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Street plan will boost downtown

The renewal of historic downtown Gresham has been driven by both public and private investment over the past 20-plus years.

Street improvements, mass transit lines and other government-funded projects assisted the downtown area in making the transition from a traditional, but declining, city center into a thriving - and still growing - place to live, shop, work and relax.

The city of Gresham is looking again to make this type of public investment downtown with its planned extension of Northeast Beech Street. And while we must confess some initial discomfort with the city's funding plan for Beech Street, in the final analysis, we believe this project is likely to spur additional private investment and continue to expand the area's quality of life.

Affordable housing already exists

The City Council recently voted to spend $200,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant money to extend Beech Street between Northeast Third and Fourth streets. The plans for the block are definitely appealing - including elegant landscaping, lighting, benches and other amenities. However, the city also is forming a 'reimbursement district' as part of the project, which means that adjacent landowners are being encouraged to build affordable housing if they want to avoid being assessed their portion of the cost for the new and improved Beech Street.

This funding mechanism raises legitimate worries about the city's intentions. The most obvious question is whether Gresham ought to be encouraging more affordable housing. The city is awash in low-rent housing already, which is one reason for the migration of poverty from Portland into Gresham.

However, cheap apartments aren't what the city has in mind for downtown. The idea is to encourage quality affordable housing that would be mixed with higher-end units and offer a range of residential choices downtown.

Even with that concept in mind, it might be risky for the city to be pushing for additional affordable housing. But it's unlikely that developers will take the city up on this incentive in any case. The property owners on the block say they would rather pay their $50,000 share of the reimbursement district than commit to setting aside a percentage of their future developments as affordable homes.

Keep up downtown momentum

We certainly aren't opposed to providing housing at a price more people can afford. However, Gresham and other cities in East County already have perhaps the most varied housing stock in the metropolitan area. The city, for example, would not be able to use the Community Development Block Grant funds for this project unless more than 51 percent of the residents in that census tract were considered low to moderate income.

That's proof in itself that historic downtown Gresham is home to a well-diversified income group. These days, the downtown market demand is heading in the opposite direction - toward higher-end condominiums and townhouses. That's what developers near Beech Street are considering, meaning that the city's use of federal money to extend Beech Street will do what public expenditures have done in the past downtown: Encourage private investment.

The federal grant may simply be an expedient way to get the project done, but the street extension will continue the current downtown trend toward high-quality public amenities and increased confidence on the part of private developers.