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Razing a neighborhood to save it

Huge North Portland development won't be 'McMansions or ghettos'

This is the first of two stories on the redevelopment of North Portland's Columbia Villa.

• Today Ð How the redevelopment of Columbia Villa may affect the concentration of poverty and access to public services in North Portland

• Friday, May 2 Ð Show me the money: How the Housing Authority of Portland intends to pay for Ñ and sell Ñ the $150 million redevelopment of Columbia Villa

In 1942, with wartime shipyard workers flooding into town, the brand-new Housing Authority of Portland threw up a public development in North Portland to shelter them.

No one cared that the 82-acre development Ñ called Columbia Villa Ñ did not look like its neighbors; when the war was over, the expectation was that the development would be demolished.

But more than 60 years later, Columbia Villa is still there, a vast public housing project cut off from the rest of North Portland by its poverty, lack of public facilities and a layout that literally turns its back on the surrounding neighborhood.

All that will change this year, when the villa's 1,200 existing residents are relocated and the entire site is knocked to the ground.

In its place, by December 2006, will be New Columbia, a $150 million mixed-use, mixed-income redevelopment intended to make the site's public housing and tenants blend into the Portsmouth neighborhood.

The housing authority and its partners Ñ which include the city and private developers Ñ expect to relocate all of Columbia Villa's residents by September, then raze the villa's World War II-era duplexes and fourplexes. They will be replaced with a mix of public housing, 'affordable' rental and homeowner-occupied units, and market-rate single-family residences. There also will be a central area with a small commercial area, a new park and sites for a library and elementary school.

'This is a huge piece for our community,' says Allison Couch, principal of nearby Clarendon Elementary School and a member of New Columbia's citizens advisory committee. 'It has the possibility of really changing the face of North Portland.'

But not everyone thinks the change will be for the better. Some North Portland residents, accustomed to villa residents having to leave the site for school and other activities, are concerned that New Columbia will draw public facilities away from them. Others fear that the increased number of housing units Ñ 850 versus the villa's 462 Ñ and doubled population will further concentrate poverty in an area of Portland whose median income already is well below the city's average.

Howard Shapiro, chairman of the housing authority's board and a veteran of neighborhood concerns about public housing, believes that the change will be good.

'What we have now is an island of dormitory-style housing falling into disrepair with Ñ almost Ñ a moat around it,' Shapiro says. 'The idea is to take that wall down. At the end of the day, there won't be McMansions or ghettos. There will be a much more balanced community that is truly, truly representative of North Portland.'

Like Shapiro, longtime Columbia Villa resident Susan Franks has high hopes for New Columbia.

'In August 1988 a Columbia Villa resident, Joseph 'Ray Ray' Winston, was murdered in the first drive-by shooting in the state,' Franks wrote to the federal government in 2001 in support of a Hope VI 'revitalization' grant for the villa. 'Ever since that date, Columbia Villa has been fighting an uphill battle against a reputation it can't seem to leave behind. Hope VI will allow this community to leave this tragic event where it belongs, in the past.'

Unlike Shapiro and Franks, North Portland library advocate Miriam Linder is not happy about all of New Columbia's plans.

'We've been outspent, outgunned and outmaneuvered by bureaucrats and politicians and developers who are focused on this one area,' says Linder, who has worked for years to get a new Multnomah County branch library on North Lombard Street.

Instead, on April 3, Linder heard the county commissioners Ñ led by her commissioner, Serena Cruz Ñ vote to pursue siting the library in a building that the housing authority plans to erect on New Columbia's main street.

'Of course they (the housing authority) want a library,' Linder says tearfully. 'They want to sell market-value houses to middle-class families. But they've just sucked up the one bright light this community could see.

'It's not us versus Columbia Villa,' says Linder, who lives in the Arbor Lodge neighborhood, immediately southeast of Portsmouth. 'What we're trying to do here is see the library be successful. I think they're taking a terrible chance siting it in this remote (New Columbia) location. It's too far from a main thoroughfare. It's not on the way to anything. It's simple geography.'

The library is not the only public facility that could be located at New Columbia. The housing authority and the Portland school district have begun discussions about a new elementary school that probably would replace the neighborhood's existing Ball Elementary School. And the complex's design includes a nearly 4-acre park that the housing authority envisions ceding to the city, which would operate it.

Looks are deceiving

On the surface, Columbia Villa doesn't look like a stereotypical public housing project, a term that the housing authority doesn't like. Its density is considerably lower than that of the adjoining Portsmouth neighborhood, and broad, well-kept lawns separate its tidy clusters of duplexes and fourplexes.

'We're a really good housing authority,' says Julie Livingston, New Columbia's project manager. 'We maintain our housing really well.'

She points to a chain-link fence that separates the villa from the surrounding neighborhood. 'That's not so attractive, but it really stopped the social problems we were having here,' she says. 'It made it easier to protect our residents and our property. Our crime level now is really, really, really low.' The Portland Police Bureau has a safety action team with an office in the villa's management building and regularly patrols the site.

But Livingston says that behind Columbia Villa's carefully maintained exterior are numerous problems. Its infrastructure was engineered to last 10 years, not 60. 'Everything from the ground up looks great,' Livingston says. 'Everything below, i.e., sewers, is terrible and we can't fix it.'

The residences face away from its neighbors, and the streets connect with the Portsmouth neighborhood in only four places, spread over 82 acres. New Columbia's design plan, by contrast, creates a grid block of streets that connect with those in Portsmouth.

But the separation between the villa and the Portsmouth neighborhood is much more than physical. The neighborhood, according to the 2000 census, was 51 percent white; the villa's population is more than 60 percent minority, including 56 immigrant households with no English-speaking members.

It also is poorer. 'People in public housing have low incomes,' Livingston says. 'About 90 percent of our residents have annual household incomes of less than $20,000, most less than $7,000.' The entire Portsmouth neighborhood, by comparison, had a median household income of $34,511 in 2000, according to census figures.

Richard Ellmyer, New Columbia's most vocal critic and a Portsmouth resident, says he fears that the project will increase the neighborhood's concentration of poverty. Portsmouth's 2000 median household income was approximately $10,000 less than the city's average. It also has one of the city's highest percentages of public housing residents.

'A $150 million federal and private housing project intends to bring an additional 1,300 or more low-income people to North Portland,' Ellmyer warned his list of 'HAP watchers' in a June 2002 e-mail.

But Mike Andrews, New Columbia's finance manager, says the new development Ñ while doubling the villa's existing population Ñ actually will have fewer public housing units than at present. Andrews says the complex's 'affordable' rental units and most of its for-sale residences will be geared toward occupants with higher incomes.

Schools will be affected

While housing authority officials dispute Ellmyer's calculations about New Columbia's income mix, they acknowledge that it will affect the area's public services.

'There's no doubt that there's going to be an impact on (neighborhood) schools,' the authority's John Keating said in February at one of the agency's public design forums. 'That's something we've worked on since the very beginning of this process.'

Until the villa's resident relocation process began in March, about 150 of its children attended nearby Clarendon Elementary School. Another 50 were at Ball Elementary, located on North Willis Boulevard between the villa's south border and North Lombard Street, according to Ball's principal, Tamala Newsome.

Those villa students and their families who have not already moved will be relocated by September, not all of them in North Portland.

But, Clarendon principal Couch says, the villa's relocation process has created a 'low level of anxiety' among her students. 'Our kids don't want to move,' she explains. 'They love this school, and their parents love this school.'

While Couch has prepared for lower student numbers during the next few years, she is uncertain about what may happen to Clarendon after the villa site is reoccupied and its former population doubled.

'(That's when) I'm going to have to dig in and start fighting for the school,' she predicts, noting that as many as 400 additional children could move into New Columbia, swamping Clarendon and Ball. Couch says Ball currently is at full capacity and using portable units.

One option, according to New Columbia Project Director Lyndon 'Tuck' Wilson, is for the school district to ask voters Ñ possibly as early as next year Ñ to fund a new elementary school within New Columbia. If a measure passed, he says, Ball Elementary would be closed after the new school was built.

Pam Brown, the district's director of facilities, says Superintendent Jim Scherzinger has expressed interest in siting a school in New Columbia that 'most likely' would replace Ball. However, she notes that the district currently lacks the money to do anything.

'That's as far as we've gotten,' she says of the district's general conversations with the housing authority. 'We're just exploring that possibility.'

The housing authority also is designing a 3-plus-acre park for New Columbia's core, which Wilson says it hopes to have seeded this summer. Wilson says HAP hopes to further develop the park before giving it to the city to own and maintain at the city's expense. Sue Donaldson, a senior planner for Portland Parks & Recreation, says the department has been involved with the housing authority in planning for the park but would not commit to anything without money from the City Council.

Currently, the county, the school district and the city have no money budgeted for a North Portland branch library, a new school in the Portsmouth neighborhood or operation of a park in New Columbia.

Money, says library Renovation Manager June Mikkelsen, is why the county is looking at New Columbia instead of one of library advocate Linder's preferred sites on North Lombard Street.

'HAP was the only site willing to talk about the possibility of providing a building,' she says simply. 'That's why Cruz made the recommendation she did.'

Meanwhile, says Linder, 'My heavily Democratic, working-class neighborhood is just now waking up to all the things we're not getting.'

Contact Janine Robben at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .