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 Southeast Portland have been trying to rid two of the streets adjacent to Laurelhurst Park—Southeast 37th Street and Southeast 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, within mere days of the sweep campers in tents and cars moved back onto the sidewalk. The camps have been removed several times since then, but each time, it’s taken just days for the sidewalks to fill up again.
Those 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 has led to hyperlocal, ad hoc attempts to do just that.
Pictures shared with WW, taken by activists who support unhoused campers, show about 10 people shoveling soil and gravel from two large mounds into wheelbarrows which 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 Street and 37th Street 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 along 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 initiative. 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 its 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 if this action was officially approved by the LNA, or an action taken by a few select members. LNA to comment on those questions, in addition to others, like whether they declined 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.
The grassy area between the street and the sidewalk, where neighbors installed the planter boxes, are owned by the city but maintained by whichever property owner sits behind the strip. There are few rules as to what can be planted or installed on these strips, and the city only inspects a strip when a complaint is filed.
One of the uses, however, that is explicitly not allowed without a permit, with some exceptions: Planter boxes.
Planter boxes 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 PBOT,” PBOT spokesperson Dylan Rivera told WW† “We have not received any applications for permits for planters on SE 37th Avenue in the area of Laurelhurst Park.”
(It’s also not entirely clear if the objects the neighborhood installed are technically considered planter boxes. They’re metal and appear to be watering troughs. But that might be a moot point: Permanent or temporary structures on public right of ways are also banned, unless a permit is obtained.)
The LNA, nor any other entity, applied for any such permit from the city, says the Portland Bureau of Transportation, which oversees that particular permit type.
However, nonprofits, business coalitions and neighborhood associations can seek a permit to allow for such encroachments with the permission of the abutting land owner. In this case, the abutting land owner is Portland Parks and Recreation.
The parks bureau says it was not aware of the planter boxes until after they were installed.
Cody Bowman, a spokesperson for Mayor Ted Wheeler, said that “these actions were not affiliated with the City of Portland.”