Interstate and beyond: Lessons of history resonate as the city prepares to expand Urban Renewal Area

by Jake Thomas

Roslyn Hill can no longer quite visualize the neighborhood she grew up in. Probably because it doesn’t exist anymore.

While in the third grade, in the mid 1950s, her family had to leave their neighborhood in Northeast Portland to make way for development that would become the Memorial Coliseum.

The construction of the stadium has been part of the vexed history between the city and North and Northeast Portland. But the 64-year-old African American real estate developer with greying dreadlocks seems hardly bitter when recalling how her family was forced from their home. Instead she seems more focused on the commercial properties she’s been developing in Northeast Portland since moving back to the city in 1990 after a stint in the Bay Area.

Hill has been part of a renewed economic interest in Alberta Street and the surrounding area and has developed properties into coffee shops and art galleries. Today, the once gritty and crime-ridden street that is now better known for its eateries, boutiques and the creative types that have been drawn to it in recent decades.

Called the “Queen of Alberta” by some, Hill hopes that the revitalization will help transform the area into a vibrant neighborhood that retains its multicultural character while drawing newcomers who are genuinely vested in it.

But, according to Hill, Alberta isn’t reaching its full commercial potential and large chunks of it remain “underdeveloped” and could use the help of a powerful city agency that has big plans for the street and other parts of North and Northeast Portland that have followed a similar trajectory.

The Portland Development Commission, the city’s economic development arm, has had an uneasy relationship with North and Northeast Portland, a part of town that has been the heart of Portland’s African American community and has suffered from racially motivated disinvestment in the past.

Part of the uneasiness stems from the PDC aiding Emanuel Hospital’s expansion in the 1960s and 70s, which resulted in the displacement of many black-owned homes and businesses. In recent decades, North and Northeast have become whiter and more affluent, while residents with deeper roots in the area have left, seeking cheaper rents on Portland’s periphery.

In more recent years, the city’s use of urban renewal has been blamed for amplifying that gentrification. The latest census figures for 2010 shows that in the past decade approximately 10,000 people of color, primarily African Americans, moved away from the city’s core, particularly the inner North and Northeast communities.

A recent report for the PDC by Northwest Ideas, based on interviews with opinion leaders in North and Northeast Portland, stated, “It would be hard to overstate the distrust of the PDC and City government in the Black community.”

Now the PDC wants to expand urban renewal deeper into North and Northeast Portland. In July, City Council will consider giving the final approval on the expansion of the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area to encompass even more of the neighborhoods traditionally home to people of color, but growing less so with each passing year.

The Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area, created in 2000, is the largest urban renewal area in the city, sprawling about 3,800 acres and spanning 10 neighborhoods in North and Northeast Portland. The expansion will increase the roughly $202.8 million in urban renewal funds currently available in ICURA to $221.3 million through 2021. That infusion, says the PDC, will create 960 jobs. The expansion of ICURA would encompass about 430 acres of “underdeveloped” property in need of “rehabilitation” along Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., Alberta and Killingsworth Streets, the St. Johns Town Center and the south side of Lombard Street.

“The expansion of the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area will allow PDC to extend their programs and services to even more neighborhood businesses, to help them remain stable or to expand and make improvements that lead to job creation,” said Mayor Sam Adams, who has spearheaded a proactive and sometimes controversial applications of URAs “For example, by utilizing PDC’s programs, Por Que No on North Mississippi was able to expand their seating area, and in turn hire additional staff. By expanding the ICURA to other commercial corridors, we hope to be able to do the same for many other neighborhood businesses.”

The planning for this expansion dates back to 2008 as part of the North/Northeast Economic Development Initiative. It includes placing some property of the Oregon Convention Center in ICURA and allows for reinvestment in the Rose Quarter.

So far, it seems feelings from the stakeholders on the expansion are mixed, but there is strong support for it — from surprising sources. Many in the African American community and others, want in on this new round of urban renewal.

“They do do something,” said Hill of the PDC, of which she’s had largely positive experiences, “but you have to bring something to the table. They’re not going to throw money at you.”

Hill has used the PDC’s financing tools for some of her properties on a stretch of Alberta Street located in the Oregon Convention Center Urban Renewal Area. She said she supports the PDC’s plan to extend urban renewal on Alberta up to 33rd Avenue, which she hopes will help fill-in underdeveloped patches and kick start small businesses.

Adrienne Livingston, the executive director of the Black United Fund, is also supportive of the expansion that would put her organization’s headquarters, located on 29th Avenue and Alberta Street, in ICURA. The expansion would give the organization access to loans and grants from the PDC to renovate the organization’s 6,000-square-foot building so that it can be used to provide space for emerging non-profits, she said.

“It’s giving everyone the same opportunities,” said Livingston of the expansion, who hopes the PDC will keep the lessons from the past in mind as it moves forward.

The St. Johns Neighborhood Association is also supportive of having an urban renewal area encompass its commercial center and Roosevelt High School.

Clinton Doxsee, the association’s land use chair, said that after a long process it became clear to many in the North Portland neighborhood that the money could give the streets a facelift, put some empty lots to use and generally make St. Johns a destination that might even get a write-up in The New York Times. He also said the association is cognizant of urban renewal’s potential of gentrification and aims to use the money inclusively.

“We basically asked people, who wants in?” said PDC Business and Equity Director John Jackley, speaking of the feedback process with area residents interested in the benefits of urban renewal.

Jackley also points to an endorsement for the expansion of ICURA by the 21-member ad hoc community advisory committee that included representatives from minority business organizations, neighborhood groups, the county, the schools, the Portland Trail Blazers, social service nonprofit Central City Concern, a resident of the New Columbia Housing project and others.

The committee met for nine months beginning in August 19, 2009 at the newly renovated Billy Webb Elks Lodge, a historic social hub for the city’s African American community, to discuss investments, economic development in area, housing, gentrification, and the historic role of the PDC. However, the ICURA’s primary advisory committee — each URA has a standing advisory committee — voted to oppose most of the expansion over concerns it would spread resources too thin and drain money from existing projects.

The North Portland Neighborhood Chairs Network, which represents neighborhood associations in areas that would be affected by the expansion, sent a letter supportive of the expansion to the committee with its own list of urban renewal projects.

Sam Brooks, an African American entrepreneur who founded a successful staffing firm, wrote a letter of support for the expansion to the committee as well, arguing that it could help spur black entrepreneurship. The trade association he founded, the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs, has also adopted sent a similar letter.

On May 19, 2010, the committee voted to support the PDC’s expansion plans while also prioritizing a $70 million list of projects including parks, housing and other undertakings dubbed the “Gem List.” The committee punted on the prickly issue of the Rose Quarter redevelopment while the details of the deal were being worked out elsewhere.

When city officials pitched the idea of creating ICURA in the late 1990s, they argued that gentrification was already creeping into North and Northeast Portland and claimed that the central goal of the new urban renewal area would be to make investments that would benefit existing residents, preventing their displacement.

Two months before the City Council voted to create ICURA, a writer in the Oregonian issued a prescient statement: “In 20 years, neighborhood leaders make clear, the district won’t be measured by the Starbucks, fancy restaurants or penthouse condominiums built. Instead, the yardstick will be whether the area continues to include everyone. History suggests the city won’t be able to pull it off.”

The plan for ICURA states that it would be used to “primarily benefit existing residents and businesses,” create housing for all income levels, be a driver of jobs, be a force that would help struggling seniors, and transform the part of the city that has suffered from deliberate disinvestment into a vibrant, attractive and inclusive place.

The plan also explicitly acknowledged how the area has been on the wrong side of progress, like the creation of I-5, which resulted in some households and businesses getting the boot. The document also stated that there would be no condemnation of property, especially in the Eliot Neighborhood, a clear reference to the neighborhood-wrecking Emanuel Hospital expansion.

Shortly after the Interstate URA was created in 2000, it was expected to generate 6,700 jobs and 2,600 new homes over the course of 20 years. No one from the PDC responded to requests if this goal had been met. (In May, County Commissioner Loretta Smith, who represents the North and Northeast region, held a forum of African American men on their concerns and vision for a more equitable community. With hundreds of men in attendance, the prevailing concern was over the access to jobs.)

According to Margaret Bax, who worked on housing policy for the PDC when ICURA was being created, the primary purpose of the urban renewal area was to help finance the MAX Yellow Line, but its goals were steadily expanded to other projects, such as driving home-ownership and creating rental properties.

“We knew we had to spend the train money, but there was an absolute commitment to other projects,” said Bax.

By PDC figures, the stock of rental housing in the Interstate Corridor had been declining while sale prices of homes soared during the housing boom of the 1990s and early 2000s as houses were purchased and “flipped” for a profit.

The same report also paints a troubling picture with more than one-third of all households in the Interstate Corridor paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs and 17 percent paying more than 50 percent. The Coalition for a Livable Future’s Equity Atlas also found that between 1995 and 2004, nearly every neighborhood in both urban renewal areas in North and Northeast Portland and nearby saw the median sale price of single-family homes rise by over 100 percent.

“I wouldn’t say it’s been good at mitigating gentrification,” said Lew Frederick, a Democrat who represents part of Northeast Portland in the Oregon House of Representatives. “It’s done the opposite.”

“Whomever is commanding money needs to be a lot more mindful of who the most vulnerable are, or they need to be clear that this policy (urban renewal) is not about abating gentrification,” said Michael Anderson, a long-time affordable housing advocate. Anderson says urban renewal has a “spotty record at best” on housing and has done more to spur gentrification rather than ease it. Although he did note that urban renewal is not the sole cause of gentrification, he said that too little investment in affordable housing, which would have helped longtime residents, has come too little too late.

Portland State University professor Gretchen Kafoury, who had recently left Portland City Council shortly before the urban renewal area was formed, said she was cynical about the Interstate URA early on. However, Kafoury recalled hundreds of abandoned or decrepit homes that filled the area’s neighborhoods prior to urban renewal that have been revitalized. However, she questions if it has stabilized and preserved neighborhoods.

“Urban renewal itself contributes to gentrification,” said Karen Gibson, an associate professor of planning and urban studies at Portland State University.

“It sounds kind of hilarious,” she said of the notion that urban renewal could slow gentrification.  She explained that the very mechanism of urban renewal intrinsically lends itself to gentrification. In order for it to work, she said, it requires that property values rise.

John Jackley, however, defends the PDC’s record.

“It’s apparent to everyone that there is a growing segment of Portland that doesn’t have the same equity of opportunities as everyone else. So what are we going to do about this?” said Jackley.

He ticks off a list of accomplishments he’s particularly proud of that have helped historic residents of North and Northeast Portland, including the June Key Delta Community Center, which will be run by an African American sorority in a rehabilitated gas station on North Albina Street with financial and technical support from the PDC.

Jackley also said that the PDC provides apprenticeship training on all its projects, partnering with organizations like the Irvington Covenant and Oregon Tradeswomen to help provide job training. He also said that business programs have been instrumental in helping African American small business owners, and points to the MAX Yellow Line and New Columbia as worthwhile investments. The MAX Yellow Line, which opened four years after the ICURA was created, cost $350 million, $28 million of which came from urban renewal money.  The PDC contributed $6.4 million for the $20.2 million New Columbia project that created 854 housing units.

But not everyone is sold on the numbers or promises. Without more detailed information, the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods declined to take a clear position for or against expanding urban renewal. The coalition said it wouldn’t take a position on the expansion without information from the PDC on resident displacement, criteria for future projects, an analysis on whether original goals of the ICURA have been met, and an assessment of urban renewal, among other issues.

“We are not against investing in the neighborhoods and not against expanding the URA,” the coalition said. “However, because this decision involves so many factors and so many viewpoints, we continue to believe that complete information is essential to guide the decision.”

The Portland City Council is scheduled to finalize the expansion later this month.

One response to “Interstate and beyond: Lessons of history resonate as the city prepares to expand Urban Renewal Area

  1. Gary Marschke

    An exerpt from the NECN presentation to the PDC Stakeholder Advisory Committee on URA expansion:

    “Together we share a vision of a vibrant and vital community.
    We ask you to close your minds eye and picture with us a cluster of eclectic neighborhoods stocked with affordable homes –both old and new – and populated by a rich mix of cultures and budgets.
    Common and individual interests are reflected through the diverse commercial districts teeming with activity day and night that supports local businesses offering stable, family wage employment.
    Ongoing projects continue to fill the gaps while others improve what exists – using local input, talent and expertise to ensure that the needs of the community are served.
    Models of sustainability – both environmentally and economically – these are safe and healthy environments that welcome change while embracing their history and heritage.
    Together we realize that we are on the threshold of a unique opportunity to realize our vision as we repair the past, reclaim the present, and reinvent our future.
    We can move forward developing equitable economic prosperity without leaving a damaged population behind.
    We can create the new without completely displacing or destroying the old.
    We can and will acknowledge and overcome the obstacles by creating and recreating thoughtful plans and programs that empower such progress.

    And we must…or we stand to waste this golden opportunity to reshape and redirect our resources to develop truly inclusive communities.
    Which is why we come to you with a vision AND to share our collective recommendations for achieving them – together.
    So some of you may be asking yourselves – what are we to do now?
    Earlier we asked you to close your minds eye and imagine.
    Now we’re not going to ask or demand – that’s your responsibility as our representatives.
    We expect.
    We expect that you will open your minds to the possibilities.
    We expect that you will demand the information needed to make thoughtful and considered decisions.
    We expect that you will use the clear and transparent criteria to guide those decisions.
    We expect that you will take the action necessary to influence how these decisions get made in the future.
    And we expect that we will continue to do this together.”
    …and we still harbor those expectations while awaiting the results.

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