The Trail Blazers have big plans for the Rose Quarter, which is a ghost town when the team isn’t in season. But the developer they want to realize their vision has left behind a trail of angry people.
By Jake Thomas
Larry Miller, the president of the Portland Trail Blazers, has seen the Rose Quarter looking so desolate during his team’s off season that he felt like a tumbleweed might blow by at any minute.
Speaking before a crowd gathered at the headquarters for the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs, Miller unveiled his vision for a more active Rose Quarter: a year-round entertainment district called “Jumptown,” in tribute of a once lively African American district of Portland know for its many jazz clubs.
And it seems that the idea might get wings very soon.
Mayor Sam Adams put his sights on redeveloping the Rose Quarter since the day he took office, in hopes that it will be something more than a dead zone when the Trail Blazers aren’t playing.
But the company that the Trail Blazers have enlisted to do the development has a controversial past, with strong allegations of racism leveled against it, and the project is surrounded by questions as to whether or not it will actually benefit the community it’s intended to honor.
Since earlier this year, the Trail Blazers have been working to bring the Cordish Companies to Portland to build Jumptown. The massive Baltimore-based real estate development firm has created flashy and award-winning entertainment districts across the country.
One of the better known projects is Kansas City’s “Power & Light District,” an entertainment-oriented development that took roots from a blighted section of the Midwestern city.
But the Cordish development has steadily gotten the nickname the “Power & White District” in some quarters because of a dress code that critics say has been used to keep African Americans out of its venues.
The dress code, which has been altered after much controversy, appears to target the garb preferred by many young urban African American males, and includes items like jerseys, work boots, white t-shirts, chains, and shorts that go below the knee.
The controversy heated up earlier this month, when an African American family received the right to sue by the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, for alleged discrimination. The suit claims they were refused entry into a venue in the district for failing to meet the dress code, even though they claim they were appropriately attired.
Phillip Yelder, the administrative director of Kansas City’s Human Relations Division, said that his division has received complaints about the dress code being used to discriminate against minorities in the district. After conducting investigations, some complaints have been found to have merit, he said.
The division released a report stating that dress codes were inconsistently enforced in the district, and have been used to discriminate. The Kansas City Council has also begun regulating dress codes city wide, in response to complaints of Cordish using them to discriminate against African Americans.
“In the context of millions of visitors, there have been a handful of complaints, we take each one seriously and we can confirm that any accusations are without merit,” responded Zed Smith, the director of asset Management for Cordish, in an e-mail.
In September, Adams convened the Rose Quarter Development Stakeholder Advisory Committee, composed of citizens who will examine submitted proposals for the Rose Quarter and settle on one next year.
The Trail Blazer’s pitch appears to be one of the most polished of the Rose Quarter redevelopment proposals. It’ll use sustainable design, and will be bike friendly. Other submitted ideas range from the installation of a roller coaster, a casino, and bamboo bicycle manufacturing facility.
The original Jumptown was an African American part of Portland, now occupied by the Rose Quarter, that was know for its many jazz clubs, like the Dude Ranch, and lively night life in the mid 20th century. For touring bands, playing Jumptown was a must, and people could be seen visiting clubs all hours of the night.
But the original Jumptown saw its demise from the construction of Memorial Coliseum, the expansion of the freeway, and other urban renewal initiatives during the late 1950s and 60s that dispersed the region’s African-American population and displaced their businesses.
Interestingly, the Trail Blazers are hoping to use urban renewal to bring back Jumptown, or at least their version that will include an array of entertainment options, like an interactive exhibit on Nike’s history.
The project will almost inevitably require some sort of public financing. Kansas City had to dip into its general fund to meet bond debt obligations. Cordish also sued the county surrounding Kansas City to lower its property taxes.
Karen Gibson, an associate professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University said that such developments often have dubious economic development prospects.
“These types of developments create retail jobs,” said Gibson, who cautiously adds that such jobs don’t pay family wages. “I just think it’s an odd economic development strategy to pursue.”
Some Portlanders are also worried that a project meant to highlight a portion of Portland’s African American past will end up leaving them behind.
“It would be a great tragedy if the people they are trying to highlight will be prostituted in the process,” said James Posey, an African American contractor with Work Horse Construction.
Posey said that he is nervous about the involvement of Cordish, of which he has heard troubling things about.
However, he hopes that it will provide work for minorities and minority-owned subcontractors, and will serve as a model for future developments.
Faye Burch, the vice president of the Oregon chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors, told the Portland Observer that she has been in contact with Miller about how to involve local businesses, and is optimistic about Jumptown.
But Rona Holloman-Hughes, a Kansas City attorney and organizer with Friends of Great Kansas City Area African American Skilled Trade Workers, said that she heard a familiar tune when Cordish began courting Kansas City to build the Power and Light District.
She said that Cordish claimed that they would provide employment for the area’s minorities. But when it came down to it Cordish didn’t deliver, said Holloman-Hughes.
Smith said that the district hires many African Americans in managerial positions, including its CEO. It started an incubator fund for minority-owned businesses, and insists Cordish meets or exceeds minority contracting goals.
Miller understands that such concerns exist, and insists that the Trail Blazers will be in charge of the project and responsive to community concerns.
”We would never bring anything to Portland that didn’t work for Portland,” said Miller, speaking to a crowd at the OAME center, who added that the Power & Light District created 5,000 permanent jobs.
State Rep. Lew Frederick, a Democrat who represents parts of north and northeast Portland, asked Miller what he would do to ensure that local, minority-owned businesses would be involved.
“Even though Cordish is the partner on this, we are the ones that are driving this; we are the ones that are leading this effort,” replied Miller, who strongly stated that minorities and minority-owned businesses will be involved with Jumptown. He also pointed out that the Trail Balzers exceeded the city’s goals on using minority-owned businesses.
When asked by the Portland Observer about allegations of race discrimination leveled against Cordish, he said that he felt comfortable with Cordish after having met its executives and seeing the Power and Light District.
”I don’t think that there’s anything that they’re doing that’s against what I think they should be doing,” he said. “We’re going to be the ones in the driver seat on this.”