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Lents looks for a landmark

TribTown • Professional designers come to brainstorm on land under I-205
by: JIM CLARK, Metro Councilor Robert Liberty (left) meets with Dewey Akers, president of the Lents Neighborhood Association, and Sue Lewis of the Portland Development Commission on the site under Interstate 205 that could become the visual “gateway” to the neighborhood.

Many in Portland's Lents neighborhood believe the construction of Interstate 205 a generation ago helped to spur the decline of Lents.

Now, some in Lents are looking at I-205 - or at least a mostly ignored piece of vacant land under I-205 - as a seed that might help transform Lents again, in a better direction.

Thanks to Metro Councilor Robert Liberty, the small parcel of land will be getting a lot of attention during the next several months.

Liberty helped win a Loeb Fellowship grant for neighborhood and other leaders who want to transform the roughly two acres of land into something more visually interesting than the weeds that now dominate the site.

The land is underneath the I-205 overpasses at Southeast Foster Road and Woodstock Boulevard in Southeast Portland.

The Loeb Fellowship grant means that Loeb fellows from Harvard University - in this case the chief of design for New York City parks and the chairman of the landscape architecture department at the University of Virginia - will come to Portland and help envision how the land might be transformed into an interesting visual 'gateway' to the Lents neighborhood.

That transformation could come through landscaping, public art, an infrastructure project or some other modification to the land.

The goal is to provide the Lents neighborhood - which Metro envisions as a 'town center' in its long-range plan for the metropolitan area - with a landmark that will be distinctive.

'If we're going to be a 'town center' … then there's going to have to be a reason for people to come here,' said Dewey Akers, president of the Lents Neighborhood Association, who has been involved in planning for the property's future. 'It's going to have to be something visual - something that says Lents is turning the corner, changing itself and remaking itself.

'This gives us a real opportunity to take a look at a piece of property that presents itself as blight, right smack in the middle of a town center, and have the possibility of doing something positive with it.'

There is one major issue, however, that backers of the project will have to deal with: the fact that any project they envision will need to be approved by the Oregon Department of Transportation, which serves as the overseer of the federally owned land.

'We're absolutely willing to hear all their ideas,' said Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Dave Thompson. 'We're absolutely willing to help facilitate the communities around the freeways building up their community spirit and feelings of community involvement. But when it comes to the right of way, there's just a bunch of rules and restrictions imposed by the federal government that we have to follow.'

Liberty and Akers say they believe the community and designers can come up with some landmark sort of project that could adhere to ODOT restrictions - which include banning the construction of any permanent structures in the area.

Ideas that have been floated: water features, and a water retention pond that would take in much of the water runoff from surrounding streets and highways; and landscape changes that might include special lighting underneath or around the overpasses.

'Here is an opportunity to do something that could be really a signature kind of project that helps redefine Lents,' Liberty said. 'Who knows what will happen exactly?'

The Loeb Fellowship grants provide small amounts of money - the Lents project received $2,000. The grant's real value is that the Loeb fellows, often highly esteemed architecture, landscape and other professionals, volunteer their time to work on the projects.

Only Loeb fellows, who study at Harvard for a year, can apply for the annual grants; Liberty was a Loeb fellow in 2002-03.

Liberty hopes that local organizers will communicate basic ideas and concepts with Charles McKinney, the design chief for New York City parks, and Craig Barton, chairman of the University of Virginia's architecture and landscape architecture department, before they visit the site this spring, possibly in April.

Concepts probably would be refined throughout 2008, Liberty said. Akers said he'd like to have the project finished by the time the light-rail system along I-205 - and the light-rail station being built near the area - is completed, scheduled for September 2009.

'I know that's very aggressive, and maybe not being realistic,' Akers said. 'But it would be great to have a kickoff at the same time.'

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