Gentrification still a concern as neighbors face new upheaval

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Prospective buyers check out the Cully Grove cohousing project site during the city's recent Build it Green! tour. City officials hope to forestall gentrification of Cully, a Northeast Portland neighborhood becoming more fashionable because of projects like Cully Grove.Hip and groovy things are coming to Northeast Portland’s oft-neglected Cully neighborhood.

Urban homesteaders have discovered Cully’s large lots and cheap homes are ideal for large gardens and raising chickens.

The city recently re-made Cully Boulevard into a bicycle-friendly “Green Street.” And this month, the Portland City Council approved the Cully Commercial Corridor and Local Street Plan, which rezones Cully’s main streets to lure more businesses, and aims to add sidewalks and paved streets to neighborhoods that lack them.

Despite the welcome attention, some residents wonder if they’ll get pushed out as Cully becomes more desirable. They’ve seen it happen nearby, where white-tablecloth restaurants and other developments gentrified Alberta Street — raising property values and displacing longtime African-American residents.

“Many people hold Alberta Street as an example of what we don’t want,” says Nathan Teske, economic development director for Hacienda Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that promotes affordable housing in Cully for Hispanics and others.

“I think there’s a lot of trepidation in the neighborhood about that,” Teske says.

At the behest of Hacienda and others, the city Bureau of Planning and Sustainability vowed to make Cully a model for preventing the ill effects of gentrification, while seeking to improve the neighborhood.

For decades, cities around the country have failed to protect residents of lower-income neighborhoods from being adversely affected by gentrification, says Joe Zehnder, chief planner for the city.

“I don’t have a silver bullet,” Zehnder says. However, he adds, “You have a pretty good situation in Cully to try to think through and tackle this issue.”

For starters, the city commissioned a study of what worked elsewhere to stem gentrification, and Zehnder will appoint a citizens group to focus on the issue. The city will periodically gather data to determine if gentrification or displacement are occurring.

After initially expressing concerns about the Cully plan, Hacienda wound up “cautiously supportive,” Teske says.

But aside from ambitious goals and flowery language about avoiding gentrification, there’s nothing in the Cully plan that actually does that, Teske says.

Seeds of change

Cully Grove, a cohousing project being built at 4745 N.E. Going St., symbolizes changes coming to what’s considered Portland’s most ethnically diverse neighborhood.

All but two of the 16 units have been pre-purchased, and future residents are planning how to share a 4,200-square-foot garden and other ways to live cooperatively as an intentional community. Though the incoming Cully Grove residents are of varying ages, family situations and education levels, none is a person of color, and the units cost more than most Cully houses.

It’s more evidence, one Cully activist says, of “white hippies” moving into the neighborhood, which in the 2010 Census was 58 percent white, 21 percent Hispanic, 16 percent black and 6 percent Asian.

Eli Spevak, co-developer of Cully Grove and a prominent green builder, plans to move in with his family. It’s possible, he says, that urban homesteaders in Cully will wind up being “Portland’s version of the artists who get to a place first, in a trend toward gentrification.”

But Spevak and his partner Zachariah Parrish doubt Cully will go the way of Irvington and lower North Portland, where blacks were priced out of their homes.

“You’re not going to get your Irvington house, your Clinton house, your Ladds Addition house out here,” says Parrish, who has lived on the property for several years.

Besides, Parrish wonders, how does bringing in community-oriented newcomers who will be active parents in the schools hurt a neighborhood like Cully?

He says the incoming residents appreciate the “richer culture in the neighborhood.”

Cully isn’t going to attract high-end stores and restaurants, Spevak says. And the neighborhood has a lot of affordable multifamily housing, which was in short supply in gentrified areas of North and Northeast Portland, he notes.

Yet it’s clear the Cully plan will, if successful, make it more of a desirable neighborhood, likely raising property values.

Given Portland’s urban growth boundary, attractive downtown, and increasing traffic congestion, it’s inevitable that Cully and other closer-in neighborhoods will become more desirable long-term, Spevak says.

Many point out that gentrification isn’t all bad.

“Gentrification, as far as I’m concerned, is a good process, because it cleans up the neighborhood,” says Cully resident Walt Quade.

Others point out that paving some of Cully’s dirt roads will eliminate flooding during heavy rains, and adding sidewalks will make it safer for children to get to school.

Rising property values also brings more wealth to people of modest means who bought Cully homes when prices were low.

Underutilized main streets

Cully Boulevard and a nearby stretch of Killingsworth Street were designated by Metro in 1994 as a future “Main Street,” says Debbie Bischoff, a senior planner for the city who worked on the Cully plan. That meant the area would become a neighborhood commercial center and attract more residents in the vicinity.

But 75 percent of the land along those two supposed commercial arteries was zoned residential, Bischoff says.

Cully neighbors also complain that too many businesses on those streets are alcohol- or automotive-oriented businesses. Despite 13,000 residents in Cully, neighbors complain about a lack of affordable groceries, barber shops, pizza joints, fitness clubs and medical offices. Somali immigrants would like a shop that sells halal foods preferred by Muslims.

Some shops that did locate on the commercial streets were built on residential-zoned lots, making it hard to expand or get bank loans, Bischoff says.

The Cully plan, adopted by the City Council on Sept. 12, aims to rectify those problems through rezoning.

Viable solutions

Though there are no great role models for preventing gentrification, some policies should help, say Teske and Victor Merced, executive director of Hacienda.

Foremost is to provide stable affordable housing, they say. Hacienda owns the 133-unit Villa de Clara Vista on Cully south of Killingsworth, and is arranging a $24 million teardown and rebuild of the apartments, Merced says. That could provide an additional 12 units, and assure the properties remain affordable for an additional 30 to 60 years, he says.

Hacienda also wants to improve homeownership and job opportunities for Cully residents.

Portland’s City Council recently adopted a Community Benefits Agreement, which will foster the hiring of more women and people of color on city-funded construction projects.

The city and private companies also can encourage hiring and on-the-job training of local residents, Teske says.

The state could provide a pool of financing so Cully’s two mobile-home park communities aren’t redeveloped, Merced says. Loans could help residents buy their mobile homes to retain them on site.

Ultimately, Teske says, the best way to prevent gentrification and displacement in Cully will be old-fashioned political pressure from the community.

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