A new initiative by the Portland Development Commission may put Alberta Street in an urban renewal area. Photo by Jake Thomas.
The Portland Development Commission has long been a lightning rod for the unease and mistrust of residents of north and northeast Portland- particularly African Americans.
Over the years, the region has seen longtime residents and businesses displaced as property values have skyrocketed and a handful of in-the-know developers cashed in.
But the commission might have a big opportunity to restore trust through a new initiative.
If they don’t blow it.
The PDC’s North/Northeast Economic Development Initiative seeks to analyze how the commission has spent money in the area, and could end up reconfiguring spending priorities and expanding two urban renewal areas.
A few ideas have been proposed that would dramatically reshape urban renewal in the area, but it’s not clear if they’ll pick up enough steam between now and when the PDC Board and City Council consider them either later this month or in April.
Currently there are two urban renewal areas in inner north and northeast Portland. One is concentrated around the Convention Center, and other snakes alongside interstate corridor in north Portland and branches out in surrounding neighborhoods. Essentially what both do is siphon off tax revenue generated in the areas that go towards spiffing up store fronts, developing new real estate, and generally making the place more attractive for private investment.
The North/Northeast Economic Development Initiative might end up shifting the funding priorities in URA’s and expanding them to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the Lombard Commercial Corridor, Killingsworth and Alberta Streets, St. Johns Town Center, and the Rose Quarter.
One thing is for sure: People are uneasy with expanding urban renewal.
“We keep going back to the meetings and saying the same things,” said Sylvia Evans, an affordable housing advocate, at a community forum sponsored by the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods.
The PDC has been faulted for favoring well-connected developers who manage to secure URA funds, while businesses and residents are displaced.
The Eliot Neighborhood Association has come out against expanding any URA into a neighborhood, citing how they’ve been used by speculators to reshape residential areas for their benefit.
“The history of urban renewal in Eliot has been marred by wholesale demolition of residential dwellings in the past,” reads a letter from the association.
At a community meeting on the PDC initiative sponsored by the Northeast Coalition, its executive director, Paige Coleman, revealed a set of polls it had conducted that revealed that many residents didn’t feel they wouldn’t benefit from the process.
According to Karen Gibson, an associate professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, one of the biggest stumbling blocks with urban renewal is that by law the money generated from them can only be used on “stick and bricks,” or infrastructure. No money can be used on job training, childcare, or education, or human-oriented services.
“We have to do more than develop property,” said Gibson, who describes urban renewal as a “tool for gentrification.”
Gibson said that for urban renewal to benefit people besides well-connected developers there needs to be another pot of money for things that will lift up people living in the URA’s.
There are a couple ideas floating around that might accomplish this.
At a community forum, Coleman discussed the idea of a community land trust to mitigate gentrification. Under these arrangements, homeowners and businesses hand their land over to a trust. The large pool of properties allows the trust to keep the land affordable, insulating it against speculation.
The issue of urban renewal displacing residents of north and northeast Portland has reached the ears of Margaret Van Vliet, director of the Portland Housing Bureau.
In an open letter to Charles Wilhoite, a PDC commissioner and chair of an advisory committee on the initiative, Van Vliet stated that she was going to launch a $120,000 pilot program in north and northeast Portland that will provide technical assistance to at-risk homeowners in the area.
Roy Jay, the head of the local African American Chamber of Commerce and member of the community advisory committee to the initiative, said he has pitched the idea that one percent of all gross revenue generated in urban renewal areas would go into a fund that would go to non-profits and community organizations like the Urban League or Sabin Community Development Corporation. This money could be used from anything from rent assistance to small businesses.
“This is the grand slam home run,” said Jay.