Plans for community center in former Arleta Library hurt by 'Catch-22'

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Neighborhood and community groups were unable to raise the money to buy the Wikman Building from the county, so it will go back on the market. Foster Road may be on the upswing, but a coalition of neighborhood groups still couldn’t raise the cash to turn a former library off Foster into a new community center.

Two years ago this month, Multnomah County declared the Wikman Building on Southeast 64th Avenue near Foster as surplus property and announced plans to sell it to a group led by ROSE Community Development Corp. Neighborhood leaders had lots of ideas for the quaint brick building, which opened in 1918 as the Arleta Library: a multicultural community center, an Internet cafe, a grocery cooperative, a farmers market and a small-business incubator.

ROSE, which stands for Revitalize Outer Southeast, is experienced at neighborhood community development deals, and it had some well-regarded partners: Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Coalition, the city’s umbrella group for Southeast neighborhood associations; the Foster-Powell Neighborhood Association; Mt. Scott-Arleta Neighborhood Association; and the Foster Area Business Association.

But the partners couldn’t raise the relatively modest sum needed to buy and rehabilitate the 5,187-square-foot building — somewhat north of $500,000.

Last week, Multnomah County Commissioner Judy Shiprack informed the coalition that the county will seek another buyer and put the building out for bids, says Nick Sauvie, ROSE executive director. That decision is expected to be formally ratified at an early-January Multnomah County Board of Commissioners meeting, he says.

Shiprack was not available for comment.

Sauvie complained of a “Catch-22” in the long-running effort. “We never got to the point of having site control, which we felt that we needed to raise money,” he says. Without money, it never could get site control.

“In general, there was some miscommunication,” Sauvie says.

The coalition also was unable to get serious funding it had banked on from the Portland Development Commission. The site is in the Lents Urban Renewal District administered by the city urban renewal authority.

Patrick Quinton, PDC executive director, says the agency provided ROSE with about $12,000 in seed funding. But backers were unable to get a much larger Community Livability Grant because that program requires projects to be “shovel ready,” Quinton says. That wasn’t possible because the coalition didn’t have control of the property, he says.

The Wikman Building also lacks off-street parking, making it hard to repurpose into a community center, Quinton says.

Anne Dufay, Southeast Uplift’s executive director, says it’s a sad loss for the community, but she doesn’t fault the county for wanting to move on.

“It’s been sitting empty, and that isn’t good for anybody,” Dufay says.

Raising money for new community spaces is difficult in a down economy, she says.

‘Focus and pride’

The Arleta Library was built during the darkest days of World War I, when residents rallied to raise $1,800 to buy land for the new library. The Carnegie Institute, funded by steel magnate-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, provided funds to build the library. It closed when the larger Holgate Library was completed in 1971, and became an office of the Multnomah County Community Action Agency, and later for the county’s Department of Community Justice.

Using the building as a community center could have provided “neighborhood focus and pride,” Dufay says, especially because the Wikman has some “iconic architecture.”

Ironically, many neighborhood leaders say Foster Road is so ripe for redevelopment now that it’s also likely to undergo gentrification. The city recently moved to shrink the number of traffic lanes on Foster from four to two, and add on-street bike lanes and pedestrian safety improvements. New restaurants and coffee shops have moved onto the street in recent years, and the Latino-themed Portland Mercado aims to open next year at 72nd Avenue and Foster.

Neighborhood leaders hope whatever goes into the Wikman Building will be an added amenity to the neighborhood.

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