Make way for the Orange Line and a Milwaukian Renaissance

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Milwaukie is undergoing major changes: a new light rail line, a new 8.5-acre waterfront park, a new two-mile neighborhood greenway, two new bike trails, and increasing public and private investment in its downtown. Now, the former riverboat town and then sleepy suburb of 20,000-odd people – only six miles from downtown Portland but qualitatively much farther – appears poised to make a major entrance into metro-area society.

“I believe the opening of the Orange Line will be the beginning of a renaissance for Milwaukie’s downtown,” Wilda Parks, who served as Interim Mayor of Milwaukie earlier this year, said.

Although the largest project by far is the new MAX Orange Line, opening September 12, a number of smaller investments have already begun to make significant impacts on the city.

“Many projects have been or will soon be completed that will help shape that next period for Milwaukie,” Interim Mayor Parks said. “The Riverfront Park’s second phase is completed open and many people are enjoying it daily.”

The park was recently renovated with a new boat launch, paths and public restrooms. Phase III of the project will include a playground and open air amphitheater, encouraging residents to make use of the attractive bit of real estate.

In recent years, the demographic has been shifting, and the median age lowering. In part this is due to a new generation of families putting down roots in the area.

“I think that we’re seeing more young families moving into Milwaukie. More young people generally,” Milwaukie City Counselor Lisa Batey said.

The downtown area has been undergoing intense renewal over the past ten years, and is now home to a farmers market, numerous small shops. To them, the line will bring much needed business and will help the city grow more connected to Portland.

 “The Orange Line is expected to bring folks, who normally reside in urbanized areas of Portland and Oak Grove, to the Willamette River to enjoy a variety of recreational activities and festivals that are scheduled to take place in upcoming years,” Mitch Nieman, Assistant to the City Manager of Milwaukie, said.

“Businesses will have an opportunity to market to a new target audience: those who commute to and from Portland and those who are restricted by limited transportation options. Businesses like Zoe Outfitters will increase their market exposure because they will be able to connect urban dwellers to water recreation activities.”

And the new MAX line won’t be the only project to overhaul transportation in Milwaukie, though. Despite bordering Sellwood, with its many bike commuters, and Eastmoreland, home of Reed college, Milwaukie has been sadly lacking in alternative transportation. The Milwaukie Transit Center is already a hub for many lines stretching into Portland and the outer areas of the metropolitan area, but one problem is how to get people to the Transit Center to begin with. The answer is in the bike.

The most direct route from Sellwood to downtown Milwaukie is a straight shot along 17th. It’s a narrow, two-lane road with a steep grade on one side. It’s already a thoroughfare for cars that don’t want to get on McLoughlin, which leaves little room for bikes.

Even the experienced cyclist’s knuckles will turn white during stretches of it. At best, the bike lane is a single white line sprayed about two and a half feet from the runoff. At worst, it’s like something out of the 1985 video game Paperboy, complete with low-hanging branches and bushes jutting out into the lane.

It’s the kind of stretch that, if one came across it for a short distance, they’d apologetically take the entire lane and put up with the honking and glares of motorists. But this stretch is about a mile – about a mile too long to ride safely.

Now, thanks to the Milwaukie city council, there will be a new mixed-use bike path, about twelve feet wide, to the west side of the road. The road will be moved east to make room for it – a feat of engineering considering the steep grade. When it opens, bikers and pedestrians will be able to travel between the two neighborhoods – and to and from the Orange Line – more easily.

Meanwhile, another mixed-use path has already opened to the south. The Trolley Trail, named after the abandoned interurban railroad grade it follows, extends six miles south to Gladstone. When the trail along 17th Avenue is completed, they will combine with the existing Springwater and Eastbank Esplanade trails to form a near-continuous path parallel to the Willamette from the Clackamas River to the Steel Bridge.

Also on the horizon is a plan to turn Monroe Street, which runs side-by-side with the car-heavy Harrison Street in downtown Milwaukie, into a neighborhood greenway for bikes and pedestrians. The stretch of new greenway would run from 21st Avenue across Highway 224 and out to Linwood, the city’s eastern boundary.

The street provides a clear, continuous east-west shot through Milwaukie. It will connect the Orange Line station and existing Transit Center to the eastern residential areas of Milwaukie, allowing residents a safe and easy package to the new MAX line.

A neighborhood greenway, as defined by a document released by the city Planning Department is a “low-traffic, low-speed route that provide safe, quiet routes for motorists, pedestrians, and bicycles” that “reduce cut-through traffic from outside the neighborhood.”

They differ from a designated bike boulevard in that they claim to be shared spaces that are safe for bikes and pedestrians without discouraging cars. Instead greenways aim to reduce cars’ speed through the use of traffic calming measures (mini traffic circles, speed bumps) and traffic diverters to reduce the volume of trips taken down the street. Drivers will naturally avoid the low-speed road with the traffic circles in favor of the alternative. In the case of Monroe St., its parallel-running cousin Harrison / King is more ideally situated and laid out for car traffic.

Eventually, the greenway could be extended further east to OR 213 – better known as 82nd Ave – and connect with the Clackamas Town Center and the Green Line, completing the path that was dreamed about some 40 years ago with the North / South MAX Project.

Sidebar: How Light Rail Came to the Region

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For the hundreds of people who commute between Portland and Milwaukie every day, the new Portland to Milwaukie “Orange” MAX line will mean shorter trips and less congestion on Highway 99E, the main drag that connects the two. 

Despite its closeness to Portland, transit to and from Milwaukie can be hit and miss. With the exception of the 75 line, which comes from south east Portland via Caesar Chavez Blvd and Woodstock, most lines run along McLoughlin Blvd.

When traffic is good, a trip from downtown Portland to the Milwaukie transit center can take as little as 20 minutes. But trying to traverse the stretch during rush hour adds time and uncertainty to the trip – feelings that are unwelcome for weary commuters who are trying to catch another bus at the transit center.

For them, the new line will mean a quicker and more reliable trip in relative comfort, as well as fewer missed buses when they get to the transit center, and a more pleasant commute.

Sidebar: What Milwaukie Was, What Milwaukie Is

Each station is designed to fit with the neighborhood’s unique character. The glass windscreens on the shelters are etched with reeds and other designs found in nature, and each stop is fitted with unique art to represent their identity.

The South Waterfront / Moody stop, just south of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry will feature a “sonic dish” built into the support was of the bridge deck, which will focus sound into a single point, as well as lights moving along the wall that echo the sounds of the river.

The Clinton Station features a giant sculpture made out of reclaimed freight rail, the shape representing the curves of the tracks of the transit system. Those traveling by bike to the station will be able to gaze upon artist Horatio Law’s “Velosaurus” a set of eight panels set into the walls under the 17th Avenue overpass at Powell Blvd, containing bicycle parts arranged to resemble the fossilized remains of dinosaurs.

Clinton Street is a popular bicycle boulevard, and numerous changes were made to make route safer and more direct.

Portland artist Bill Will – who also created a sculpture at the Washington Park Station – created a series of metal boats that appear to float along the line as it passes through Brooklyn, reflecting the origin of the neighborhood and the name.

Milwaukie was not the only town name inspired by the convergence of rivers (see sidebar). The neighborhood was originally called “Brook Land” in reference of the rivers and creeks that used to – and still do – run through the area.  One of them still flows, buried under what is now 17th Ave. The new line will run right over it. Over the years, Brook Land became known as “Brooklyn” – a name it now shares with the rail yard.

Further south, at the Johnson Creek / Tacoma stop, artist Thomas Sayre created two sculptures of giant wheels made from compressed earth, as a tip of the hat to Lot Whitcomb’s historic sawmill that once stood there.

Milwaukie will see its share of new art and beautification, too.

“The city’s new mural program has accepted the first mural, to be painted by local artist Chris Haberman,” Interim Mayor Parks said. “His art, which will depict faces, places and phrases of Milwaukie will be painted on the back of one of the Milwaukie High School buildings, facing the light rail stop at Main Street. The city’s new plaza, Adams Street Connector will be a place to gather.”

Another thing that will be changing in Milwaukie as a result of the project is that it will be quieter. Gone will be the familiar sound of train horns. Numerous safety improvements were made at various points along the route in both Southeast Portland and Milwaukie, allowing the crossings to become designated quiet zones where train operators won’t have to sound their horns as they approach an intersection (except in cases of emergency).

As of completion, the project was under budget in the range of $10-$40 million, leaving money for additional station shelters that were originally scrapped to save money.

When it opens, the line will have 10 stations, 718 Park and Ride spaces, and 445 bike parking spaces. It’s expected to carry 22,765 weekday riders by 2030, eliminating 9,100 vehicle trips and cutting travel time between the South Waterfront and Milwaukie in half.

With Metro forecasting nearly one million new residents in the area by 2030, many planners think connecting the two cities is crucial to the growth of both. They foresee nearly 100,000 new jobs in the area, as well as 40,000 new jobs in downtown Portland. Additionally, it will service the growing population along the South Waterfront.

The exact route has shifted a couple times, but the goal remains the same. The first time around, planners wanted to follow the existing rail lines. That plan was ditched due to safety concerns.

The train will now run from Portland State University, across the Tilikum Crossing. From there it will continue to just south of OMSI, through the Brooklyn Neighborhood, and into Milwaukie along McLoughlin Blvd. Eventually the line may extend to Oregon City along McLoughlin, but for now it will end at Park Avenue, just south of downtown Milwaukie.

Being a city divided by a river, Portland has been known for some years as “Bridgetown.” The bridges were mentioned by Jack Kerouac in “The Dharma Bums,” where he mused about “crossing vast eternity bridges as draws went up behind us to allow crane barges through in the big smoky river city scene.”

There are currently a total of 15 cross-river bridges within the city of Portland (three spanning the Columbia River and 12 crossing the Willamette), with the newest to the family – the Tilikum Crossing – being as a result of the project.

The location of the bridge was chosen as part of the 1994 South/North project. It sits just south of the Marquam Bridge, and is the nation’s largest car-free urban crossing. While cars are banned, the bridge carries the new MAX line, TriMet buses, the Portland Streetcar, as well as public use for bicyclists and pedestrians. Particularly, the 9, 17, and 19 TriMet lines will move from the often-congested Ross Island Bridge to the new crossing.

The Crossing was originally just referred to as the “Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Bridge” or the “Caruthers Bridge” in reference to its name under the 1994 project. The name “Tilikum Crossing” was chosen by TriMet amongst a selection of names submitted by the public. The name itself pays respect to the indigenous Chinook people, including the Clackamas tribe that inhabited what is now Milwaukie, and which the county is now named after.

“Tilikum” is a Chinook word for “people” or “tribe.” Other names considered were the “Abigail Scott Duniway Transit Bridge” in reference to the Oregon suffragist, the “Cascadia Crossing Transit Bridge” and the “Wy’East Transit Bridge” referring to a Native American name for Mount Hood.

The bridge will be temporarily opened on August 9 for the 20th annual Providence Bridge Pedal, but will not officially open until Sept. 12.

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As Milwaukie enters this new phase, Interim Mayor Parks and others are optimistic about the future. They see new businesses and new transportation options as a way to set Milwaukie up to continue being the city they know and love.

“The good news is that Milwaukie won’t lose it’s community feeling. Its neighborhoods will continue to thrive, and the residents and visitors will enjoy the small, hometown feeling that exists today,” Parks said.

“Several restaurants of a wide variety of foods already call Milwaukie home: chocolates, popcorn, coffee shops, wine and brew pubs. And there’s room for more. With more people living in downtown the city will enjoy even a more robust economy, and be a safer environment as people make the center city their home.”

Ben Maras is a Portland area freelance writer who grew up in Milwaukie, Oregon.