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Merchants keep faith in MLK's future

TRIB TOWN: Reborn street has come far, with more changes still in store

Twenty years ago, a cleanup on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard meant pushing out gangs, drugs and prostitutes.

This coming weekend, the North Northeast Business Association's biggest concern for its cleanup event is whether there will be enough trash to keep volunteers busy.

'Look around,' said Paul Knowles, owner of Geneva's Shear Perfection, a hair salon named after his wife at 5601 N.E. MLK Blvd. 'Do you see any trash? No, you do not.'

Knowles is right. A quick drive up the boulevard, between Northeast Broadway and North Lombard Street, reveals very little trash and only a minor amount of graffiti.

The boulevard is beyond its rough and tumble past, and now is moving into its future.

The street has come a long way, Knowles said, since it was changed from Union Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 1991.

The name change is why Knowles bought property on the street - as an African-American, he felt being a business owner was upholding King's dream. When his shop opened, almost all the other buildings on his block were boarded up or run-down.

Neighbors refer to Knowles as the mayor of Northeast Portland, a title he says was a joke by a former member of the Chamber of Commerce, but which he also accepts with muted pride.

'I wasn't voted into office, which means they can't vote me out,' he said.

The most recent effort to help MLK Boulevard came last June when the Portland Development Commission's board of directors worked with the business association and adopted an action plan to finish as many projects as possible on the road before the area's urban renewal money runs out.

The PDC estimates it has approximately $10 million left to spend for storefront and street improvement grants and small business assistance by 2013.

Several large projects, such as the mixed-use Heritage and Fremont buildings, are nearing completion, and the Vanport Square Project, an office-retail center at Northeast Alberta Street and MLK Boulevard, finally has broken ground after years of debate with neighbors over its size and purpose.

Now the focus is on turning the street into a vibrant business community that serves the needs of the five neighborhoods it borders. First and foremost, that means more parking on the street and better access to businesses.

'Part of the challenge is that Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is a highway,' said Gary Marschke vice chairman of the business association. 'It doesn't lend itself to building a community because people stay on their own side of it.'

One of the biggest concerns for business owners is the long, stretching medians down the boulevard. The medians were installed in the 1980s as a streetscape improvement, but business owners say they prevent drivers from taking a left turn at most intersections or pedestrians from crossing the street.

The PDC's action plan committee will address both issues during a meeting with the Portland Office of Transportation in July, to determine which medians are necessary and which, if any, can be removed.

One of the smaller items in the action plan is this Saturday's community cleanup, which has turned into a symbolic event for community pride since the street doesn't need much work.

'I see this as the start of a number of activities that bring community together and build community,' event organizer Allyson Spencer said.

For Knowles, that means more opportunity for minority business owners. The current price of square footage on the street - anywhere from $12 to $20 per square foot - is too high, Knowles says, for many of the blacks living in bordering neighborhoods.

'People are selling their homes because they never thought they'd get $400,000 for their home,' he said. 'They're moving to Hillsboro, Beaverton and Southeast Portland.'

Indeed, U.S. Census figures show the population in Northeast Portland neighborhoods surrounding MLK Boulevard grew by 10 percent between 1990 and 2000. There also was a significant shift in the makeup of the neighborhoods - few blacks and more whites - according to a 2004 PDC report on MLK revitalization.

'It's definitely something we're looking at and we're aware of,' said Estee Segal, MLK/Alberta manager for PDC.

The Spiffin' Up Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard event starts at 8 a.m. Saturday, April 28. Volunteers will gather trash and paint over graffiti on the three-mile stretch between Northeast Broadway and North Lombard Street.

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