The City Weighs Turning a Street Occupied by Tents and Car Campers Into a Pickleball Court or Off-Leash Dog Park, Among Other Ideas

“We’re looking for solutions to transform these public spaces, and we’ve got to start someplace.”

Laurelhurst Park

For more than two years, a two-block strip abutting Laurelhurst Park in Southeast Portland has been occupied by dozens of homeless people in tents and cars. For at least two years, neighbors have lobbied—sometimes successfully—for the city to intervene and sweep the campers.

Within days and sometimes even hours of the sweeps, however, the campers move back.

Now, city officials are weighing a different approach to rid the street of campers: transfer ownership or control of the two-block stretch of Southeast Oak Street between 37th Avenue and César E. Chávez Boulevard to Portland Parks & Recreation and turn it into a skatepark, pickleball court or off-leash dog park, among other ideas under consideration. (Oak Street is bracketed to the north and south by the park in the affected area.)

Christine Leon is director of the newly formed Public Environment Management Office, created by one of the mayor’s emergency declarations this spring to better coordinate trash cleanup, homeless services and sweeps. Leon leads the Oak Street project and is in talks about the transfer with both the Portland Bureau of Transportation and the parks bureau.

“The problems that we’re seeing throughout the city with cars and RVs and camping in tents is so extensive,” Leon tells WW. “We’re looking for solutions to transform these public spaces, and we’ve got to start someplace.”

Leon says an ordinance to transfer ownership of the two blocks of street to the abutting landowner, the parks bureau, could come before the Portland City Council within a couple of months. In the meantime, says Jillian Schoene, chief of staff for parks commissioner Carmen Rubio, the mayor’s office is working on a “memorandum of understanding” between the parks and transportation bureaus that will lay the foundation for the project while an ownership ordinance is in the works to present to the council.

The Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association has asked the city to consider alternatives for years to no avail. Now it appears neighbors have gotten the ear of the mayor’s emergency homelessness and cleanup team.

But Laurelhurst Park could be a combustible place to pilot such a project. Neighbors have verbally sparred with campers before and tried to deter them, most recently by placing dirt and gravel-filled planter boxes along 37th Avenue. Campers’ allies foiled that tactic.

The move could also face opposition at City Hall. The street in question currently belongs to PBOT, which is overseen by City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, a leading opponent of displacing homeless campers.

Hardesty did not respond to a request for comment.

This week, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that Portland lawyer John DiLorenzo, who earlier this month sued the city in an attempt to compel officials to sweep homeless camps in the name of disability access, sent a letter to city officials Aug. 22 on behalf of Laurelhurst neighbors. The letter insinuated a lawsuit might be on the way if campers weren’t removed from Oak Street.

Leon says the project is not in response to DiLorenzo’s letter.

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