The dimly lit portal curves slightly, obscuring the light at the far end. Inside, a cycling display of graffiti resists repeated efforts to keep its walls clean and clear.
To its neighborhood, though, this tight tunnel is an indispensible link. Beneath five busy lanes on Southwest Naito Parkway and beside the swirling maze of ramps at the west end of the Ross Island Bridge, it provides the only safe place to cross Naito for hundreds of yards in either direction.
It's also a symbol of the transportation challenges facing residents of the Lair Hill section of South Portland, a creation of decades of successive transportation projects meant to move people quickly through on their way to someplace else.
And its future may depend on choices made about yet another big transportation plan the region is considering: the Southwest Corridor Plan.
A history of division
First came the streetcars in the 19th century, connecting what was then an overwhelmingly Italian and Jewish neighborhood with a growing downtown to its north. In the 20th century, roadway project after roadway project pushed through Lair Hill: the Ross Island Bridge in 1926, Oregon Highway 99W (of which Naito Parkway is a remnant), Barbur Boulevard in the 1930s, and interstates 5 and 405 in the 1960s.
Each roadway project, along with a massive urban renewal project in the 1960s, further carved up the neighborhood and destroyed blocks of homes and businesses. Little thought was given to the needs of the residents who stayed: how they'd get to former neighbors' houses, or to a favorite corner grocery.
The pedestrian tunnel under Naito was one consolation.
But today, many pedestrians – particularly at night – avoid its darkness in favor of a quick, dangerous dash across those busy lanes of Naito traffic.
"I don't do tunnels," said Richard Varner, co-owner of the nearby Lair Hill Bistro, citing the tunnel's darkness and frequent transient population.
His wife and co-owner, Cheryl Riegler, said she appreciates the tunnel, "when it's kept up."
"But when it's not, it's just sketchy," she said, adding that their daughter wouldn't use it when she was growing up.
Riegler and Varner are ready to see the tunnel be replaced by safer ways to cross Naito. So, they say, are many people in the neighborhood.
Choices and impacts
The Southwest Corridor Plan could be a vehicle for some of the change the neighborhood wants.
Although the plan is about much more than high capacity transit, its steering committee must make some key choices about where light rail or bus rapid transit could go through South Portland. Should it go along Naito or Barbur? Or should it use a tunnel beneath Marquam Hill? In addition to implications for the high capacity transit, each choice will directly affect development and getting around on a more localized scale in Lair Hill.
A Naito alignment through Lair Hill could provide the impetus to resize the old highway and reconnect long-interrupted neighborhood streets and sidewalks, as has been envisioned in several local plans over the decades. It might also allow for changes at the confusing Ross Island bridgehead, potentially opening up new land for development there while making the area less confusing for people driving, walking and bicycling.
A Barbur alignment through Lair Hill might be cheaper and more direct from downtown Portland. On the other hand, it might not directly support a transformation on Naito, and some worry it would cause greater disruption to neighborhood character.
A transit tunnel, meanwhile, might lead to less permanent change in Lair Hill, and would provide direct high capacity transit access to employees on Marquam Hill. But it probably wouldn't bring any changes Lair Hill residents want, either.
Varner and Riegler, who moved to the neighborhood in 1990 and opened Lair Hill Bistro in 1997, enjoy the neighborhood's quiet feel but also hope high capacity transit could help more people realize there is actually a neighborhood there.
"What our neighborhood is trying to say is that we've been bypassed forever," Reigler said.
She and Varner prefer a Naito alignment so that it can also support redevelopment of some vacant or underutilized lands along its route, and attract new services like a grocery store – something the neighborhood currently lacks.
Longtime neighborhood resident and active neighborhood association member Jim Gardner also expresses cautious optimism for a Naito alignment for high capacity transit, if it can reconnect area streets and make the road safer to cross on the surface. But he worries that crosswalks will be spaced too far apart. "We don't want another wall," he said.
Walls' dual functions
Over the years, roadways and freeways created walls separating Lair Hill from the river and from downtown.
But as longtime resident Jim Gardner notes, walls have dual effects: they hold you in, but they also hold other things out. The neighborhood embodies a paradox, Gardner said, with an air of quiet "backwater" that belies its proximity to the region's urban core.
Redevelopment and dense infill hasn't penetrated here as deeply as in other parts of Portland. The streets are still lined with small 19th-century cottages and bungalows, many of them carefully restored. Lair Hill is a National Historic District, meaning new development must fit strict guidelines. Because of those guidelines, most newer development in the neighborhood, including the brick offices of Walsh Construction just down the street from Lair Hill Bistro, is harder to spot.
Many in the neighborhood strongly feel that any new development must not disrupt the qualities that make South Portland so distinctive. "If it can maintain the integrity of the neighborhood, that's important to us," Reigler said.
A greater balance
Of course, the Southwest Corridor steering committee must ultimately balance neighborhood interests with what makes the most sense for transit in terms of cost, feasibility and ridership projections across a lengthy and complex corridor stretching from Portland to Tualatin.
It's something Gardner – a former Metro councilor himself – keenly understands. Some feel that South Portland is a necessary if reluctant pass-through for high capacity transit intended to serve commuters from other areas of the region, he said.
"The transit aspect of the project doesn't do South Portland much good," he said, noting that the area is already well served by bus lines.
But Gardner, like Varner, Reigler and others, hopes that the Southwest Corridor could help fulfill other neighborhood desires – like making it safer to walk and bicycle, reconnecting streets and supporting development that fits with the neighborhood.
The Southwest Corridor steering committee could narrow high capacity transit alignment options in South Portland as soon as July.
For now, that tight tunnel beneath Naito continues to perform its duty for those who know it's there, walking briskly around the curve to get back to daylight.
Learn more about the Southwest Corridor Plan