Additional millions, streetcar loop, affordable housing emphasized

The City Council is poised to initiate a series of major and controversial changes to Portland's central east side over the next two weeks.

A majority of the council has indicated it plans to support two measures that will increase public spending in the Central Eastside Urban Renewal Area by $51 million over the next two decades, helping to fund a new streetcar loop and laying the groundwork for the construction of up to 4,000 new homes.

'Council approval means the east side will grow with the rest of the city,' said Tim Holmes, a professional photographer who chairs the Central Eastside Industrial Council, a coalition of area business owners that advises the Portland Development Commission - the city's urban renewal agency - on projects in the area.

Not everyone supports that amount of additional spending, however. Debbie Aiona, a member of the League of Women Voters of Portland, said $50 million is too much.

'That level of spending will change the character of the neighborhood. It will lose the industrial feel we are trying to preserve,' said Aiona, who served on a citizen advisory committee that worked on the plan.

The council is scheduled to vote on the streetcar project Wednesday. It will take on the spending increase July 13 in the form of an amendment.

Milwaukie-area state Rep. Caroline Tomei, a Democrat, fears the streetcar project will take public money away from a southern light-rail extension that has been discussed for years. As planned, it would connect downtown Portland to Milwaukie over a new bridge across the Willamette River.

The streetcar route expected to be approved by the council - formally known as the Eastside Transit Alternative Analysis Locally Preferred Alternative - stretches from Northwest Portland across the Broadway Bridge to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry along Grand Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The construction cost is currently estimated at $169 million. Congress has been asked to fund 60 percent of the project.

'I'm not anti-streetcar, but those of us who live in and around Milwaukie have been promised light rail for a long time, and we don't want to see another project taking priority over the funds,' said Tomei, who plans to testify before the council votes Wednesday.

Commissioner Sam Adams defended the increased spending and streetcar loop as in the best interests of the entire region. He noted that around 1 million new people are expected to move to the Portland area over the next 25 years.

'We need to be able to create jobs and housing in existing urban areas. The central east side could be the next Pearl District or South Waterfront,' he said.

Affordable housing wanted

The citizen advisory committee had recommended spending an additional $35 million in the area. Tomei said that is more than the League of Women Voters thought was justified, but she went along with the plan in the spirit of consensus. But when the plan first went before the council two weeks ago, Adams offered an amendment increasing the spending by around $15 million. Commissioners Randy Leonard and Erik Sten supported the amendment, while Mayor Tom Potter and Dan Saltzman voted no.

Adams defends the increase as necessary to ensure that many units of affordable housing will be included in the new home construction.

'The committee's recommendation would have spurred redevelopment, but it would not have prevented the area from simply being gentrified. I want to make sure that we are also able to build housing for the people who live in the area,' he said.

Adams also is confident that sufficient funds will eventually be found to build both the new streetcar loop and the light-rail extension to Milwaukie.

'We don't have enough money to do everything we want to do right now, but we need to take the long-term view and look at raising money from a variety of sources over time,' Adams said.

The Central Eastside Urban Renewal Area was created by the council nearly 20 years ago. It runs from the east side of the Willamette River to Southeast 12th Avenue between Interstate 84 and the Ross Island Bridge. Approximately $48 million in urban renewal funds has already been spent in the area on street improvements, building rehabilitation, and loans to existing and new businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Many projects considered

The urban renewal designation is set to expire in August. The citizen advisory committee has spent months discussing whether it should be extended to raise more urban renewal funds - and, if so, how much and for what projects. The committee eventually identified a number of projects it thought justified extending the area, including reconfiguring East Burnside and Northeast Couch streets to improve traffic flow and remodeling the former Washington-Monroe High School into a community center.

Urban renewal districts use the property taxes generated by increased land values to finance bonds to pay for improvements within their boundaries. The League of Women Voters has traditionally opposed extending urban renewal areas beyond their 20-year lifetimes because other local governments - including counties and school districts - need the money. Aiona said she believes the expected council increase goes too far.

Holmes said the improvements bought with the additional $15 million - including the streetcar loop and affordable housing units - will greatly improve the livability of the neighborhoods for everyone who lives and works there, now and in the future.

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