Park ban targets trouble
Anyone excluded from the New Columbia housing development in north Portland would automatically be banned from adjacent McCoy Park under a new ordinance passed by the Portland City Council. Photo by Mark Washington.
The repercussions of two summer shootings at New Columbia has resulted in a new city ordinance that excludes anyone from the neighborhood’s adjacent park who have also been banned from the housing development.
New Columbia is an innovative housing development in north Portland that blends rental and owner-occupied properties on the remains of Columbia Villa, a World War II era public housing project.
Residents of the neighborhood, which was reopened in 2005, have strived to get past a troubled past that included gang violence, and chart a positive course for the experimental community. But the recent shootings raised fresh concerns that past gang activity was returning.
Before the ordinance was passed last week, people who were excluded from New Columbia could easily migrate to McCoy Park, a nearly four acre park in the center of the housing development. It meant that someone could be banned from New
Columbia, which is operated by the Housing Authority of Portland, for peddling drugs, attempting to establish a gang presence, or generally decreasing the livability of the area, and then simply take a few steps to McCoy Park, which is operated by Portland Parks and Recreation, and be in the clear.
“In other words, they have been able to use McCoy Park as a sanctuary or safe haven and remain in the middle of the community that they’ve just been excluded from,” said Mark Warrington, public safety manager for the parks bureau, at the City Council hearing for the ordinance
Mike Schmerber, a north Portland police officer, told City Council that there are several individuals who have been excluded from New Columbia for weapons violations, robberies, and gang ties, who have been able to find sanctuary in the park.
Exclusions have been useful for police, said Schmerber, because they can arrest people banned from New Columbia for trespassing, instead of waiting for them to commit a crime.
“That’s a powerful tool,” he said.
The New Columbia Homeowners Association supports the new ordinance, as does the housing bureau and the city Office of Neighborhood Involvement.
However, City Commissioner Randy Leonard expressed misgiving about this approach.
“These folks aren’t going to just say, well, I’m going to quit robbing people and hanging out with gangs,” said Leonard.
He brought up how the city has tried prostitution-free and drug-free zones that banish anyone from them that is suspected of the prohibited activity. He said that such individuals just migrate elsewhere, and a better approach has been to get them into treatment.
“My issue, and my sole issue, is what I don’t like to see us do is make one community feel better to the expense of another community,” he said.
Leonard, however, ended up voting with the rest of City Council in favor of the ordinance given the community’s unique challenges.
Ida Cunningham, a resident of New Columbia who lives across the street from McCoy Park, told City Council that the neighborhood has come a long way, but still has to grapple with old problems.
“Because once upon a time it was Columbia Villa, and it was a bad zone territory, a bad zone territory,” she said.
Cunningham said the park is where she takes her puppy on walks and sees kids playing.
She said that a shooting occurred in front of her house in the park. She later found out the people involved didn’t live in New Columbia, and wants the park to remain safe.
Nick Fish, the commissioner in charge of the parks bureau, said he appreciated the concerns raised by Leonard, and would report back to City Council in six months on how the exclusion is working.