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Foster Road district hopes green means go

New EcoDistrict seen as a boost to Lents' sagging economy
by: Christopher Onstott Mickel Townsend picks up fresh produce at the Lents International Farmers Market on Sunday, across the street from where Ray panhandles for change. The farmers market is on Southeast Foster Road and 92nd Avenue, the heart of the fledgling Foster Green EcoDistrict.

Foster Road could use a little more green - the kind in people's wallets and the kind that grows in the ground.

Organizers of the fledgling Foster Green EcoDistrict hope to bring both types to the gritty boulevard in Southeast and East Portland.

Jalene Littlejohn, who just finished a nine-month stint doing citizen outreach for Foster Green, says she often was met with a 'blank stare' when broaching the subject with residents.

That's no surprise, as most people haven't heard of EcoDistricts yet, even in Portland. If they have, some wonder why anyone chose Foster Road, an area not exactly known as an environmentalist hotbed.

There's no precise definition or recipe for an EcoDistrict yet, but think of it as expanding the idea of a green building to an entire neighborhood.

'It's a community that's committed to sustainability goals,' Littlejohn says.

Mayor Sam Adams sowed the seeds for EcoDistricts here three years ago, and helped set up the nonprofit Portland Sustainability Institute to take the lead.

The institute selected the Lents area, which can tap city urban renewal funding, as one of five communities to test-drive the concept, along with Portland State University and the Lloyd District, Gateway and South Waterfront areas.

Last year, the Bullitt Foundation provided a $50,000 grant to conduct 'citizen engagement' with the folks of Lents, a largely low-income, racially diverse community with a large amount of skepticism about City Hall. Littlejohn, cofounder of a neighborhood environmental group called Green Lents, was hired along with consultant Tony DeFalco to work with residents, businesses and other groups to see how their wishes could mesh with the EcoDistrict idea.

One of the first decisions, Littlejohn says, was to change the EcoDistrict from Lents to the Foster Road corridor between 52nd Avenue and 122nd Avenue. That's the commercial spine of Lents and several other neighborhoods.

They devised a new catchy name, Foster Green. But after nine months of community meetings, listening sessions, and door-to-door surveys, there's still no list of prospective projects. That's by design, as organizers want this to be a 'bottom up' effort to revitalize the Foster Road corridor, Littlejohn says. It's not another case of Portland 'telling us what to do,' she says.

Jonathan Brandt, a volunteer leader on the Foster Green coordinating committee, stresses the 'triple bottom line' definition of sustainability - one that seeks to achieve sustainability on the economic, social and environmental levels.

'It's a healthy community kind of perspective,' says David Porter, another member of the coordinating committee.

After working with some 200 community members, organizers say some themes have emerged. Folks would like to fill those empty storefronts and vacant lots, and bring more vitality to the sidewalks.

Many residents requested more public gathering spaces for youths and others, including a commercial kitchen to prepare large amounts of food for public events. There's also interest in luring a new grocery store or other places to buy fresh and healthy food.

There's a strong desire to link the disparate segments of Foster. Right now many Portlanders don't venture east of 82nd Avenue, Littlejohn says. 'Foster Road is a linkage between the Southeast and the outer Southeast neighborhoods,' says Porter, executive director of Leach Garden Friends, which operates the botanical gardens on Southeast 122nd Avenue, just south of Foster.

Three distinct 'chunks'

Though some people might not see how the terms 'green' and 'Foster' belong in the same sentence, there are some underappreciated green amenities on the east side of the corridor. Those include the city-owned botanical garden, Zenger Farm, Beggar's Tick Wildlife Refuge and parts of the Johnson Creek flood plain, now being improved through a variety of city and community projects.

Porter sees three distinct chunks of Foster that need to be connected better. There are the retail storefronts on the western edge, starting where Foster begins at the juncture with Powell Boulevard. There's the budding Lents Town Center around Foster and 92nd, the focus of urban renewal-funded improvements, including a site for the weekly farmer's market, and a stop on the new MAX Green Line. And there are the natural areas and farms on the eastern edge.

Foster Green could help provide more amenities on the eastern part of the corridor, such as coffee shops or places to eat lunch, to entice more Portlanders to come out and visit what Porter calls 'the premiere botanical collection in the city,' or the other more natural areas.

On Sept. 1, Littlejohn and DeFalco's grant-funded work ended, and now it'll be up to volunteer leaders to carry out the vision.

Leaders hope to come up with a list of projects to undertake by April, Porter says. There also will be another request to the Bullitt Foundation for more grant funds.

Ultimately, Porter says, organizers hope to work with residents to create the kind of community that Norman Rockwell might have chosen for one of his paintings.