At a hearing before the Metro Council last October, Meesa Long brought councilors a map of sidewalks in Southeast Portland, marked by red lines that crisscross all over except in a few patches, most visibly a rectangle at the bottom of the map.
“That rectangle is Brentwood-Darlington,” Long, who sits on the board of the Brentwood-Darlington Neighborhood Association, told the Metro Council. “So as you can see, we are lacking in infrastructure.”
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.
Long was one of several residents who testified that day, urging the Metro Council to support Brentwood-Darlington’s application for a grant from regional flexible funds, a collection of federal transportation dollars that are allocated by the Metro Council and Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation every few years.
She led a powerful neighborhood campaign that amassed more than a thousand petition signatures, ultimately helping secure a $2.2 million flexible fund allocation that the Portland Bureau of Transportation will match with $3.1 million from fees assessed on new development.
“We’ve never seen a thousand-person handwritten petition in my 15 years in this agency,” said Greg Raisman, traffic safety program specialist at PBOT, the agency responsible for developing the project, writing the grant application, and shepherding it through the grant process at Metro.
After the application made it to the list of projects up for consideration, residents (including many schoolchildren) sent nearly 300 postcards to Metro describing their unsafe treks to schools and asking for more sidewalks.
The state of the streets
Brentwood-Darlington residents have longed for sidewalks since at least the early 1990s. The neighborhood has only one street with continuous sidewalks on both sides, according to PBOT. Two major streets that run east-west, Southeast Duke and Flavel streets, have disconnected sidewalks that some residents describe as a “slalom course.”
Mike Rowell, assistant principal at Lane Middle School, was horrified to learn a student was struck by a car last year at the intersection of Flavel Street and 60th Avenue.
People have to walk through muddy puddles on rainy days or along the streets and bike lanes to avoid those puddles.
And that's a problem. Duke and Flavel are the recommended "safe routes" to the neighborhood's four schools.
Daily, children have close calls with drivers who disregard school speed limits, echoes Magaly Ruiz, a bilingual education assistant at Woodmere Elementary School.
“Last month a car almost hit one of our girls who volunteers as a crossing guard,”Ruiz said. “Now she doesn’t want to do that job anymore.”
Rowell added many of his families are struggling financially.
"So to watch my students come to school with wet shoes -- knowing that those are their only shoes -- because they have a journey to school that involves walking through water is heartbreaking to me," Rowell said. "I think it’s an assault on their basic dignity to have to live like that, because there aren’t amenities that most communities take for granted."
Parents underscore that concern. “Sometimes my little boy says he doesn’t want to go to school because his shoes are wet,” said Rosa Maria Torres, whose son is in first grade at Woodmere Elementary School.
The neighborhood side streets can be just as dangerous, because those don't have any sidewalks either.
The flexible fund grant will help ease some of these daily challenges by completing Duke’s and Flavel’s disconnected sidewalks.
Marked crosswalks will be added in a few intersections, including one along 82nd Avenue, a highway where many people die or are injured in crashes.
These improved crosswalks are an element of the project that fits Portland’s Vision Zero action plan, which aspires to have streets safe enough to eliminate all traffic-related deaths and injuries.
The project will also create safer, low-stress walking and biking routes along two neighborhood streets, Knapp and Ogden, running parallel to Duke and Flavel.
Knapp/Ogden will get speed bumps, speed limits, “neighborhood greenway” street signs and striping, which planners say will slow down traffic on a street frequently used by people walking.
"This [project] is a game-changer for our underserved neighborhood," Long said, while sitting in her living room. "[Knapp/Ogden] is a really nice little street. A lot of people use it to get to Brentwood Park, to get to Lane Middle School, to get to Woodmere and Whitman elementary schools."
A "forgotten" neighborhood
Residents say Brentwood-Darlington hasn't seen any major transportation infrastructure investments in about 30 years. It was annexed into Portland during the same period as East Portland, but hasn't benefited from recent regional and local investments in East Portland because Brentwood-Darlington is not considered a part of it.
"Now that we are seeing the type of groundswell engagement in leadership [in Brentwood-Darlington], we’re starting to be able to work with the community in a stronger fashion to start to serve here," Raisman said.
"So this grant is such an important moment in this neighborhood’s history," he continued, "because it’s the first large-scale public investment in their safety and comfort from a transportation perspective since they’ve been annexed.
"And it’s also such a shot in the arm to a community that has felt very unheard and disempowered for generations to feel like if they come to the table and get involved, they are going to make a difference for their community," Raisman added.
Voices from residents
“This [grant] says for the neighborhood that you matter, we care, and your safety is important," said resident Chelsea Powers, who no longer walks her son through the neighborhood after discovering how difficult it is to push a stroller down unpaved streets.
“We’re doing better to take care of each other,” said Jamica Woodard, who has five small school children. “For us to survive, we gotta do better for each other. That’s good that the Metro Council sees that this neighborhood is important enough to create safety for us.”
“This [grant] should empower children,” said resident Gail Kiely, “that if you speak up and make your case in a calm and logical manner, government will listen and respond appropriately. Everyone is so divided. I am hoping this is a message of hope and progress."
"The Knapp/Ogden Greenway was the first genesis of the project," said Zef Wagner, transportation planner at PBOT.
The streets had already been identified in the 2030 Portland Bike Plan, adopted by the city council in 2010, as a desired east-west connection. So the grant was an opportunity for the city to pursue those connections, Wagner said.
"But as soon as we went to the community, they really pushed us in the right direction, saying that they wanted that [greenway], but they also saw these sidewalk gaps on Duke and Flavel as priorities," Wagner said.
"Those haven’t been specifically called out in our plans," he said, "but it’s a good example of us wanting to be responsive to community. There were clearly sidewalk gaps and there were gaps in our planning efforts.”
"If it’s already a wealthy neighborhood that has great sidewalk coverage, and they were asking for an equivalent investment, it would be a lot harder for us [to say yes]," Wagner said.
Wagner emphasizes the community's ask also matched up with the city's equity goals. Not every neighborhood, he says, would get the same response from the city.
Building on success
"In some ways the ‘ahas’ are really about relationship-building," Raisman said. "How and where to engage us, and for us to understand how and where to engage with the community is such an important bridge that was built in a monumental way here."
It took a lot of work behind the scenes to build that monumental community effort. Resident Meesa Long carved out time to go to different committee meetings to elevate the project for consideration.
“Committees in this city are so powerful – I had no idea,” said Long, who’s now a member of PBOT’s budget advisory committee.
Long and Lesley McKinley, chair of the Brentwood-Darlington Neighborhood Association, each oversaw private Facebook groups where they told people when to go online to comment in support of the project or when to show up for hearings.
They got neighborhood schools and residents to fill out postcards. Others took photos and videos of neighborhood streets and unpaved sidewalks filled with muddy puddles to shore up their testimony.
"Lesley and I joke that we are just a bunch of moms... who care about our kids and pushed forward a $5 million grant," Long said.
Long likens the neighborhood effort to “The Little Engine That Could.”
“It’s kind of surreal still,” she said. “I can’t believe we got it.”
The neighborhood’s needs don’t stop at Duke, Flavel, Knapp and Ogden. Long is working on other projects to improve more unpaved neighborhood streets with the help of engineering students from Portland State University.
Long’s goal is to find grants to make those projects happen. "I don’t do anything without trying to get some tangible results at the end," she said.
The federal funds to build the Brentwood-Darlington projects are expected to be available in 2019.