East Portland rises


0413 EastPortland 01Neglected eastside neighborhoods begin to attract political attention and grow new community-based business models.

Share this article!

BY LINDA BAKER

0413 EastPortland 02
Above: The Portland Mercado, a Latino market, is slated to open in summer 2014 in a now vacant property at the corner of SE 72nd and Foster.
Below: Hacienda CDC clients Karen Castaneda and Andres Perez (right) attend a business class at PCC as part of their training to become Mercado vendors. The husband-and-wife team hope to open a Columbian food stand.
// Photos by Sierra Breshears
0413 EastPortland 04

In a city filled with food carts, Mark White is something of a pioneer. The president of the Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association, White is perhaps the first person in Portland to open a food cart on his front lawn and the first to make the cart into a political statement, in this case about the dearth of amenities along 122nd Avenue south of Powell Boulevard.

Apart from a bar, a small restaurant and a tire shop, there are virtually no businesses in the area, observes White, who named his food cart “South of Holgate” — a prosaic name rife with meaning. “I have wanted to brand this area as SoHo for a long time,” says White. “If we can ever get appropriate investment in the area, we will have a familiar name and a shovel-ready branding idea to build upon.”

White isn’t the only resident frustrated with the slow pace of development in East Portland, a region that typically refers to a collection of neighborhoods east of I-205 that were annexed by the city of Portland in the late 80s and 90s. The moniker East Portland is also applied, somewhat indiscriminately, to a wide swath of relatively poor, sprawling neighborhoods around 82nd Avenue. To this day, many outer eastside communities lack basic public services such as parks, sidewalks and transit options, as well as amenities inner-city denizens take for granted, such as grocery stores and coffee shops located within walking distance.

In 2009 the Portland City Council adopted the East Portland Action Plan, a road map designed to allocate more resources to the area. But so far, progress has been slow — and White’s food cart, a small shed sitting on a small lawn fronting 122nd Avenue’s busy four-lane artery, symbolizes the slow pace of change.

But if South of Holgate is a metaphor for East Portland circa 2013, it’s also because signs of neighborhood improvements are beginning to emerge. This past October, the city rezoned areas of 122nd Avenue to encourage more commercial activity. Community development organizations are moving forward with innovative entrepreneurial programs tapping into the region’s singular cultural diversity, and public officials and agencies, including Mayor Charlie Hales and the Portland Development Commission, are tweaking programs and policies to focus more attention on the outer east side.

At stake in these initiatives — and promises — is more than the equitable distribution of public and private resources. Since the 1990s, urban redevelopment has revolved around inner-city revitalization or new downtown developments such as the Pearl District and the South Waterfront. As efforts to improve the outer east side lumber forward, the question is whether policy makers, along with business and community groups, can create yet a third model, one that uplifts disenfranchised, car-oriented suburban neighborhoods.

“It’s the next big challenge for urban planners,” says Hales, sitting in his office this past January, just a few weeks after the mayoral election, “how to take 122nd and Division, where the pedestrian is a forlorn, endangered species, and systematically change it to a higher-value urban neighborhood.” Do outer eastside districts have to look exactly like the trendy North Williams or Alberta avenues? “No,” says Hales. “But they can’t function like they do today.”

Attention to social equity will distinguish eastside development practices, elaborates Nick Sauvie, executive director of Rose Community Development, a nonprofit working on several projects in the area. Historically, Portland revitalization efforts have involved displacing poor and minority residents from the inner city to outlying areas, Sauvie says. But East Portland requires a new strategy, one that revitalizes without gentrifying.

“It calls for an incremental, neighborhood-based approach that works with the existing strengths of the community,” says Sauvie. “Asset-building and on-the-ground organizing is what’s going to be needed to make East Portland the place people want it to be.”

 


0413 EastPortland 05
Above: Powellhurst resident Mark White is building a food cart in front of his house on Southeast 122nd Avenue. The cart, called “South of Holgate,” is expected to open this spring.
Below: High-density townhouses along Southeast 122nd Avenue. Residents hope zoning changes bring more businesses to the area.
// Photos by Sierra Breshears
0413 EastPortland 07

For a glimpse of what East Portland might look like in the future — and to understand why public officials and community organizers are rethinking traditional redevelopment strategies there — start with the fact that outer eastside neighborhoods are disproportionately poor and ethnically diverse. According to the 2010 census, 7,700 African Americans have moved out of inner North and Northeast Portland in the past decade, many moving to East Portland. Thirty percent of area residents are nonwhite, up from about 10% in 1990. About 80% of the kids enrolled in the area’s David Douglas School District qualify for free and reduced lunch, nearly double the percentage in Portland Public Schools.

 

These demographic trends are driving changes at the Portland Development Commission, says Patrick Quinton, the agency’s executive director. Historically, PDC has invested urban renewal funds in large-scale downtown projects such as the Pearl District or South Waterfront. In 2011, however, the agency shifted gears, creating six micro-urban renewal areas in lower-income eastside commercial districts known as “Neighborhood Prosperity Initiatives.” The goal, Quinton says, is “to grow businesses in East Portland and improve the economic fortunes of communities of color.” Accompanying the agency’s geographic shift is a philosophical change, says Quinton. “We’re focusing on people and businesses, not buildings and places.”

As the (modestly funded) prosperity-initiative districts take shape, local nonprofits are also doing their part to boost low-income and minority business ownership in the outer east side. A case in point is the Latino Mercado, a $1.6 million year-round farmers market-style venue that will open in 2014 in a renovated car dealership on Southeast 72nd and Foster near the Lents Urban Renewal Area.

A partnership between PDC and the Hacienda Community Development Corporation, the market will be staffed by graduates of Hacienda’s food-incubator program, which teaches eligible residents how to operate food businesses. According to Nathan Teske, Hacienda director of community development, the Mercado will allow low-income Hacienda residents to start up businesses relatively cheaply while helping to revitalize the languishing Foster commercial corridor. The current plan calls for each vendor to sell over $200,000 by the fifth year of operation.

Another capacity-building project, this one in the Lents Urban Renewal Area, borders on groundbreaking: a community real estate investment trust (REIT) that would allow low-income residents to invest in real estate. An initiative of Mercy Corps and Rose Community Development, the REIT is an innovative twist on a wealth-building tool typically reserved for the affluent. The goal is to recruit about 300 low-income renters in the Lents neighborhood, who would then invest about $100 a month to purchase a commercial building, then lease storefronts to rent-paying businesses.

“We think it’s pretty exciting both as an asset-building and antipoverty approach and a way to bring commercial investments into neighborhoods like Lents,” says Sauvie. As the REIT grows, investors could purchase additional properties. Organizers are creating a curriculum for potential investors, and the program is expected to get off the ground sometime this year.

 


0413 EastPortland 08
Above: Lisa Rohleder, owner of Working Class Acupuncture, recently opened a new location at Southeast 92nd and Foster. PDC is funding sidewalk and storefront improvements to the area.
Below: Agbora Naanee, owner of Wireless City on Southeast 123rd and Division, is helping conduct outreach with local businesses to improve the area.
// Photos by Sierra Breshears
0413 EastPortland 09

Boosting low-income and minority business entrepreneurship is one goal — and challenge — associated with outer east side redevelopment efforts. Attracting the private market is another. And while a still-sluggish economy makes it difficult to lure outside investment, the roadblocks go beyond financing.

 

In the 1990s, urban pioneers began fixing up Victorian and Craftsman homes in and around the Alberta and Belmont Main Street districts, paving the way for the inner-city renaissance. East Portland, by contrast, is sorely lacking in attractive, pedestrian-friendly environments, a key factor in the development of thriving close-in business districts. Instead, an overabundance of uninspired 1990s townhomes and dangerous highway-like arteries characterize East Portland — for example, seven of the city’s 16 most dangerous intersections are located in the Powellhurst neighborhood.

Such infrastructure deficiencies have not escaped the attention of Hales, who, like the PDC’s Quinton, says he aims to redistribute public resources for street improvements and other amenities more equitably throughout the city. “We are going to be looking with an equity lens at everything we do, and that includes geographic equity,” he says.

For Hales, trying to mitigate problems facing East Portland looks something like redemption. In 1996, as Bureau of Planning chief, Hales helped pass the Outer Southeast Community Plan, which rezoned a nearly two-mile stretch of 122nd between Foster and Division for apartments, townhouses and other multifamily dwellings. As a result, the neighborhood’s population jumped 34% from 2000 to 2010, and the number of renters increased by 72%.

Responding to resident complaints about the surfeit of housing — and lack of businesses — the city recently rezoned about 20 acres along 122nd Avenue allowing commercial activity. But Hales now faces criticism for trying to scale back sidewalk improvements in the area, a move that has sparked community outrage, especially after a 5-year-old girl was killed in February while crossing Southeast 136th Avenue.

There may also be a limit to what the public sector can do to lure the market east. Kevin Cavenaugh, a developer known for his innovative mixed-use projects in central-city neighborhoods, says rents aren’t high enough in the outer east side and that government programs alone won’t solve the problem. “Before moving to East Portland, builders have to be convinced good tenants will follow,” says Cavenaugh. “Will 24th & Meatballs locate in Lents? Will Noble Rot go out to 92nd?” he asks, referring to trendy dining venues that have located in his developments. “That’s the really interesting question, philosophically and practically.”

At least one well-known Portland business, New Seasons, may be ready to take the plunge. Grocers typically need the right mix of population, density, income and education level, and those demographics can deter food retailers from opening stores in East Portland neighborhoods, says Don Forest, New Seasons director of real estate.

But Forest says New Seasons “stretched those parameters” by opening stores in the (then) relatively poor neighborhoods around Killingsworth and Interstate avenues. Declining to be more specific, he also suggested New Seasons may soon open a store on the outer eastside. “There is a demand for a grocer east of 205, and we hope it’s us.” In March the Grocery Outlet beat New Seasons to the punch, opening a store on Southeast Division and 122nd Avenue, one of several East Portland neighborhoods the U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified as “grocery deficient.”

 


 

0413 EastPortland 10
Above: An undeveloped lot on Southeast 136th and Powell was recently rezoned for possible commercial development, such as a vertical manufacturing company.
// Photo by Sierra Breshears
Below: With a population of about 150,000 people, East Portland is not a monolithic community but a group of 13 diverse neighborhoods. The region was annexed by the city of Portland in the 1990s and lacks many of the public services and amenities found in central-city neighborhoods.
0413 EastPortland Map

Whether the New Seasons, McMenamins and Tasty & Sons of the world eventually expand to the outer east side remains to be seen; whether that kind of business development would lead to gentrification and displacement of local residents is also unclear. More certain is the incremental on-the-ground capacity building, which continues across East Portland. The Division-Midway Alliance, another East Portland prosperity initiative district, is planning a spring neighborhood fair and bike rodeo; according to Alliance co-chair Lori Boisen, the organization is also recruiting multilingual high school students to help engage business owners in cleaning up and improving their properties.

The owner of a coupon business targeting inner Southeast and Northeast residents, Boisen says her company is eager to move east. “But advertisers want to go where the money is,” she says. “Our goal is to make this a prosperous area for businesses.”

In Lents, longtime property owner Sam Farah had been using a storefront on Southeast 92nd Avenue as family storage — for the past eight years. But with the help of PDC grants to improve the sidewalk frontage and storefronts, Farah recently decided to upgrade the building. “We finally felt the need to do something with the property,” he says. One of the spaces was recently leased to Working Class Acupuncture, a business that used a $60,000 tenant improvement loan to complete its own build-out.

On 122nd, when White isn’t putting the finishing touches on South of Holgate, he’s championing a mixed-use project that would combine retail space, a community kitchen and veterans’ housing, a development he says requires PDC assistance. White also hopes a few of the rezoned properties — a large undeveloped lot off 126th and Powell, in particular — will attract a vertical manufacturing company like Bridgetown Natural Foods, which, in 2010, moved into a 65,000-square-foot facility on Foster Road east of I-205.

For White and many others, such projects can’t arrive soon enough. But if evolution is slow, a new chapter is definitely unfolding in Portland, a city at once lauded for revitalizing languishing neighborhoods and criticized for creating a pattern of homogeneity and dislocation. Improving the fortunes of East Portland is about more than uplifting neighborhoods on the margin. It’s about maintaining the health — and reputation — of the entire city, and testing the viability of a new, culturally diverse, community-based development model. The success or failure of that model could have ripple effects nationwide.

In the past decade, poverty has migrated away from the inner city to the suburbs, in Portland and around the country, says Nick Christensen, president of the Lents Neighborhood Association. “If we want to tell the world we are the best planned city, then we have to come up with the answer to East Portland and how to make it successful economically,” Christensen says. “It’s the great problem we are all trying to solve.”

Linda Baker is the editor of Oregon Business. She can be reached at [email protected].