To work, New Columbia needs buy-in from tenants, homeowners, developers

This is the second of two stories on the redevelopment of North Portland's Columbia Villa. The first, 'Razing a neighborhood to save it,' was published April 25 and can be found online at

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Sylvia Franks hasn't lived in Columbia Villa's public housing since 1999. But she still breaks into tears when she talks about hearing it described as 'a ghetto' by a critic of its planned transformation into a mixed-income development.

The critic's wife 'said he meant it as the heart, or center, of the community,' says Franks, who now lives in private housing and works full time relocating residents for the villa's owner, the Housing Authority of Portland. 'But I've been to Harlem. Since when has 'ghetto' ever meant the heart of the community?'

The word 'ghetto' sums up the sales job that the housing authority, or HAP, will have to do for the development, dubbed New Columbia.

The housing authority is scheduled to demolish the villa's 82-acre North Portland site in October. In its place, it plans to build a mixed-income, mixed-use development costing $146.5 million that will include both market-rate, single-family homes and public housing; a small retail space; a park, and sites for a library and elementary school.

But, to sell it, the housing authority will have to:

• Convince developers that they can make money on the project

• Attract buyers to homes that will abut rental housing occupied by households, many of them comprising minorities and/or immigrants with annual incomes of $20,000 or less

• Reassure the Portsmouth neighborhood's existing residents that their property values and lifestyles will benefit Ñ or at least not be dragged down by Ñ a more heavily populated villa site that faces the neighborhood instead of away from it and has public facilities, such as a library and park, that they will need to go to the site to use

• Keep the majority of the villa's residents, who are being relocated in preparation for the site's demolition, interested in returning Ñ in some cases as homeowners Ñ when New Columbia's first phase opens in 2005

Will it work? That depends on whom you ask.

Neighborhood resident Berdine Jordan, who moved from Beaverton to Portsmouth with her husband three years ago because 'it was affordable,' says she knows there is a 'cross-section of thought' about New Columbia.

'My take is that we should be more supportive,' says Jordan, who has seen the value of her house appreciate by 50 percent in just three years. 'I think integrating it (the villa) into the neighborhood would be beneficial.'

Portland developer David Bell, who has done privately owned but subsidized housing projects in the past, says he thinks that New Columbia's developers will do all right, despite the lack of a rosy local economy. The housing authority is 'fighting a little bit of that North Portland thing,' he says. 'But I think it's a good enough location and a really nice piece of land. I think it has a lot of potential.'

Even Richard Ellmyer, a Portsmouth neighborhood resident and New Columbia's most vocal critic, says he think the housing authority will be able to get the development built and sold.

But, in an e-mail sent to 'HAP Watchers' last year, Ellmyer warned that the housing authority's plan constitutes a 'massive exercise in social architecture' that will bring an additional 1,300 low-income residents to the area and 'could have a dramatic effect on your property values É and crime.'

Housing authority officials agree that the villa's existing population of approximately 1,200 is expected to double when New Columbia is completed. And the 'social architecture' of the villa and the Portsmouth neighborhood as a whole is different.

According to the housing authority and 2000 U.S. census figures, 90 percent of villa households have annual incomes of less than $20,000: Portsmouth's median income Ñ including Columbia Villa's current residents Ñ is $34,511. Sixty percent of villa residents are minorities, many of them immigrants from other countries. The neighborhood overall is 51 percent white.

But Yvonne Davis, board chairman of RMLS, which compiles real estate statistics for the Portland metropolitan area, says she expects New Columbia to marginally increase Ñ not decrease Ñ property values in the surrounding areas.

And Franks says that Ellmyer's perceptions about crime haven't kept pace with the changes that have taken place at the villa since it was the scene of Oregon's first drive-by shooting in 1988.

Those changes included a concentrated effort by the Multnomah County sheriff's office and the Portland Police Bureau to deal with gang activity and the creation of a nighttime resident foot patrol in 1992.

'There's still things going on,' says Sgt. Neil Crannell of the bureau's Gang Enforcement Team. 'It's not perfect by any means. You (still) have gangsters moving in with females, but now there's ways to get rid of these people: Get them out or you're out.'

Sylvia Franks' mother, Susan Franks, who already was living in the villa when her adult daughter moved there in 1991, says she doesn't see crime there or in the adjacent public housing complex, Tamarack. 'And I've been a member of the foot patrol since Day 1,' she says. 'I'm out at 3 o'clock in the morning.

'We don't put up with domestic violence, drugs or alcohol,' continues Franks, who also is president of the Columbia Villa-Tamarack residents' council. 'I tell people Ñ and other members of the council tell people, when we show apartments Ñ that if they're involved in those, they don't want to live here.'

Terry McLain, another current resident and member of the foot patrol, says he and his wife also were leery when they moved to the site eight years ago.

'We'd heard all the negative stuff from years past,' says McLain, who was employed by the city, doing setup and takedown for games and exhibits at the coliseum, before he was disabled by a series of strokes in his mid-40s.

'Oh, man, drive-by shootings, all the gang stuff,' McLain says of his impression of the villa. Now, he says, he, his wife and the twin girls they have taken in to raise plan to return to the neighborhood when New Columbia is completed.

A mixed track record

Mixed-income projects in other cities, developed by their housing authorities under the federal Hope VI 'revitalization' program that is providing $35 million for New Columbia, have not all fared well.

In Philadelphia, for example, the developers of private residences in one such complex were unable to recover their costs because the market rate for single-family homes in that neighborhood was only $60,000 to $70,000.

But an existing mixed-income community in Portland Ñ Center Commons, built without Hope VI money on former Oregon Department of Transportation property at Northeast 60th Avenue and Glisan Street several years ago Ñ has done well.

'We wanted a rental/purchase and income mix that was compatible with the (Center) neighborhood,' says PDC project manager Connie Lively, who says that the PDC and the developer worked together to provide financial incentives to purchasers of the site's townhouses. 'I think the builder was very happy with it.'

And Sylvia Franks, for one, has no doubt that New Columbia Ñ like the Columbia Villa she knows Ñ will succeed in coming together as a community.

'People just don't understand that community is what you make it,' she says. 'Columbia Villa is one of Portland's best-kept secrets.'

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

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