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42nd ready for takeoff

Area's revitalization lags behind its more glamorous neighbors'
by: JIM CLARK, Pam Levenson opened her custom-swimsuit shop, Poppi Swim, on Northeast 42nd Avenue in March. The area, she says, is “prime for redeveloping.”

Change has come slowly to the business district along Northeast 42nd Avenue, between Northeast Prescott and Killingsworth streets.

A handful of storefronts scattered through 10 blocks have clean designs and new paint, an obvious effort to encourage walk-in business. But with only one crosswalk, drivers barely have time to notice the little signs of life as they speed past.

Pam Levenson is a new tenant on Northeast 42nd Avenue. She opened Poppi Swim, a custom swimsuit store, on the 4800 block back in March. With her funky window displays, retro designs, vibrant fabrics and Tiffany-colored walls, Levenson's little shop looks like it belongs in the Pearl District or on a boardwalk.

'I definitely wanted to stay in the neighborhood,' says Levenson, who lives one mile from her store. 'I really believe in this street.'

Word has spread among the fashion conscious about Levenson's designs. Although her shop brings visitors from other parts of town, Levenson wishes there were more on the street, like in the nearby Beaumont business district, to accommodate foot traffic. While business is not bad on Northeast 42nd Avenue, it's not vibrant, either.

Grant program never took off

Business owners along Northeast 42nd Avenue have been talking about revitalization since the late 1990s. About eight years ago, the St. Charles Church organized a small group of business owners and neighbors to brainstorm ways to meet their needs.

'We were doing a listening process with our church members, and a concern that repeatedly surfaced was the deterioration of 42nd,' says Barbara Hays, former associate pastor at St. Charles. 'There were a lot of empty buildings and buildings looking pretty shabby.'

The local neighborhood coalition office obtained a five-year grant to hire a person to spearhead the revitalization effort. That resulted in Northeast 42nd Avenue being designated a Target Area from 2001 to 2004 through the Bureau of Housing and Community Development. The program began in the mid-1990s to solve Portland's overwhelming blight problem and has since lost federal funding.

The Target Area designation opened up a floodgate of federal funding opportunities, including storefront revitalization matching grants, low-interest business loans, feasibility studies, and trash and graffiti removal.

But business owners on Northeast 42nd Avenue didn't take full advantage of the opportunities. Only six businesses participated in the storefront revitalization grants. Other funding went to trash and graffiti cleanup, and a market study.

'It was a mixture of success,' says Howard Cutler, who ran the bureau's Target Area program for the housing bureau. 'As soon as the graffiti and the litter and other visual problems were improved, some people didn't want to continue.'

Cutler points out more successful Target Areas on North Mississippi Avenue, on Northeast Alberta Street and in St. Johns, some of which received federal funds at the same time as Northeast 42nd Avenue. Those areas received the same funding opportunities and, Cutler says, were more successful at finding investors for dilapidated buildings.

'The prices on Mississippi and Alberta were lower because they had more blight,' Cutler says. 'But even more could have been invested on (42nd Avenue) properties, and more fix-ups could've been undertaken when we had the funds available.'

Kevin Pasion, owner of Greb's kitchen and bath showroom, received matching funds to overhaul his storefront in 2003. He says, once the small signs of revitalization began, some building owners opted to leave the neighborhood rather than participate. By the time buildings changed hands, the federal funding had run out.

'We're still in the infancy of our revitalization,' he said.

Many 'hoods but no real home

One of the disadvantages for the street, according to longtime neighbor Ann Rothert, is that Northeast 42nd Avenue exists in the shadows of its more popular neighboring business districts. 'Alberta Arts' and Beaumont (along Northeast Fremont Street) are about a dozen blocks west and south of the street.

'I feel like no one neighborhood completely embraces 42nd,' Rothert says. 'It's easy to focus on Alberta and Killingsworth because they're in the middle of a neighborhood.'

The Northeast 42nd Avenue business district is the dividing line between the Cully and Concordia neighborhoods, and it also stretches a few blocks into the Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood.

Rothert thinks the neighborhood associations need to embrace the street and focus energies on helping with the business association's revitalization plans.

The business association, in the meantime, is continuing with the plan of action laid out from the federally funded market study.

Association members are putting the word out to commercial real estate brokers that rent on Northeast 42nd Avenue is lower than its neighboring districts. In particular, they are seeking business that will attract neighbors, such as cafes and restaurants.

Business owners also are in communication with the Portland Office of Transportation.

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