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Hales proposes new Powell-Division urban renewal area

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PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Traffic moves along Southeast Division Street and 122nd Avenue where a bus rapid transit line is being planned.Mayor Charlie Hales has added a new eastside urban renewal district to his bucket list.

Hales told the Portland Tribune editorial board last week that he wants to create a new urban renewal area to parallel TriMet’s rapid bus line planned on Southeast Powell Boulevard and Division Street.

“We think we need to form this district this year, in 2016,” he said.

The goal, Hales said, is to assure that “neighborhood scale” businesses and affordable housing are still available in those corridors after the transit line is completed.

The elongated district is likely to start around Southeast Powell Boulevard and 17th Avenue, Hales said. Then it would stretch east to 82nd Avenue, jog north on 82nd to Division, then extend to the city border with Gresham at 162nd Avenue.

No buy-in yet

Patrick Quinton, executive director of the Portland Development Commission, cautioned that urban renewal is “always a controversial topic,” and the city hasn’t yet broached the idea with the community to gain buy-in. In particular, Quinton stressed, the city must work with its “partners” — Multnomah County and local school districts — who forgo some of their property taxes for 20 years or more when an urban renewal district is created.

Community leaders in East Portland, where much of the bus rapid-transit line will be sited, also have some strong reservations about the idea.

“The concern is that everywhere the city has done urban renewal it has resulted in displacement of low-income people, people of color and neighborhood businesses,” said Nick Sauvie, director of the nonprofit ROSE Community Development.

Quinton said the idea emerged in talks the past six months between PDC — the city’s urban renewal agency — and counterparts in the housing and transportation bureaus.

Officials have observed gentrification pressures already along the corridor, even before the transit project was approved. They recognize the most vulnerable communities are those east of 70th Avenue, because closer-in neighborhoods already have gentrified.

City leaders concluded Portland can’t just sit idly while a major public improvement takes place without addressing affordable housing, Quinton said.

“And to do that we need money.”

Hales said the district will require at least 2,000 acres of land to work. Because of Oregon’s patchwork of property tax limitations, it’s fairly certain that most homeowners in the area will face annual property tax increases of 3 percent. The urban renewal district would divert those increased taxes, using the money to pay for big bonds that give money to assist business nodes at transit stops and subsidize nearby affordable housing.

PDC estimates the district could generate $75 million to $90 million over 20 years.

Broken promises

“The bulk of the money would go into affordable housing,” Quinton said.

But neighborhood activists have heard such promises before, and they weren’t fulfilled, leaving many cynical about the city’s intentions.

Citizens on an advisory committee endorsed the creation of the Interstate urban renewal area on condition the money wouldn’t be used to pay for the MAX line there, recalls Lore Wintergreen, who handled public involvement on that project for TriMet. Citizens even persuaded the PDC to require “racial impact statements” to ward off displacement of African-American residents and black-owned businesses there.

But then Mayor Vera Katz diverted $30 million for the MAX line, said Wintergreen, who now serves as an independent advocate for the East Portland Action Plan.

Sauvie, a leading builder of affordable housing in the outer east side, says there were similar promises that the Lents urban renewal area would prioritize affordable housing. But that never happened, he said. “We don’t want the city to break its promise once again.”

Once the city draws the lines of an urban renewal district, that sparks real estate speculation and rising property values, Sauvie said.

“So we’re going to use this tool that is going to increase price inflation,” he said.

Lori Boisen, district manager of the Division Midway Alliance, said she is ambivalent about the Powell-Division urban renewal area.

“I can see the long-term benefits,” Boisen said, but the urban renewal area will take several years to generate any additional money.

“My concern with regards to the urban renewal coming is it’s not going to do enough fast enough to stop the gentrification or displacement that’s occurring,” Boisen said.

The Division Midway Alliance is a mini-urban renewal area that gets modest funding to improve the Division corridor between 117th and 148th avenues. The project is guided by a strong community advisory board, and leaders fear they will lose “community control” once a big-money urban renewal district comes in, Boisen said.

Quinton is well aware that the Interstate urban renewal effort failed to prevent a mass displacement of black residents and businesses, among others. “The Interstate line in particular has some really hard lessons,” he said.

And he noted that urban renewal areas tend to start delivering large amounts of money only after they’ve been around for a decade or so.

To do it right this time, he said, PDC needs to be explicit about its objectives and how it will allocate money. But it’s clear that preserving affordable housing is the top goal if the district is formed, Quinton said.

“I can’t imagine that any other need is going to trump that.”

However, neighborhood leaders aren’t so sure of that. Historically, urban renewal money has often been used for politicians’ pet projects.

PDC, which has been bashed in the past for preferring big downtown redevelopments to helping ailing neighborhoods, isn’t really in control of its destiny. The City Council makes the final call and tells PDC where to spend its money.

“They’re good soldiers,” Wintergreen said, “and they do what they’re directed to do.”

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