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NE Portland project ignites city debate

Group wants work on MLK site to benefit black community


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO BY JONATHAN HOUSE - The last large vacant block in Northeast Portland is surrounded by signs of the changing neighborhood.City Hall insiders were caught off guard by Trader Joe’s decision to pull out of a Northeast Portland urban renewal project — in part because the group that caused the withdrawal, the Portland African American Leadership Forum — has not been a player in city politics before.

Armed with little more than public studies and heated rhetoric, PAALF members and supporters created such a ruckus that the grocer felt it wasn’t welcome in the neighborhood. Trader Joe’s pulled out of the project on Feb. 3, just days after the Portland Development Commission offered a series of concessions to the protesters, including the creation of an Economic Prosperity Working Group to make new investments in North and Northeast Portland.

The PDC also announced that a local African-American owned company, Colas Construction, had been been selected as general contract for the project on a city-owned vacant block at Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Alberta Street.

But none of that was enough for the protesters, who held a news conference on the site just hours after news of Trader Joe’s decision broke. Speaking for PAALF, Co-chairman Tony Hopson made it clear city leaders had not yet gotten the message. Instead of simply encouraging the construction of a grocery store, he said they need to reverse the effects of gentrification that have driven thousands of minority residents out of their longtime homes in North and Northeast Portland, according to U.S. Census figures.

“That’s what has led us to the point where we are today, to change talk to action,” Hopson said.

The withdrawal appalled some nearby residents and business owners, who looked forward to the low-priced food and additional foot traffic Trader Joe’s would provide.

Many community activists and members have complained about the negative effects of gentrification for years. Studies documenting the flight of longtime African-American residents to far east Portland and Gresham have been commissioned and published. The city has sponsored public listening sessions to allow remaining minority residents to vent their frustration. But until now, no one has stopped an urban renewal project they think contributes to the problem.

Perhaps surprisingly, PAALF and its supporters are not a band of outsiders crashing the party. Although most Portlanders had not heard of the organization before last week, it has been around since 2009 and includes a number of well known African-Americans. Hopson is founder, president and chief executive officer of Self Enhancement Inc., a nonprofit organization that has been serving at-risk youth for more than 30 years. Vice Chairwoman Maxine Fitzpatrick is executive director of Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, a nonprofit organization that provides affordable housing and other services to low-income people. Members include Carl Talton, chief executive officer of Portland Family of Funds, which has helped finance redevelopment projects.

Supporters who spoke at the news conference included former legislator and Portland State University professor Avel Gordly, who said she grew up in the area and has been shocked by the effects of gentrification, which she defined as “the intentional forced removal of one population and its replacement with another.”

But Hopson says PAALF was started to fill a leadership void in the local African-American community that has allowed gentrification to continue.

“Many of us felt there needed to be a new organization that could be a collective voice on issues that concern us — an organization that will get things done and be around for the long haul,” Hopson said.

Gentrification fight a priority

According to Hopson, PAALF is one of five similar organizations in the country that began with the founding of the Twin Cities African Amercan Leadership Forum in 2008. Besides Minneapolis-St. Paul, the other cities are Seattle, Tacoma and Des Moines, Iowa. All were initially funded with grants from the Northwest Area Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicating to reducing poverty.

Hopson says the organizations were formed to fill leadership voids at both the national and local levels. He thinks many African-American leaders have grown tired over the years fighting the same battles and not making much progress. To prevent that from happening again in Portland, the new organization also includes a Portland African American Leadership Academy that recruits and trains new activists. The first class was held last year. It included 22 students who picked gentrification as the subject it wanted to study and organize around.

“That’s why PAALF made gentrification its No. 1 priority. The academy said that was the issue it thought was most important,” Hopson said.

Because of that, PAALF leaders met with Mayor Charlie Hales, PDC Executive Director Patrick Quinton and PDC Director of Business and Social Equity John Jackley to request the city halt all urban renewal projects in North and Northeast Portland until the community could develop solutions to the problems caused by gentrification. They thought Hales and Quinton agreed, so they were shocked when the PDC announced in December that it had brokered a deal to build a Trader Joe’s on the vacant block. To make the project happen, the PDC agreed to sell the block, valued at $2.4 million, to Majestic Realty, a California development company, for around $500,000.

The announcement infuriated Hopson and the others. They fired off a Dec. 17 letter blasting the deal as an unjustified subsidy to a wealthy developer. Among other things, the letter demanded the project be suspended until a “sufficient amount of affordable housing is incorporated and an independent, community-controlled body can negotiate a legally binding community benefits agreement.”

According to Hopson, the block is one of the only undeveloped parcels in North and Northeast Portand large enough to accommodate enough housing to make much of a difference.

Hales and Quinton responded on Jan. 8 with a letter that agreed gentrification had caused problems and listed city efforts to create affordable housing and new jobs in North and Northeast Portland. The PDC continued working on the project, however, until the growing protest caused Trader Joe’s to pull out less than a month later.

Block’s future unclear

The property at the center of the dispute is symbolic of the changes in North and Northeast. It was once the location of businesses that catered to the African-American community, including the Walnut Park Theater. It and the other businesses closed after deteriorating for many years, and the PDC eventually bought the block and demolished the buildings.

Today the block is surrounded by evidence of the area’s past and growing future. One block to the north sits the aging Multnomah County Walnut Park Complex that houses offices serving low-income people, including the Northeast Health Center and Northeast/Northeast Aging and Disability Services. Just east of the block is the Blazers Boys & Girls Club that offers after-school activities for at-risk youth.

But just north of the block is Vanport Square, a PDC-funded retail center that includes restaurants, a comedy theater, and fruit smoothie shop. To the south is a gluten-free bakery and gym featuring yoga, cycling, Pilates and Zumba exercise classes. And to the west are 10 newer pastel-colored skinny houses, including one with a large solar-panel display.

The block is located in the Interstate Urban Renewal Area. City plans call for a large retailer to be built on it to attract shoppers who will support other nearby businesses. The PDC identified a grocery store as the most appropriate anchor tenant several years ago after the location was determined to be in a “food desert,” meaning it lacked nearby healthy food choices. Since then a New Seasons store has opened approximately one-half mile to the east, however.

The future of the block now is unsettled. Hopson insists the protesters were never against having a Trader Joe’s built there, they just wanted to make sure affordable housing was included. But PDC officials say the block is bisected by a sewer main that reduces the space available for houses.

At last week’s news conference, PAALF announced it soon will convene a number of visioning sessions for current and former residents of the area to say how they would like to see the block developed. The schedule will be posted on the organization’s website at www.aalfnw.org/portland.

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