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East Portland changes take baby steps

City tackles 'ground zero' for bad SE Portland plan ideas


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JON HOUSE - Mark White, president of the Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association, would like city help to lure a mixed-use development, perhaps including a bank and international food shops, at this vacant plot for sale on Southeast 122nd Avenue. Aleeta Miner and her sister Maxine Marcum were chatting in their motorized wheelchairs last week, watching the traffic whiz by in front of their senior apartment building.

It would be nice to wheel to a Dollar Tree or similar store, Miner says, but there’s hardly any shops in the neighborhood, and if the sisters venture in either direction, the sidewalk ends at the property line, turning into an uneven gravel path.

“It’s nothing but a puddle of mud when it rains,” Miner says. “I have to go out on the street.”

That street is Southeast 122nd Avenue, a four-lane road that’s Portland’s busiest north-south corridor east of Interstate 205.

After years of complaints by East Portland community leaders, the Portland City Council in September rezoned stretches of multifamily-zoned land on Southeast 122nd between Foster Road and Powell Boulevard to permit more local shops, and perhaps lure some jobs to the neighborhood. The Portland Bureau of Transportation also plans to add a mile of sidewalks and safer road crossings along 122nd, including north and south of the senior apartments where Miner and her sister live.

East Portland activists says it’s a good start but that the city needs to lavish a lot more attention on the area, after largely neglecting it since annexing it in the late-1980s and early-1990s.

City leaders have given more TLC in recent years to lower-income neighborhoods such as Lents, Brentwood-Darlington and now Cully.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JON HOUSE -  Sisters Maxine Marcum and Aleeta Miner take a smoke break outside the Fir Grove Senior Apartments on Southeast 122nd Avenue. The lack of sidewalks on either side of the property force them to take their motorized wheelchairs onto the busy four-lane street. But until recently, city initiatives haven’t ventured as far east as 122nd very often.

It’s doubtful if many Portlanders even recognize the name of the neighborhood bisected by Southeast 122nd Avenue — Powellhurst-Gilbert. Yet it’s Portland’s most populous neighborhood by far, with one out of every 20 city residents.

“We have more unpaved roadways than any neighborhood in the city. We have seven of the 16 most dangerous intersections in the city,” says neighborhood association President Mark White.

Redoing past damage

White says the recent 122nd Avenue rezoning project was largely a redo after the city blew the last rezoning of the area in 1996, when it passed the Outer Southeast Community Plan. That plan rezoned most of the nearly two-mile stretch of 122nd between Foster and Division for apartments.

At the time, city planners say, Portland was under pressure to respond to Metro’s Region 2040 Plan, which pushed area cities to accommodate more density. The rezoning plan worked all too well in adding apartments, townhouses and other multifamily dwellings along 122nd. The neighborhood’s population jumped 34 percent from 2000 to 2010, and the number of renters jumped 72 percent, according to the U.S. Census. People of color accounted for 12 percent of the neighborhood in 1990, and that jumped to 31 percent by 2009.

As Powellhurst-Gilbert changed swiftly, the city forgot to pay similar attention to adding sidewalks, paved streets, parks, shopping and job opportunities.

“There was no strategy behind it,” White says. “It’s unsustainable to have thousands and thousands of people with no place to shop and no place to work.”

East Portland community development specialist Nick Sauvie is more blunt.

“I think the Outer Southeast Community Plan was really destructive over all, and 122nd was kind of ground zero for the bad things that happened under that,” says Sauvie, executive director of ROSE Community Development.

Led to eyesores

City planners concede that development standards applied in the area are more flexible — which residents might call more lax — than in many closer-in neighborhoods. “The city was pretty loose with what they would require developers to do,” Sauvie says.

“I agree with the criticism,” says Senior Planner John Cole, who led the recent 122nd Avenue rezoning effort.

The 1996 rezoning led to some “eyesores,” Cole says, “that don’t stand the test of time that we’d like to see.”

One “poster child” he cites: an apartment building whose back end faces 122nd Avenue.

Many Powellhurst-Gilbert residents wanted the entire Division-to-Foster stretch of 122nd rezoned for commercial use, but city planners thought that would be counterproductive, and lead to too much auto-oriented development, says Chris Scarzello, a city planner who worked on the project.

As a compromise, the city wound up rezoning 58 multifamily zoned lots for commercial use, or 17.5 acres, most of it between Foster and Holgate. In addition, eight lots at Powell and 122nd could be rezoned later for more retail and services, if transportation safety issues can be addressed.

More city cash needed?

Neighborhood leaders are happy with the 122nd rezoning and hope it leads to job opportunities for residents. But they say it’s a baby step.

“I think what the community will get from the rezoning will be over a five- or 10-year period,” says Jean DeMaster, executive director of Human Solutions Inc., a community action agency serving the area.

The first thing that needs to happen is to fill the retail vacancies at existing commercial nodes on 122nd and Division, Powell and elsewhere, says DeMaster, who served on the rezoning project advisory committee. Then she envisions people opening small home-based businesses, such as beauty shops, law and insurance offices, in the newly rezoned areas.

That’s what Southeast Belmont Street started doing some 20 years ago, and it eventually evolved into a thriving commercial strip, Sauvie says.

White says a catalytic project, aided by government, is sorely needed to kick off redevelopment of 122nd. He is promoting a mixed-use project on a vacant lot for sale, to include international food carts or other businesses, housing and perhaps a relocated office for Human Solutions.

But he’s having trouble drumming up interest in the project by the Portland Development Commission, which manages the Lents Town Center urban renewal area that stretches into 122nd Avenue.

Sauvie says PDC needs to focus its efforts on the commercial heart of Lents on Southeast Foster and 92nd Avenue, lest it spread its resources too thin.

White and others are pinning some hopes on Mayor-elect Charlie Hales, who, they point out, oversaw the planning bureau when the outer Southeast plan was adopted.

Hales says city planning initiatives have had some hits and misses. “In some cases, we haven’t gotten it right,” Hales says, listing controversial development rules that allowed a wave of new apartments without parking, and the over-concentration of multifamily housing along 122nd.

Hales doesn’t dispute that East Portland has been neglected but says the city needs to find a way to pay for roads and other amenities that should have been built there.

“Can the city in any reasonable time frame build the infrastructure that makes for a real neighborhood in these areas where we planned for growth?” Hales wonders.

That’s the big question, he says.

Hales says his first six months on the job will be dominated by adopting a city budget, lobbying for more school funds and reforming the police bureau.

When those are under control, Hales says, he’d like to explore a new vision for urban renewal.

The city needs to chart how PDC will function in the next quarter-century, Hales says, and how it will pay for it.

Despite White’s conviction that PDC aid is vital to the redevelopment of his neighborhood, he’s not waiting around. On his front yard, White is building what he hopes will be a food cart, now a legal use of his property fronting 122nd Avenue.