East side rising

• Scrappy 28th Avenue pulls off a trendy turnaround, largely without city aid

There are no 100-foot cranes hanging over the buildings on 28th Avenue, between Northeast Glisan and Southeast Stark streets. Any hard hats in this area are more of a fashion statement then a necessity. And there is no impressive cardboard model, detailing future development of the area, on display in a stuffy real estate office.

This is no Pearl District Ñ except perhaps in the literal sense that something extraordinary has come from something unassuming.

'It's remarkable what has happened over here,' said Mia Birk, owner of Alta Planning and Design Ñ one of about 30 new businesses that have opened on 28th Avenue during the last four years.

'It's a great example of how a main street can develop organically Ñ without the help of city funding or extensive outside planning,' said Birk, who recently sponsored a conference for international urban planners that cited 28th Avenue as a successful example of a grass-roots main street.

The stretch of street Ñ a hybrid of the Kerns and Buckman neighborhoods Ñ has transformed itself since 1999 into a hub for new and innovative business.

Young entrepreneurs such as Birk have flocked to the avenue to set up restaurants, hair salons, interior design shops, vintage stores and a jumble of other small-business ventures.

'It feels good to be in an up-and-coming neighborhood,' said Jody Mathey, who opened Wooptido salon at the beginning of the avenue's rapid change four years ago. 'We didn't intend to be in the middle of all this, but that's what makes it such a great experience.'

The demographics of area business owners have changed dramatically on 28th Avenue. 'The new businesses are owned by young entrepreneurs Ñ and a lot of them are women,' said Birk, one of more than a dozen women who jumped at the chance to create a business in the area.

Cheap rent in an unassuming inner city neighborhood also appealed to first-time entrepreneurs. 'The area offered a cheaper space that lacked all the built-in standards and overwhelming competition other streets like Hawthorne and Northwest 23rd offered,' said Sarah Holliday of Staccato Gelato. 'I think this neighborhood supports us because we're unpolished.'

Wholly supported by two delighted communities, the avenue now bustles with neighborhood foot traffic and quiet entrepreneurial confidence Ñ all the signs of an inviting main street.

'There is a huge support system around here,' said Holliday, who opened her gelato business two months ago with her sister, Jessica. 'We have all the restaurants telling their patrons to come here for dessert Ñ you can't buy that kind of advertising.'

And Holliday isn't kidding about the camaraderie among fledgling businesses along the avenue:

Solara Schoeffler, owner of Creations by the Flowergirls, greets customers wearing a Staccato Gelato T-shirt. She's also responsible for persuading Bishops Barbershop owner Leo Rivera to expand his 2-year-old chain to 28th Avenue.

To say that the business community is close may be an understatement.

'I have a lot in common with the business owners in this area,' explained Carrie Birrer, owner of Florio Bakery. 'It makes it easier to take a risk, since we're all making the same jump. We're all at the same point: stepping out and doing what we know how to do on our own.'

To take the similarities one step further, almost all the entrepreneurs in the area have embarked on their business ventures with an admirable 'do or die' gusto.

'We decided to go for broke: success or bankruptcy,' said Woody Wheeler, referring to his decision to buy and revamp the old Laurelhurst Theater with his childhood friend Prescott Allen three years ago. 'We just wanted to take that chance.'

Down and out in Kerns

Signs of progress already were in place by the time new entrepreneurs such as Wheeler and Birrer came to the avenue. Starbucks and Nature's were lured by neighborhood leaders and by Bitar Cos. Ñ a real estate broker looking for anchor tenants to help refocus its property on 28th Avenue between Northeast Couch and Burnside streets.

'Inner east side was in need of a massive overhaul,' said Peter Finley Fry, a land-use planning consultant and former executive director of the Central Eastside Industrial Council.

'Even as far back as 20 years ago, the neighborhood struggled to define itself,' he said. 'Frankly, it was in horrible condition.'

Back then, the inner east side was experiencing crime that had oozed over the Willamette River as the city tightened down on downtown delinquency. Transients, prostitutes and skinheads were common. The avenue played host to a few notable bars, a slew of failing business endeavors and a barrage of criminal activity.

When Joe Esparza decided to open up a restaurant in the area 14 years ago, he'd find dead animals hanging from his restaurant door. People from the community would drop by to personally deliver racially charged threats to close shop or else.

'It was so different when I started,' said Esparza, owner of a Tex-Mex restaurant that carries his name. 'But I grew up in the projects, and I wasn't going to let anyone stop me from doing what I'd set out to do.'

Perhaps Esparza's determination to stay Ñ along with the resolution of other neighborhood old-timers such as Holman's Restaurant, Chin-Yen Restaurant & Lounge and the Hungry Tiger restaurant Ñ permeated the spirit of the street, laying down a road for newer entrepreneurs.

'I decided very early on that I wasn't going to give up,' said Kim Schoene, who opened Kalista Hair Salon four years ago, when she was 25. 'It was hard, and I had to learn a lot, but I wasn't going to quit.'

Independent sorts

Grass-roots development on 28th Avenue becomes more apparent when a person realizes how little the city has been involved in the change.

'Most of the city's money goes to urban renewal districts like the Pearl and Lents, and not to the neighborhoods,' said Portland Commissioner Erik Sten. 'It's a shortfall on the city's behalf that I think is terrible.'

So despite a staggering economy, the impressive avenue overhaul has been paid primarily by independent business owners.

Birrer, who opened Florio Bakery less than a year ago, said she's glad the city was absent from the process.

'Everyone on the street has been able to create businesses that aren't tied to outside interests or restrictions,' she said.

Even architect Kevin Cavanaugh, who designed and owns the nationally acclaimed Box & One lofts that house Florio and Noble Rot, found freedom in financial independence.

'I always wanted to design an edgy building, so my wife and I decided to hire ourselves,' he said. 'By spending my own money, it freed me up to do my own thing.'

Howard Cutler, program director of the city Bureau of Housing and Community Development, said that outside of a few grants to the Kerns neighborhood, 28th Avenue has been improved without the small-business assistance received by other target areas such as Northeast Alberta Street.

'The Kerns neighborhood has seen only degrees of monetary assistance,' Cutler said. 'The skills and talents of individual business owners have done the rest.'

The neighborhood way

Long before the onslaught of young entrepreneurs arrived, however, the neighborhoods surrounding 28th Avenue were pushing hard to change its shady image.

'Inner east side has been chronically ignored by the city,' planning consultant Fry said. 'But that same neglect has forced the neighborhoods to save themselves.'

As tenants such as Esparza moved into the area, neighborhood associations were working with police to reduce the crime that was engulfing the area.

More recent neighborhood efforts resulted in the Kerns Target Area project, which allowed the neighborhood to finance a revitalization of the low-income neighborhood.

Turned down on her first appeal for city funding, Elizabeth Kennedy-Wong, executive director of Southeast Uplift, refused to give up. And in the determined spirit of the area, in 1998 she finally landed an annual community development grant for $40,000. The grant expires in December.

The money helped created the Kerns Improvement Committee, which set up a plan for the revitalization of 28th Avenue.

'We focus on filling empty storefronts, neighborhood arts projects, the construction of a community center Ñ the list is pretty extensive,' said Cece Hughley-Noel, hired in February as the Kerns Target Area coordinator.

'This process is unique because the relationship between business and the neighborhood is seamless,' she said. 'You can tell that the neighborhood has been very involved in the change that has occurred. There is a sense of pride and ownership here.'

And the relationship between the neighborhood and its business community is reciprocal.

'Our goal is to have a neighborhood restaurant,' said Matt Johnson, a head chef at Serratto before opening his Tabla restaurant on 28th Avenue just a few weeks ago. 'If you go somewhere like the Pearl, rent is higher and it's easier to get lost in the shuffle. There isn't a built-in community to support you.'

Amelioration vs. gentrification

Despite the solid makings of a grass-roots main street, there is awareness that rapid community change has its own pitfalls.

'We're really paying attention to gentrification issues,' Hughley-Noel said. 'We don't want to push anyone out of the area.'

A resource fair to educate low-income residents about available housing resources was held last year, and similar fairs are planned for the future. But the negative effects of change seem inevitable for some.

'My rent is a lot higher, and improvement in the building is zero,' said Fairly Honest Bill, who has owned a secondhand shop of the same name in the area for eight years. (He declined to give his real name.) 'I'm absolutely worried that my landlord is going to price me out of my space.'

But even Bill conceded that the changes in the area have been a boost during a downturn in the economy.

'At some point, there is going to be some fallout,' said Leather Storrs, head chef of Noble Rot Ñ one of three new wine bars in a four-block radius. 'We don't want to admit it, but there are always casualties when an area changes this fast.'

Other issues for the area include the ability to accommodate swelling street and foot traffic.

'The unforeseen success of this main street may mean going back and solving subsequent issues,' said Birk of Alta Planning. 'The city has had to step in with neighborhood main streets like Hawthorne that now suffer from traffic, limited bike space and narrow sidewalks because of the growth.'

Despite the growing pangs of a neighborhood main street, all facets of the community seem stunned at the transformation of 28th Avenue.

After all, the creation and success of one new business in a down economy is remarkable. So when a somewhat shaky neighborhood sees about 30 new businesses spring up out of nowhere, there is reason to be excited.

'I love the area,' said Schoeffler of the Flowergirls, speaking for hundreds of people beginning to relay the same sentiment. 'It is just a breath of fresh air.'