–  City commits to build at least 200 low-income units, still struggles to create diverse neighborhood

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Pedestrians walk by a two-acre property at 2095 S.W. River Parkway, where there is a proposal to build affordable housing in the midst of the South Waterfront.Squeaky wheels are getting more grease in Portland’s South Waterfront area, and it should result in more affordable housing amid the posh condo and apartment towers.

For years, city officials have promised a mix of income ranges while devoting huge sums of urban renewal money to create an entirely new community along the Willamette River, known for its landmark aerial tramway. But the city has managed to deliver only one 209-unit affordable apartment project — 579 units short of its official goal.

South Waterfront shouldn’t be “an enclave for the wealthy” given all the public investment, says Ruth Adkins, policy director for Oregon Opportunity Network, a coalition of affordable housing advocates.

Adkins and other activists are tired of unfulfilled promises, and they fear available building sites are getting tied up and priced too high. They also are pressing the Portland Development Commission to negotiate for more affordable housing in a pending development agreement with the Zidell family, which owns 30 acres of undeveloped land in the South Waterfront area.

In recent days, the activists have secured new backing for affordable housing from city leaders and the PDC.

Their biggest victory: a tentative city commitment to build at least 200 units for very low-income people, likely at the PDC’s 2-acre property on 2095 S.W. River Parkway, across the street from the Marriott Residence Inn.

That commitment represents a “breakthrough,” says Jillian Detweiler, the policy director for Mayor Charlie Hales who has been working to broker the agreement.

Adkins says that project will be a major achievement, but activists want the city to develop a concrete road plan for how it will get the rest of the affordable housing units in South Waterfront.

“The proposed development ... is a step in the right direction,” the ad hoc group of housing activists stated in a letter to the PDC last week, “but concentrating poverty in one building is less than ideal; we also need a plan that commits to creating mixed-income buildings, or mixing properties serving lower-income people into diverse blocks.”

Some observers say the city’s efforts have lagged partly due to a split between the PDC, which sets aside 30 percent of urban renewal funds for affordable housing, and the Portland Housing Bureau, which manages projects with that money.

In Portland, bureaus are headed by different city commissioners, and they don’t always work in tandem.

“We have to see a return to a more coordinated housing strategy” between the two agencies, Adkins says.

Commissioner Nick Fish says he and Commissioner Amanda Fritz were sympathetic to activists’ demands for more affordable housing in South Waterfront. The two city commissioners got more clout when a pending vote was scheduled to expand the North Macadam Urban Renewal Area that includes South Waterfront, and Commissioner Dan Saltzman announced he’d abstain on that expansion because his family owns property in the district.

Hales suddenly lacked the three City Council votes needed to expand the urban renewal area, which is part of his larger package to eliminate two urban renewal districts, shrink two other districts, and expand two others.

“Unless there’s a clear road map for meeting the existing targets, this particular amendment will not move forward,” Fish says.

The controversy — or a lack of three votes — prompted Hales to postpone a vote on his urban renewal restructuring plan.

But now the various sides appear to be coming together.

Detweiler says the mayor wants to do more than just one 200-unit project for low-income residents and commit to meeting the affordable housing goals for South Waterfront.

“We want to reaffirm the goals, but we want to commit to a strategy,” she says.

Hales directed the PDC and housing bureau staff to form a working group to assure that the low-income housing project comes together on River Parkway within three years, Detweiler says.

At last week’s PDC board meeting, commissioners spoke effusively about their commitment to affordable housing in the North Macadam Urban Renewal Area. Mark Edlen, a new PDC commissioner, said the River Parkway property is a “killer” site. There is some talk of putting a grocery on the site and then building low-income housing on top of it. “I think if we could attract a grocer in this area, it would just light it on fire,” said Edlen, who runs Gerding Edlen Development Co., one of Portland’s top commercial real estate developers.

There also is new talk of the PDC putting terms into its pending development agreement with ZRZ Realty Co., which represents the Zidell family, giving the city the right to “buy” some affordable units sprinkled in some of its housing to be built in the area.

“That would be another way to achieve affordability there,” Detweiler says. And it would mean that lower-income people aren’t segregated in the emerging community there.

The Zidells own the last big undeveloped waterfront parcel, north and south of the Ross Island Bridge, and stand to get $27.4 million in PDC subsidies for new streets, green space and other infrastructure there.

If the mayor wins over the City Council to expand the North Macadam Urban Renewal Area, it also could mean $40 million more for affordable housing there.

In another concession, the PDC is talking about setting aside $20 million more, topping the 30 percent required set-aside for affordable housing, if it raises enough money to do all the planned infrastructure in the area and has money left over.

Detweiler says the ongoing talks are not at the negotiation stage, but at the point of putting it all down on paper and getting “review and comment” from various parties.

The mayor hopes to bring back his urban renewal district reshuffling plan later in February, Detweiler says.

“If it all comes together, this will be a big win for low-income families in North Macadam,” Fish says.

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