Laurelhurst Homeowners Attempted to Deter Park Camping With Large Planters, Without Necessary Permits

The latest attempt by the Laurelhurst neighborhood to deter campers: fill 30 water-trough planters with soil and gravel.

Planter boxes installed on Saturday were nowhere to be seen on Monday. (Willamette Week)

On Saturday, a group of people in the Laurelhurst neighborhood installed over two dozen planter boxes along a street adjacent to Laurelhurst Park in an effort to deter unhoused campers from moving their tents back in.

For over a year, some residents of the neighborhood in Northeast and Southeast Portland have been trying to rid two of the streets adjacent to Laurelhurst Park—Southeast 37th Avenue and Oak Street—of tents, cars and their occupants.

Though homeowners were successful in lobbying the city to clear the streets last summer because of reports of firearms within the camp, campers in tents and cars moved back onto the sidewalk within mere days of the sweep. The camps have been removed several times since then, but each time, it’s taken just days for the sidewalks to fill up again.

Activity on the two streets and the intense backlash from the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association continue to illustrate the rising tensions provoked by the city’s homelessness crisis. Perhaps nowhere in Portland is the debate about people living outside so intense: Neighbors demand city action and, on occasion, take matters into their own hands, while leftist activists pledge to defend the camps’ right to exist.

This time, frustrations over the city’s inability to keep its streets walkable have led to hyperlocal, ad hoc attempts to do just that.

Photos shared with WW taken by activists who support unhoused campers show about 10 people shoveling soil and gravel from two large mounds into wheelbarrows that are then awkwardly deposited into the planters, which look like water troughs. Orange fencing, likely put up by the city after a recent sweep—the city posted Oak and 37th for removal in the last week of May—surrounds the planters.

By Sunday morning, someone had dismantled and removed all the planter boxes. The remnants left on Monday were sparse: Just small mounds of dirt and gravel dotted the parking strip. The orange fencing was balled up and left on the sidewalk and street.

It’s not the only recent example of property owners taking such initiatives. Last week, The Portland Mercury reported that prominent developer Jordan Schnitzer installed bike racks outside of one of his Northwest buildings. Though Schnitzer didn’t respond to a request for comment, observers speculated that he installed the racks to deter campers.

Leaders of the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association did not respond to WW’s questions about whether they would attempt to install the planters again. It’s unclear whether the action was officially approved by the LNA or taken by a few select members. The association declined to comment on such questions, in addition to others, like whether members sought a permit to install the planters.

Sources close to the issue tell WW many neighbors in the area were unhappy that select members of the neighborhood association decided to purchase and install the planters.

Grassy areas between the street and the sidewalk, where neighbors installed the planter boxes, are owned by the city but maintained by property owners adjacent to them. There are few rules as to what can be planted or installed on strips, and the city inspects a strip only when a complaint is filed.

One of the uses explicitly not allowed without a permit, with some exceptions: planter boxes, which are considered an “encroachment” on public land.

“Planters and other privately owned infrastructure in the public right of way, such as the area between a sidewalk and the curb, generally require a [permit] from the Portland Bureau of Transportation,” PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera told WW. “We have not received any applications for permits for planters on Southeast 37th Avenue in the area of Laurelhurst Park.”

It’s also not entirely clear if the objects the neighborhood installed are technically planter boxes. They’re metal and appear to be watering troughs. But that might be a moot point: Permanent or temporary structures on public rights of way are also banned, unless a permit is obtained.

Neither the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association, nor any other entity, applied for any such permit from the city, says PBOT.

However, nonprofits, business coalitions and neighborhood associations can seek a permit to allow such encroachments with the permission of the abutting land owner. In this case, the owner is Portland Parks & Recreation.

The parks bureau says it was not aware of the planter boxes until after they were installed.

Cody Bowman, a spokesman for Mayor Ted Wheeler, said, “These actions were not affiliated with the city of Portland.”

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.