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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Street illegal

Now that we've done what we can to see whether and how sidewalk newsracks are regulated in the City of Portland, it's time to move out into the street to see what's really happening.

Just to recap yesterday's post, here's the law as best we can tell (and no one has corrected any of it so far): (1) Newsracks on sidewalks are prohibited by the city code, except to the extent that federal or state statutes or constitutions require them to be allowed; (2) the city code expressly forbids chaining, cabling, or otherwise attaching a newsrack (or anything else) to "any pole, post, wire, cable, fixture or equipment of City of Portland owned telecommunications lines and equipment, street lighting, or traffic signal systems"; and (3) city "pedestrian design guidelines" (whose precise legal effect is unclear to us) prohibit newsracks both in the "obstruction free area" at any sidewalk corner and in the "no private use" area adjacent to the corner itself.

Now to get out of the books and into the real world. We headed to the nearby busy intersection of NE 24th and Fremont to see what we could see. What we found was pretty ugly. Let's start with the northeast corner of that intersection, where you find two boxes, one for the O and the other for the Trib:

Clearly illegal. Both of the newsracks are attached to part of the traffic signal system (a pedestrian signal pole), in direct violation of section 17.64.040 of the city code. Do the freedom of speech and freedom of the press clauses of our constitutions require that the city allow a newsrack to be attached to its traffic signals? Of course not. So these two are an open-and-shut case -- illegal.

Another possible violation comes with these boxes' placement. They are both clearly in the "no private use" area of this corner, and part of the O box actually protrudes into the even-more-taboo "obstruction free" area, as shown well in this photo taken by an alert reader (who coincidentally was sufficiently bugged about this corner to take his own pictures, unbeknownst to us when we went out there):

The red line we've drawn there is the boundary between the "obstruction free zone" (to the right) and the "no private use" area (to the left). Being in either is a violation of the "pedestrian design guidelines," discussed here yesterday. Now, granted, it's not clear to us that those guidelines are technically part of the city code. But as has already been mentioned, by its terms the code prohibits all such boxes, subject only to being pre-empted by state and federal law. Besides, the guidelines are the only place we can find on the city's website that says where newsracks can't go, and so if the guidelines don't apply, it's hard to see what would stop someone from putting one right in the crosswalk. In any event, even without the tethering to the signal pole, these two may well be illegal just on account of where they are.

One last point: The graffiti on the O box, which has been there for ages, seems to violate the city ordinance requiring the owner of any property to clean up graffiti within 10 days of its appearance. (City code section 14B.80.040.) Plus, that gray spray paint coverup visible in the reader's photo is a pretty tacky sight for those who wait for the southbound No. 9 bus across 24th Avenue.

That brings us to the "catercorner" from the one just pictured -- the southwest corner of the intersection, which is a Tri-Met bus stop for the eastbound 33 bus. Here's what we find over there:

Legal? Maybe, put probably not. The biggest problem here is the placement. Two of these three boxes -- the one for the O and the one for the Trib -- are too close to the corner to satisfy the "pedestrian design guidelines." Those guidelines require that all such obstructions be placed no closer than five feet from an extension of the adjacent property line, and a tale of the tape shows that both of those boxes intrude into the five-foot area:

There is also the matter of the pole to consider. All three of the boxes shown are attached to a city sign pole:

Pretty sight back there, eh? Anyway, if the pole that they're attached to is considered part of a city-owned "street lighting or traffic signal system," then the boxes are all illegal for that reason. But in this case, we'll have to give them the benefit of the doubt, since the pole to which they are tethered is not for a traffic light or a street light, but rather for a no-parking sign:

To sum up, as for the southwest corner, we have two boxes that are probably illegal because of their placement. One last point about this one: In a city that hassles anyone who wants to put up a mural, much less a commercial sign, do we really have to allow a huge ad on the side of the O's box? Granted, it's a house ad for the paper, but does the constitution require that we look at that big ugly zero on every corner? I think not. Indeed, on the transit mall, such a box would clearly be illegal.

So there you have our petty little field-trip exposé. Now what? Well, we can't let these incursions into our rights-of-way persist; it's time to see what we can do to have the violations remedied. Call the city? Call the O and the Trib? And which politicians, civil libertarians, and crusading journalists are brave enough to stand with us for clutter-free, obstruction-free sidewalks? We'll get to some of that tomorrow. (I see the O headline today reads, "City Hall addresses all things sidewalk." Not quite all things, people -- at least, not yet. Nice try, though.)

Meanwhile, readers have been sending us accounts and photos of the newsrack horror stories that they pass every day. We'd love to hear about, and see, yours. Please be sure to identify the exact location you're complaining about. We'll show and tell a bunch of them a little later. But for now, this blog is going to stay focused on our test case at 24th and Fremont.

Comments (14)

Next up to uncover re 17.64.040-A is the daily $$ fine attached to violation.

A treasure trove of undocumented revenue awaits.

Blimey, Jack, a week ago you were worried about having enough time to blog and now you’re measuring the sidewalk outside Perry’s (By the way have you tried their chicken pot pie? I’m still trying to find a good source).

I agree that they shouldn’t be allowed to block sight lines. Other than that the only time I’ve ever thought about these things is when I’m annoyed that I can’t find one nearby when grabbing lunch. Of course that could be solved by banning boxes and distributing papers in restaurants.

Gee, too bad we got rid of all the old transit mall shelters. They'd have made great newsstands.

The contrast with the ongoing debate over the propriety of the sit-lie ordinance is downright fascinating.

Are sidewalk obstructions okay so long as they aren't people?

Speaking of sight lines at intersections, here's an addition from the early 90s that was enforced for awhile, but doesn't seem to be anymore:

16.20.130 Prohibited in Specified Places

Except when specifically directed by authority of this Title or when necessary to avoid conflict with other traffic, it is unlawful to park or stop a vehicle in any of the following places:

A. Within 50 feet of an intersection when:

1. The vehicle or a view obstructing attachment to the vehicle is more than 6 feet in height; or

2. Vehicle design, modification, or load obscures the visibility or view of approaching traffic, any traffic control sign, any traffic control signal, or any pedestrian in a crosswalk.

This regulation does not apply to the area of the street where the direction of traffic is leaving an intersection on a one-way street.

Viva el paperless revolution.

Still waiting for pictures of Mercury boxes placed illegally, er, I mean, in the way that's been traditional for decades...

If the “free expression” clause of the Oregon Constitution (Article I, section 8) prevents regulation of live sex shows and regulation of billboards along scenic highway rights-of-way, it certainly prevents regulation newsracks on the public sidewalk.

it certainly prevents regulation newsracks on the public sidewalk.

A highly dubious proposition. What prevents regulation is politicians' fear of the newspapers' editorial boards.

I’ve been walking to work this week (Pearl District) and have been paying extra attention to sidewalk obstructions. There are a LOT of them. Is it just me or are the sidewalks a bit narrower in the Pearl? NW Glisan Street is particularly bad. There is one square block that has newspaper boxes, about 8 business signs, a loading dock, and tables with chairs. It’s pretty hard to navigate if two or more people are walking towards you, actually. I couldn’t imagine trying to move around that neighborhood in a wheelchair.
I know there are regulations about sidewalk cafes – but during peak hours those sidewalk cafes spill way out of their boundaries. And does every shop/restaurant doing business in the Pearl actually need a sidewalk sign? Is there some sort of vision disorder in Portland that I am not aware of that makes it difficult for people to read a business sign on the door, window, or awning?
I didn’t see one Portland Mercury news box. Actually, most of the boxes contain ForRent, AutoTrader, or ApartmentGuide ad booklets. Not exactly news publications. Plenty of boxes are so heavily tagged that you have no idea what’s inside, and are afraid to look. The Oregonian is the only publication that makes an effort to maintain their boxes.
Oh, and let’s not forget the folks who stand on the corner near Whole Foods and try to sign you up for whatever save-the-earth charity their promoting. They totally block the flow of pedestrian traffic and can also be kind of aggressive.
Based on my observations, one thing is pretty clear in the Pearl – the sidewalk is just an extension of the retail space. Tomorrow I’ll bring my camera.


For what it's worth, my intersection (I call it mine because I volunteer to keep the tri-met stop there clean) has 5 boxes: WW, Merc, ForRent, Trib, and MenuGuide. The WW and the Trib are regularly maintained, the other three not so much. The worst offender is MenuGuide, as it currently contains nothing but wadded up OSPIRG flyers and some plastic bags of dog feces. In fact, I'd chalk up that MenuGuide box as abandoned property at this point, as it hasn't been stocked in about 10 or 11 months. You think it would be okay if i retooled it as a bird feeder?
That's a serious question by the way; I wasn't trying to be clever. There are a lot of blue jays in my neighborhood.

Good investigation, Jack. It's not only fear of the editorial boards, it's bureaucratic inertia from the city's code enforcement department.

code enforcement department

They have such a thing?

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