Neighbors decry the 'slummy' look of unimproved streets

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Cooper Manor Adult Foster Care resident Brian Crittenden relies on a wheelchair to get around, but still doesn't want to see Southeast Cooper Street paved because he thinks it will bring more traffic and noise. The owner of the foster care home is anxious to see Cooper Street paved. Drive along Southeast Cooper Street — if you dare — east from Brentwood Park and you’ll encounter 10 consecutive blocks of bumpy dirt road and imposing potholes.

The half-mile stretch in Portland’s Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood from 62nd Avenue to 72nd Avenue “feels dumpy,” says Allie Fuller, a Realtor for Keller Williams who has a home listed for sale nearby.

The unpaved road is marked by several empty lots, overgrown weeds, graffiti, and, as of Monday, what appears to be a can’s worth of someone’s garbage turned upside down and simply dumped in the middle of the street.

“Crazy things” happen at night, including prostitution and drug dealing, because it’s so easy to hide along the little-used street, says longtime resident Constantin Dragulin.

When his father visited from Romania in the early 1990s, he couldn’t believe that Cooper Street was in the middle of a city, Dragulin recalls. “He said, ‘Why the city do not improve these streets?’ “

The easy answer: Portland expects property owners to pay an estimated $300 a month for 20 years to cover the cost of adding roads, sidewalks, curbs and related amenities for a typical house. Many Portlanders are unable or unwilling to pay that, resulting in an embarrassing 45 miles of unpaved residential streets throughout the city.

In a new initiative dubbed Out of the Mud, the Portland City Council soon will consider relaxing the city’s road-building standards, enabling residents to pay closer to $60 a month over 20 years for a simple 16-foot-wide asphalt road and a bed of gravel for parked cars.

Worth the cost?

This stretch of Cooper provides an illustration of how Out of the Mud might work. Surrounding blocks include a simple paved roadway but no sidewalks or curbs; pedestrians, bicyclists and people in wheelchairs share the roadway with cars.

Dragulin, owner and operator of Cooper Manor Adult Foster Care, says he’d welcome the chance to get his street paved for about $60 a month. He’s fought in vain for more than 25 years to convince the city and his neighbors to pave Cooper Street, and says he spends more than $1,000 some years just to fill nearby potholes with gravel.

Paving Cooper Street, Dragulin figures, might add $100,000 to $150,000 in property value to his adult foster home.

But even a sharply reduced paving price may not convince many neighbors to foot the bill.

It’s probably too soon, given the state of Portland’s real estate market, to expect many people to jump at the chance to pave their streets, says Mary Tompkins-Fiocchi, a broker at John L. Scott Real Estate.

“People are going to want to see stability and price appreciation before investing those kinds of dollars in marginal neighborhoods,” she says.

Some like dirt roads

A 2010 study by five Portland State University graduate students in urban planning found that a high number of residents in the nearby Woodstock neighborhood don’t want their dirt roads paved. Many say that dirt roads cut down on traffic and give their neighborhood a more rural flavor. They’d be happy if the city would just fill in the potholes.

Dirt roads also provide more affordable housing, which is in short supply in closer-in Portland neighborhoods.

But that illustrates a key problem with unpaved roads: they can perpetuate a slumlike appearance or conditions in some neighborhoods.

“It’s kind of a Catch-22,” Tompkins-Fiocchi says. Unpaved roads tend to offer more affordable housing, but lower-income residents and lower property values make it harder for homeowners or landlords to afford or justify paying for improved roads.

She also has attended many Woodstock neighborhood meetings and heard reports of higher crime levels on unpaved streets.

Unpaved roads in outer Southeast Portland can feed the impression that residents there are “second-class citizens,” says Nick Sauvie, executive director of Rose Community Development Corp., which owns a rental on Cooper Street.

“It really sends a message that this isn’t a nice neighborhood,” Sauvie says, “and I think the perception issue is a big one.”

Sidewalks not essential?

In contrast, Nouveau Realty Group real estate agent Risa Davis just sold a house near Cooper Street in one day.

“That neighborhood is a pretty hot neighborhood if they’re under $200,000,” Davis says.

The lack of sidewalks doesn’t seem to be keeping homebuyers away, she says.

But Davis suspects it’s harder to sell a home on Cooper, as many people don’t even want to drive on such a bumpy street.

A Portland Tribune analysis found homes on this 10-block stretch of Cooper, including those on corner lots facing paved side streets, tend to be smaller, with lower real market values assigned by Multnomah County, than comparable homes on Ogden, the next street to the south that has a paved road but no sidewalks. There’s also a higher share of rental units on Cooper: 34 percent versus 16 percent on a parallel stretch of Ogden.

Experts say having a higher share of homeowners brings more residents with “pride of ownership” that keep their homes tidier, resulting in a more stable, attractive neighborhood.

A similar pattern was found when comparing a pothole-riddled stretch of 79th Avenue just north of Powell Boulevard, to a parallel stretch of 78th Avenue, which is fully paved.

Twenty-six percent of the homes on 79th Avenue are rentals, versus 16 percent on 78th Avenue.

City investment would help

Many experts say the city will need to do more than just make it cheaper for property owners to pay for roads on dirt streets.

Elsewhere, when the city has helped pay to pave streets in outer Southeast, it has spurred homeowners to make investments and revitalize the neighborhoods, Sauvie says. One example is Harney Street between Southeast 60th and 70th Avenues, he says, when “shacks” got torn down and replaced by better housing.

Jim Strathman, director of Portland State University’s Center for Urban Studies, says government-aided road projects can help kickstart improvements to downtrodden neighborhoods.

“Crummy infrastructure translates into below-market housing, and the below-market housing translates into crummy infrastructure,” Strathman says.

To break that cycle, he says, you can’t just wait for the neighborhood to get healthier and then pay for roads and other amenities. “You have to just go in,” he says, “and make these improvements.”

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