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East Portland Action Plan adopted amid lovefest


Last month at the Midland Library in Mid-county, City Council members, front row from left, Amanda Fritz, Nick Fish, Mayor Sam Adams and Randy Leonard watch and listen to Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Senior Planner Barry Manning’s (far right) presentation of the East Portland Action Plan. Two rarities here: the time and location of the City Council night meeting held outside Council chambers.
The Portland City Council unanimously adopted the East Portland Action Plan in a 2.5-hour lovefest last month at Midland Library in Mid-county. Members of the plan committee and the public at large declared their love for the community, while politicians heaped praise on each other, and nearly everyone had something good to say about project manager Barry Manning.

The plan is a follow-up to the 2007 East Portland Review, also managed by Manning. It identified a number of area problems that included a massive influx of development with poor or inappropriate design, lack of basic infrastructure such as sidewalks or parks, an influx of poor and immigrant families into the area, and the strain that this put upon area schools. Through the combined efforts of former Mayor Tom Potter, Commissioner Randy Leonard, Multnomah County Commission Chair Ted Wheeler and Oregon State Rep. (now U.S. Senator) Jeff Merkley, the city was able to not only secure funds for a follow-up planning process, but an additional $500,000 to fund short-term projects.

These projects, selected by the committee from more than 250 action projects contained in the plan, were the following:

•Extend the popular Storefront Improvement Program, now available in the Gateway and Lents urban renewal districts, to all of east Portland.

•Create an advocate position to seek additional funding for livability projects, neighborhood and business associations, and other groups.

•Planning and promotion of Gateway Green, the 35-acre natural area between the I-5 and I-84 freeways, owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation.

•Initiate a pilot project to test new land use concepts. This, Manning told the council, will probably be an attempt to create a 20-minute neighborhood on Southeast 122nd Avenue between Division Street and Foster Road, creating commercial services that are now sadly lacking.

•Initiate Southeast Powell Boulevard street improvement planning, and pursue grants to continue the process.

•Fund the Safe Routes to School program, including installation of pedestrian islands at three key locations: Southeast 102nd Avenue near Sacramento or Tillamook streets, Northeast 122nd Avenue near Lincoln or Stephens streets, and Southeast 156th Avenue at Division Street.

•Set up a grant program to fund the implementation of action plan items.

Newly elected State Rep. Jefferson Smith said the plan represented the city’s “greatest chance for failure and greatest opportunity in the 21st century. I just left Salem where we’re gashing budgets that will disproportionately gash people here. This area ranks third in sub-prime mortgages. Of the 31 most dangerous intersections in the city, 21 are east of 82nd Avenue.” He added, “We should ensure that MAX lines are as safe as possible. We should create a sense of place so that this community is not just a place between destinations, but a place people go to.”

Leonard said he had known Smith’s father, Joe, for 35 years and that he had high expectations for his son. Smith replied, “Thanks for making it almost certain that I’ll disappoint you.”

Metro Councilor Robert Liberty said his fellow EPAP committee members were “smart, talented and dedicated.” The area “has seen more growth than South Waterfront and the Pearl District combined, with 12,000 new homes since 1990. Imagine what would happen if the public dollars matched the investment in housing. It’s of regional significance, and deserves regional attention. It’s the most challenged place in the city, but it could be the most successful part of the region with its own character.”

Schools were a hot topic throughout the evening. Frieda Christopher, a committee member and chair of the David Douglas School Board, said, “When my son was in school, he was in a class of 15 students; now you’re lucky if the class size is under 30. The poverty rate (as shown by students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches) is 73 percent. Twenty-four percent of our students are in English as a Second Language classes, some of our schools are over 50 percent, and that doesn’t include all the students who live in households where English isn’t spoken. We see these things not as problems, but as challenges.”

Parkrose School District Superintendent Karen Fischer Gray said her “truly unique schools (have) a huge diversity and immense poverty.”

Parkrose board chair Katie Larsell, like many other speakers, said that the area was entitled to equity in the allocation of city time and resources. “We want to be fully and wholly a part of Portland,” she said. “This is what Portland looks like.”

Kurt Vanderen of Powellhurst-Gilbert talked of when he moved there. “I hadn’t been in the city long, but I didn’t need to be to realize the rest of the city views east Portland as the redheaded stepchild.” He noted that 150 school children must try to cross Southeast Division Street at 187th Avenue every day, and begged for a stoplight to be installed. Other speakers seconded this request.

Mayor Sam Adams said the requested improvement was on the list for action. “Sadly, there are intersections ahead of you. But you’ve done good work.”

Jim Chasse and Mark White of Powellhurst-Gilbert also called for better pedestrian and public transit facilities, especially where they can serve school children. Chasse thanked the council for funding three pedestrian islands but said, “We need 100 times that many.”

Also supporting this move was East Precinct Commander Mike Crebs, who declared that better streets and economic revitalization were more important to public safety than having more police officers. “When people are out doing good things on the street, it will put peer pressure on the people doing bad things,” he said. He received praise from Leonard, while Adams thanked him for his “holistic view of public safety.”

Jean DeMaster, director of the social service nonprofit Human Solutions, said that the ills the plan addresses “will be increasingly difficult and costly if left alone. Investment in Mid-county creates an opportunity for all families to thrive. We should create more safe and decent housing and vibrant community areas.”

Several speakers, while speaking of the area’s problems, also sang its praises. Bob Earnest of the Hazelwood Neighborhood Association and the Gateway Urban Renewal Program Advisory Committee, said he grew up in Woodstock and now calls this “a great place to live, rich with community pride.” He mentioned such natural amenities as Glendoveer Golf Course, the Springwater Corridor, Powell Butte and Leach Botanical Gardens. “We hope to continue to build on our strengths and continue an ongoing dialogue with council,” he said.

Mike Vander Veen, the odds-on-favorite to secure the advocate position being created by the EPAP, said he had moved into the Cherry Park neighborhood of Southeast Portland in 2001 “based on the availability of affordable housing.” He later became involved in the Park Lane Church, the Hazelwood Neighborhood Association and the East Portland Neighborhood Office. “Every group I’ve participated in has built me up as a person,” he said. “I believe in building community in a community-building way.”

Michelle Winningham, EPAP Committee member said, “Twenty years ago I bought a house that was as far east as you could go and still stay within the city. We represent 125,000 people, and we’ve taken more than our proportionate share of a lot of things.”

Like many of those who preceded her, Winningham praised Manning as “the most important day-to-day resource” of the project. On behalf of the committee, she presented him with a berry pie baked by Powellhurst-Gilbert resident Judy Pohl.

Jean Lenon of the Mill Park Neighborhood Association delivered the sourest note of the night. She said the plan was “a day late and a dollar short” and that the short-term programs were “like putting a Band-Aid on a gushing wound.” In her words, infill development has created “ghettoization.” People in barracks-like apartments “don’t live there, they’re warehoused there. Our friends and neighbors are moving out; we’ve lost the neighborhood feeling. We don’t want to be downtown. If we did, we’d move there.”

Despite Lenon’s pessimism, council members seemed to be trying to outdo each other in their praise of the plan and the people who worked on it. Fritz paraphrased Helen Keller with, “(The best things) aren’t always what you can touch or feel or see,” but sentiments such as those expressed by neighbors in talking about their communities.

Fish said, “The city hasn’t always gotten planning right. One size fits all doesn’t work, certainly not here.” But the process worked because the planners “spent time in the community asking people what they want, rather than creating a plan somewhere else.” He pledged to bring more design review to the area. “What you’ve done is given us tools to do our job better,” he told the planners. “When we go out, the conversation continues.” He added, “‘This is your time.’ I’ve been waiting eight years to quote my president.”

Leonard once again praised Merkley, saying, “When Jeff sets his mind on something, you either agree or move out of the state.” Quoting Annette Mattson, who had testified that David Douglas students were from the lowest per capita income families in the state, he defended his move to use Pearl District urban renewal funds to pay for a new high school there. “Others noses will be tweaked, others denied resources they had easy access to in the past. I’m really proud to serve with a group of men, and now women, who are so focused on the right thing.”

Of the council meeting, Adams said, “The (staff presentation) was excellent; the testimony just added mortar to the bricks.” He praised Mid-county activists for “having most of the density, most of the poverty, the least safe schools, bad infrastructure, yet have chosen to be smart” and work with the city on solutions.

“As we head into an era of less money, you can expect equity,” he said. Referring to the urban renewal transfer he said, “The Oregonian was recently taking me to task for calling for equity among neighborhoods. I wear that criticism as a badge of honor.”
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