When she first moved to the Northeast Portland neighborhood of Cully 20 years ago, Hibiki Miyazaki immediately noticed that NE 72nd Avenue was unsafe.
“That’s a busy thoroughfare with pedestrians and drivers,” Miyazaki said during an interview in her art studio. “I noticed that there are no sidewalks. It’s pretty evident right away. Some of it is gravel and some of it is just potholes.”
Things have been improving since then – but there’s more to do, Miyazaki and others say.
Investing in streets
Every few years, Metro grants federal transportation dollars to make streets safer and help people and goods move throughout greater Portland. This spring, the Metro Council and Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation have decided how to allocate the latest $33 million in these grants, known as regional flexible funds.
In this series of stories, we're looking at communities around the region that stood up and spoke out for their needs – and exploring the impact these dollars will have.
Northeast Cully Boulevard got a facelift a few years ago with sidewalks, trees, lighting and bicycle safety improvements. Nearly half of that reconstruction project was funded with a pot of federal money known as regional flexible funds.
The Metro Council and Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation distribute that money every few years.
In addition, the city installed speed bumps on 72nd Avenue (between NE Killingsworth and Prescott) that have helped slow down traffic.
But 72nd still isn’t the street residents hope it can be.
“There’s still an ongoing issue with [lack of] sidewalks,” Miyazaki said.
That may change in the next few years with another grant from regional flexible funds.
On Feb. 2, the Metro Council approved $2.2 million to help create a two-way bike path and sidewalk along 72nd Avenue between NE Killingsworth Street and Prescott. The bikeway will continue south to Sandy Boulevard, with safer crossings at major streets along the one-mile project.
The Portland Bureau of Transportation will match Metro's grant with $2.5 million from city fees assessed on new development.
“Cully is one of the areas, like East Portland and Brentwood-Darlington, that was annexed into the city in the 80s,” said Zef Wagner, a PBOT transportation planner.
“Most of it was built with substandard roads,” Wagner continued. “Almost all of the streets don't have sidewalks.”
These substandard streets are especially problematic during the winter and in the evening.
“My dad wants to walk, but he has hip problems,” said Miyazaki. “He can't walk on those roads with all those huge, deep potholes everywhere.”
“Often times, you’ll have to walk around the puddles,” said Tony DeFalco, deputy director of Verde, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization based in Cully. “And they’re not puddles. Some of them are like small lakes. And so on a dark and rainy night, no matter how well reflected you are in the middle of the street, it’s very dangerous.”
Residents speak up
“Any time I see a questionnaire about improving 72nd Avenue, I'm all over it, because it really needs it,” said long-time resident Hibiki Miyazaki, who is pleased to learn community feedback helped elevate the 72nd Avenue project in Cully. “Wow, so it actually helps when you write in! Sometimes I’m so disillusioned and think, ‘who’s reading this?’ So that’s awesome! I’ll continue to be all over those polls.”
“I was excited to see that Cully was chosen,” said Paxton McBee, who lives around the corner of 72nd Avenue. “Even before seeing that [learning that PBOT was applying for a regional flexible fund], I was like, ‘Please do something with 72nd.’ There are no sidewalks. And so when I saw the opportunity, I was like, I definitely have to voice my opinions.”
“I feel elated,” said resident Rosy Shammasian. “I think it's very hopeful. I think it carries the message that efforts are being made, that we are being heard, which is really great. And I hope that continues. And I’d be interested in knowing how I can continue to support those efforts, what I can do.”
Verde, Hacienda Community Development Corporation, Native American Youth and Family Center, and one of the local Habitat for Humanity chapters have been working together to bring attention to Cully’s needs, ranging from housing to transportation.
They formed a partnership, known as Living Cully, to promote ways of developing Cully sustainably and efficiently.
Living Cully envisions the neighborhood growing without displacing longstanding residents. The project mobilizes local residents to play key roles in those development and advocacy projects.
(Verde has received funding from Metro’s Regional Travel Options program to help fund its transportation work in the neighborhood, as well as grants from Metro’s Nature in Neighborhoods grant program to create a new neighborhood park on the site of a former landfill.)
“We’ve been organizing walks on foot, bikes and skateboards around the Cully neighborhood parks to identify barriers to accessing these parks within the community,” shares Maria Jimenez, a program coordinator at Verde. “We’ve been doing it for three years now.”
During these walks, residents will take the time to pick up trash and remove graffiti.
These neighborhood groups played a key role in keeping 72nd Avenue on the radar of city officials, elevating the voices of local residents who have been asking for better sidewalks and bike networks.
“This project definitely goes really well with helping us achieve our equity goals because of the large Hispanic community and the fairly high Native American presence there,” Wagner said.
“And we have strong community partners, like Verde and Living Cully, that are really exciting for social justice and helping those underserved communities,” Wagner added. “We knew who to talk to and we knew they would be representing very vast groups of people in the neighborhood.”
Direct, but dangerous
DeFalco and Wagner both note 72nd Avenue is one of just a few paved streets that's continuous throughout the neighborhood, unlike most others.
The street offers important connections to transit lines, neighborhood schools, Sacajawea Park, the Columbia Corridor employment district to the north and the Roseway business district on Sandy Boulevard to the south.
But without sidewalks, people have to walk on 72nd Avenue’s narrow shoulders.
Rosy Shammasian has been living in Cully for about four years. She loves to walk, but chooses to drive because she doesn’t feel safe walking.
“On a nice summer evening, you want to take a walk, but you know it’s that time of day, when drivers are getting sun glare and visibility is already poor, or if it's raining out,” Shammasian said. “It just makes it feel that much less safe to be walking on there without having sidewalks or crosswalks.”
Shammasian’s mother looks after her one-year-old daughter.
“I want them to be able to take walks to the library taking that route, and there's a play cafe up that way,” Shammasian said. “That seems like the best route. It's also the most dangerous.”
72nd Avenue is also busy when people go to a food pantry twice a week between Killingsworth and Prescott, observes Paxton McBee, who lives around the corner.
“They’re pushing baskets and these are some of the most vulnerable people in the city in the middle of the road, trying to walk up and down 72nd and cars are whizzing in and out,” McBee said. “It's just a terrible situation, really. I mean, I've actually seen a person pushing a person in a wheelchair, pushing a cart, and cars lined up behind them, honking.”
McBee said he doesn’t feel comfortable letting his children walk to the corner store.
Seeing vulnerable adults and children walk in the middle of the street is what prompted all of these residents to write emails to the Metro Council, urging them to fund the 72nd Ave project.
Safer, and more creative
“For a big chunk of the project on 72nd Avenue in Cully, we have 30 feet of available right of way, on the west side of the street,” said Wagner. “So with that amount of space, there's enough room to build a sidewalk, to build a two-way bikeway, and still have room leftover for things like lighting and placemaking elements.”
PBOT officials will turn to local residents for those placemaking ideas, which may include planting more trees, installing benches or artwork.
The bikeway component of the project changed thanks to community feedback, Wagner said. PBOT initially proposed to create a parallel bikeway a couple of blocks to the east on 74th Avenue. But local residents, neighborhood groups, the bicycle advisory committee and other advocates recommended keeping the bikeway as direct as possible.
“This is really part of a much longer bikeway, the 70s bikeway, that goes all the way from the north edge of town to the southern city limits, down to the Springwater Trail,” Wagner said.
The bikeway will go through the Roseway neighborhood, which shares 72nd Avenue with Cully for a quarter-mile between Sandy and Prescott. In Roseway, 72nd Avenue is one of Portland’s most unique streets, with a wide, grassy, tree-lined island that almost looks like a park between the northbound and southbound lanes.
PBOT envisioned installing a pathway for biking and walking down the center of the median, thinking it would offer a good experience to bike through an open space, Wagner continued.
“The feedback we then got from the Roseway neighborhood is that people value it as open space and not having it interrupted by a path going through it,” Wagner said. Residents use the space to host block parties there and kids use it to play sports.
In addition, running a fully separated bikeway through the median would cost more money than what's available for the project.
Wagner said the agency took the feedback seriously and used it to redefine the scope of the project, which will keep bikes in the travel lanes and add elements that will calm speed and volume of traffic.
Not everyone is happy with the decision. But Wagner said it is a testament to the importance of strong neighborhood groups.
“The Cully community is really a model for our whole region and how that develops is going to be a regionally significant area in terms of folks accessing transportation and being able to get around our region,” said Metro Councilor Sam Chase, who represents the area.
“We are going to see an incredible amount of change happen in that area [and] to make sure that as we're developing and growing as a region, to be hearing from the community is incredibly valuable and important,” Chase continued.
Seeking stability amid investment
Like residents in Brentwood-Darlington, Cully residents feel like their neighborhood has been overlooked by the city since it was annexed. They welcome investments and are eager for more, but at the same time, they worry improved streets and bike paths will attract a new set of residents and displace longstanding ones, which are the most diverse in Oregon.
“It's tricky talking about all of this because Portland is facing gentrification and it's hard to talk about wanting improvements in the neighborhood and not totally change the character a place has or make all residents feel welcome,” Shammasian said.
Miyazaki worries about that, too.
“It just seems the way of the world that when it gets better, it gets nicer, all the people who are on a lower socioeconomic strata, who are the people that primarily walk and need to walk on sidewalks, get pushed out because the infrastructure gets improved,” Miyasaki said.
“They're right about having that concern,” Chase said. “That's a strong concern of mine. We need to find a way to invest in underserved communities and at the same time make sure that we are addressing the affordable housing needs in those communities and addressing the supply of affordable housing.”
See a map and detailed description of the Connected Cully project.
Residents know that the money for the new bikeway and sidewalks won’t be available for a few years; the city will next refine the project design, with federal construction dollars expected in 2019-21.
“It’s good news that we’ll get that money to improve 72nd Avenue so we can be safe,” said Teresa Raigoza, who has been living in Cully for 16 years. She primarily walks and bikes around the neighborhood with her school-aged children.
“Time flies,” said Raigoza, who looks forward to walking and biking on an improved 72nd Avenue.
Maybe then, Miyazaki might enjoy walks with her father; Shammasian’s mother and daughter walk safely to the play café; and McBee’s children walk to the corner store.