populated with people who see auto dependency as antithetical to good cities. Some are or have been professionals in fields promoting cycling, transit and multi-modal transportation.
Planning Committee members, on the other hand, have sometimes been called NIMBYs for opposing development that might diminish nearby homes. The committee takes the complaints of neighbors more seriously and is more likely than the Transportation Committee to see itself as giving voice to the views of its constituents.
The disparate approaches mix like oil and water. It starts with an inability to agree on how to evaluate a project.
Transportation Committee members see measures to carve back auto infrastructure, such as converting auto lanes into bikeways or turning parking lanes into sidewalk cafes, as hard-won victories against the dominant auto culture in a conflict fated to go their way in the long run.
“As a retired public transit planner, I have a fairly progressive view for how we should aspire to get around in our dense urban community,” Selinger wrote in an email exchange. “In fact, I believe it would be a good thing if most of us could enjoy our city without even owning a car.
“I will concede that the NWDA Transportation Committee membership tends to share most of my progressive views. It would seem, however, that much of the Planning Committee does not share that same perspective as to how our local transportation infrastructure might best evolve. I suspect we will end up agreeing to disagree.”
The little-used bike paths on Northwest Everett and 16th streets have been a Rosetta Stone for decoding the discordant assumptions of the dueling committees. Planning Committee people say the lanes thwart large numbers of drivers to aid a minuscule number of cyclists. Transportation Committee members say the rider counts are greater than it seems and that usage will inevitably increase when additional bike lanes connect to them.
Planning Committee Chair Greg Theisen thinks traffic diverters or other street modifications should be tested against predetermined benchmarks and removed if they fail to meet goals. NWIM includes a bike lane on Northwest Flanders, which to him would warrant removal of the Everett bike lane just a block away.
But PBOT Traffic Planner Zef Wagner has contended that the Everett bike lane should not be removed until the Flanders lane has been in place long enough to see how the parallel bike routes function. Even then, he promised no ridership level that would warrant removal.
“This is a pattern, a lack of a predictable process that concerns me,” Theisen said. “How do we measure results?”
And who should the neighborhood association listen to?
The Planning Committee heard representatives of Fruit & Flower Child Care Center and NorthWest Place senior housing, two institutions on Northwest 24th Avenue that believe they are harmed by a rush to discourage commuters from cutting through the district.
“We are not illegitimate cut-through traffic,” said Fruit & Flower Operations Manager Naomi Chavira, adding that parents often have no alternatives to driving when delivering their children on their way to work.
Selinger said PBOT “bent over backward” to contact affected neighbors, and the Transportation Committee has been discussing this issue at open meetings for more than 10 years. It is time to move ahead.
Can NWDA come together on a single position this month?
Transportation Committee co-Chair Danelle Peterson said temporary signage now restricting Northwest 24th Avenue to local traffic as stirring most of the dissent.
“We probably agree on 96 percent of the plan already,” Peterson said. “I think the main point of contention is the greenways [bikeways].”
Connelly agrees: “We are probably far more in alignment on Northwest In Motion than we are far apart.”
But a 4,000-word analysis of Northwest In Motion by Larry Kojaku, who recently joined the Transportation Committee, suggests otherwise.
Kojaku touched on nearly every aspect of the program and identified contradictions with city policies.
“Further discussion is merited,” he understated.
More candidly, he told the Examiner, “The Transportation Committee is a vehicle for PBOT. That is bizarre.”
The board must decide which committee best speaks for the organization. All but four of its 15 seats are occupied by people who serve on one or the other of the contending committees. Will those 11 act as advocates for their own committee when they cast their board votes?
Planning Committee member Chuck Duffy has given that issue considerable thought. While he had previously advised fellow members against interfering with the work of the Transportation Committee, that does not mean he will hold his peace when the topic comes before the board.
“I have a role on the board where I represent the neighborhood,” he said.