Neighbors get to work on transformation of 'deli'
by: JIM CLARK, A community fundraising effort helped the Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Program acquire the Drive Thru Wake Up Deli, which had been raided by federal agents in a 2003 drug bust.

The job of creating a nonprofit community center for the Mount Tabor and South Tabor neighborhoods is going smoother than Paul Leistner expected.

The neighborhood activist is leading the effort to turn the old Drive Thru Wake Up Deli into a community hub, and he's doing it without city funding.

'Wherever we've needed help, we've been able to find it,' Leistner said. 'I'm becoming more optimistic about this project with every step we take.'

The old minimarket, at the corner of Southeast 57th Avenue and Division Street, had been closed since federal agents raided it in 2003 and arrested the owner, Adnan Fares. Fares is currently serving 135 months in prison for selling pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in making methamphetamine, to drug labs.

Because the market is located across the street from two schools - Atkinson Elementary School and Franklin High School - the neighborhood agreed that it was an ideal location for a community center.

With Leistner's leadership and a quick fundraising campaign, the 20-neighborhood coalition Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Program raised the $50,000 necessary to acquire the building from the federal government. At the time, ideas for the site included a day-care center, housing and office space.

A yer later, after community input and dozens of design meetings, the focus of the center is clear.

'The overall goal is rebuilding the infrastructure of democracy,' Leistner said. 'People are more and more isolated from each other. … It's this idea of creating connections.'

Leistner, director of Portland State University's Center for Public Participation, said he senses a general feeling of powerlessness and frustration, not only among his Southeast Portland neighbors, but among Americans in general. He thinks the country's history of uniting to perpetuate change has fallen away as Americans spend more time isolated in their homes and watching television.

'There's a lot of power in this community,' Leistner said, pointing to the successful neighborhood effort to prevent the city from covering its reservoirs at Mount Tabor Park.

There are two phases planned for the site, now named Atkinson/Tabor Community Commons. The first phase involves rehabilitating the existing, 900-square-foot minimarket and changing it into a family-friendly coffee house run by the nonprofit organization Cafe au Play.

Kristin Heying founded Cafe au Play 18 months ago. Its mission: to encourage social networking among parents.

Earlier this year, the group organized the six-month pilot program, On the Road With Cafe au Play, with overwhelming success. The program included events held at six coffee shops in the Portland area. Each one attracted more than 100 adults and children.

Heying said she was pleased with the events but still believed Cafe au Play needed a permanent space.

'When you have a permanent space, it becomes a place that people can come to daily based on their schedules,' she said. 'They can … get to know people and create the genuine support systems.'

Heying is working closely with Opsis Architects, whose architects are volunteering their time to re-create the minimarket space. Her biggest challenge is to find a balance between child-friendly spaces and adult coffee house spaces, which she said probably means some sort of aesthetically pleasing corral for toddlers. She wants neighbors without children to feel welcome, too.

While design plans for the minimarket are not finalized, Leistner estimates the first phase will cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The second phase of the Atkinson/Tabor Community Commons is a much larger undertaking - including construction of a second building on the site with meeting rooms and a kitchen, and extensive landscaping that includes a play area and sustainable design such as rainwater capture and community gardening plots.

The plan is to get the entire project Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certified, which opens up more opportunities for private and federal grant funding.

'We'd love to start a movement where every neighborhood does something like this that is community-owned and community-operated,' Leistner said.

The Atkinson/Tabor Community Commons will be run by a paid manager and owned by a community land trust. A fundraising campaign for both phases of construction will begin in several months.

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