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Free Land Deal

PDC defends controversial project

Donovan M. Smith | 11/27/2013, 9:50 a.m.
Does a Trader Joe's on MLK Blvd. foster gentrification?
Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Alberta Street (right) is the proposed site of a Trader Joe’s specialty grocery store. A few blocks away, Eli Shannon (left) stacks fresh fruit at the Alberta Co-op on Northeast 15th Avenue and Alberta Street. Employees at the community grocer are gearing up for competition from the national retailer. Photo by Donovan M. Smith

The Portland Development Commission is defending its move to bring the national specialty grocer Trader Joe’s to the rapidly developing King Neighborhood in northeast Portland.

Economic development in the long gentrifying neighborhood can raise the alarm of longtime residents, especially low and middle-income African-Americans who have lost their homes, but the economic development agency maintains that this deal will not contribute to further gentrification, but in fact help people stay in the neighborhood and “prosper”.

Not everyone agrees though.

The location in question is a 2-acre site at the intersection of two of the city’s rapidly changing streets, Martin Luther King Boulevard and Alberta Street. Houses and businesses on the property had been removed from several lots over the years as the PDC worked to invigorate the heart of Portland’s traditional black community with the adjacent Vanport Square, a retail hub that was created by minority and women-owned developers as a magnet for minority entrepreneurs.

PDC had been in talks with various developers to double the size of the Vanport Square project by luring a highly attractive retailer; one that would bring more foot traffic to the other vendors along the development.

At one point during the mid 2000’s it looked like former NBA star and businessman Magic Johnson’s, Magic Johnson Enterprises would ink a deal to bring a 24 Hour Fitness to the space but late in negotiations that plan fell through.

Since that failed attempt, PDC followed a path that would fill the space with an anchor grocer, a vision that drew some support from the King Neighborhood Association and others. According to city data at the time, the area was deprived enough to be deemed a “food desert,” even with big-name retailers like Safeway and Fred Meyer serving the neighborhood, and various smaller grocers like the Alberta Co-op and Cherry Sprout even closer-in.

With this justification, PDC moved forward with their plans. Around 2011, they began talks with California-based developer Majestic Realty Co. to bring Trader Joe’s to the area.

The retail chain extended a stipulation of secrecy in talks with the PDC, which may have stemmed some outcry from the public once the details of the deal were revealed.

Although not yet legally set in stone yet, Majestic Realty is expected to sign a letter of intent at the end of December solidifying a transaction with PDC that will give them a $2.4 million break on the cost of the property with Trader Joe’s as the anchor tenant and space for 4 to 10 other businesses and 100 surface parking spaces.

When the proposed transaction was made public, opposition came quickly in the form of an organized protest at the site drawing a few dozen citizens led by Steven Gilliam, a local African American resident and community activist.

In a letter sent to the King Neighborhood Association, Gilliam ridiculed the labeling of neighborhood as a food desert saying the decision to sell a prime piece of real estate at an 80 percent discount was based on a false promise and fulfills a fictional need that primarily benefits the 1 percent of wealthy Americans.