As child population grows, PPS opens preschool in area
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Janet Bailey and her son Nicholas, 17 months, play in the courtyard of the Ramona Apartments, the first affordable housing building in the Pearl District geared toward families and children.

Move over empty-nesters, young singles and pooches - there is a new demographic flooding the Pearl District. These newcomers didn't arrive for the trendy bar scene, or the art or the streetcars. They were born into it.

Yes, children - primarily the age 6 and under set - are on the rise in the once seemingly kid-free zone.

According to data from the city's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, 143 children were born into one Census tract of the River District from 2005 to 2008, which makes them 3 to 6 now.

That's a higher birth rate than any of six kid-populated eastside neighborhoods, including Buckman, Hosford-Abernethy, Lloyd District, Irvington, Kerns and Eliot.

Combined, there should be 321 children from ages 3 to 6 running around those eastside neighborhoods, compared to 181 in the River District alone.

'There's a bulge coming, a big in-migration. It's like the center of gravity for families has shifted up here,' says Ed McNamara, developer of the new Ramona Apartments, at Northwest 14th Avenue and Quimby Street.

'We don't know what the 2009-2010 data will show us. Presumably the trend continues.'

Two years ago, McNamara bucked the trend in the Pearl by planning to offer three-bedroom apartments along with a number of other family-centric features. Among them: a playground in the central courtyard and a community center that offers drop-in play space as well as youth and adult programs.

But here is the Ramona's biggest bragging right: It's the only residence in the city that's atop an actual Portland public school.

Part of the Ramona's ground-floor space includes six classrooms the school board agreed to lease in 2009. It caused a stir at the time, when critics - including two board members - said the district would be sending a mixed message by opening a school in the Pearl at the same time it was closing schools in other neighborhoods.

Supporters, meanwhile, hoped that the school in the Pearl would relieve some of the overcrowding at Northwest Portland's Chapman Elementary, a mile away, as well as at the Emerson School - the PPS charter school in the Pearl with an endless waiting list.

But in reality, the school - set to open this fall on the ground floor of the Ramona - isn't a 'school' at all. It's instead dubbed a PPS 'Early Childhood Center' that will serve just under 100 preschool kids, ages 3 and 4, many of whom will surely come from the apartments upstairs.

The district could spend $1.5 million on the five-year lease. Spokesman Matt Shelby says the district's Head Start preschools are at capacity and will use some of the classroom space. The space will also house Multnomah Education Service District students in early childhood and special education.

Shelby says the project wasn't necessarily scaled back from an elementary school. Any confusion could have come from ambiguity.

'There wasn't a clear plan around exactly how to utilize that space (in the Ramona),' he says. 'People thought it was a good opportunity. Then a broader conversation about what's the best use for it happened. That's when they settled on the early childhood model.'

A family-friendly risk

Kyle Ryan, 34, a technical support representative for Integra Telecom, was looking to move his family out of a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Northeast Portland last year. Ryan and his girlfriend, who stays home with their 17-month-old son, couldn't afford much more than $1,000 in rent. They had never thought of living in the Pearl, he says.

But they were wowed by the amenities and thrilled to see they met the eligibility requirements. Residents must earn no more than 60 percent of the Portland-area family median income. For a family of three, that's $38,460 per year.

Ryan and his family now pay $1,000 per month for a three-bedroom, two-bath unit with 1,200 square feet of space. Along with the apartment, they get a parking space and free Internet.

It's enough room for their son, Nicholas, whom they plan to enroll in the center downstairs when he's old enough.

As of the last count in early April, 75 children live in the Ramona - far more than any other residence in the Pearl. Two thirds of those kids are age 6 and under and one in five in the building are 5 years old, which makes them ready to enroll in kindergarten - ironically, too old for the Early Childhood Center.

McNamara wasn't involved in the PPS planning for the classroom space. He expects it will all come together in time.

'They're here,' he says of the kids. 'How do you keep the kids here until you have enough for a whole school? If it fills up, it shows there is a demand.'

Deciding to dedicate half of his 138 units to three-bedroom residences was a big risk in 2009, he admits.

When he approached lenders, he says, they asked for comparable examples, but 'there were none in the Pearl.' Not at the Sitka, McNamara's other large affordable building; not in the 11 buildings owned by Hoyt Street Properties, the Pearl's largest developer.

Hoyt does offer two-bedroom units plus a den in some of its buildings, but isn't ready to go to three formal bedrooms quite yet, says Marilyn Andersen, the company's principal broker and sales manager.

'We're not seeing anyone with three or four kids down here,' she says. 'If that were to happen, yeah - supply and demand. But now there's not really a demand.'

If more bedroom space is factored in to the square footage, she says, 'the price gets high and it doesn't appeal to as many people.'

McNamara concedes that tradeoffs are necessary to make the units family friendly: smaller bedrooms to accommodate more living space and to make room for large entryways for strollers and ample closets for toys and games. Barbecues aren't allowed for safety reasons, and balconies and door handles are designed to prevent escapes.

Each floor has a communal laundry room, brightly lighted spaces that have turned into social areas where neighbors gather over suds and crayons. Residents created a Facebook page this month to organize meet-ups in the building and keep track of other comings and goings.

Of all of McNamara's buildings, he says, designing the Ramona has been the most fun. 'This is much more intentional. It's about making the building into a community.'

There's also an exercise room, underground parking, and a secure bike locker downstairs for 83 bikes. On a recent visit, dozens of tricycles, red wagons, bike trailers and infant seats were stowed away with the grown-ups' wheels.

Ryan and his girlfriend, Janet Bailey, 28, are enjoying the urban family vibe. Although the building sits nearly underneath the Interstate 405 overpass, thick-paned windows virtually shut out the white traffic noise. The trains from the tracks to the east are only audible when the horns blow.

Every room has a view of the central courtyard, train tracks, construction cranes and bridges on the horizon.

Ryan says his son isn't in it for the view.

'He doesn't pay the trains too much attention yet,' he says. 'Currently his favorite feature of the building is the ceiling fans in each room.'

Pearl becoming kid central

Other family-friendly amenities are moving into the northeast end of the Pearl as well. Here are some examples:

• Part of the ground floor of the Ramona Apartments - separate from the Portland Public Schools site - is the new home of the nonprofit Zimmerman Community Center. A portion of the 1,750 square feet will house the Isobel's Clubhouse program, which offers drop-in classes for creative toddler play as well as kid and adult classes. The clubhouse celebrates its grand opening 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday.

• Just northeast of Northwest and Overton, the two grassy blocks next to the Ramona will soon transform into The Fields, a three-acre neighborhood park that's been in the planning stages since 2008.

Owned by Hoyt Street Properties, the park is set to break ground in January and open next fall.

• PlayDate PDX opened in December with 7,500 square feet of castle-themed indoor play space, party rooms for rent and a large cafe area.

• Also nearby, at 1703 N.W. 16th Ave., the nonprofit Children's Healing Art Project just leased a 10,000-square-foot space, offering art classes and artwork to the public to benefit sick children.

• If the PPS classrooms at the Ramona fill up, at least one other preschool option nearby is available. Just a block away is WeVillage, the drop-in daycare center at 424 N.W. 11th Ave., which is expanding to offer Montessori-style preschool classes this fall. The school will teach everything from early literacy and math to yoga, cross-cultural music and food and aromatherapy.

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