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Smith offers candidates Mid-county tour


Rep. Jefferson Smith D-Portland, right, representing east Portland's District 47, organized a pair of guided tours of the area, and invited candidates and current officeholders to learn about issues people who live in his district face daily. From left, Steve Law, Oregon State Rep. Lew Frederick, D-Portland and Smith aide Lucy Palmersheim.
You want to hold public office and represent, among others, the people of east Portland. Well, Democrat Jefferson Smith thinks there are some things you should know.

That is why, last month, District 47's State Representative Smith - who has not ruled out a run for Portland's mayor himself - organized a pair of guided tours of the area, and invited candidates - whose jurisdictions if elected would include the area - to learn about it and the issues people who live there face every day. The response was considerably less than universal, but the following people showed up for the two tours: Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz and a challenger for her seat, State Representative Mary Nolan; Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel, and Multnomah County District 3 commission candidate Alissa Keny-Guyer; State Representative Lew Frederick; Multnomah County District Attorney candidate Kellie Johnson; and Metro Council candidate Bob Stacey. Candidates for Portland mayor were not invited, but Smith aide Lucy Palmersheim says there may be another round of tours for these politicians.

Also along, in addition to Smith and Palmersheim, were Bedrock Democrat member and Lents activist K.C. Hanson, David Douglas School Board member Shemia Fagan, and Rob Ingram from Mayor Sam Adams' office. All road in a ten-passenger limo loaned for the occasion by Ron Tonkin.

Smith began by pointing out the significance of the area. East of 82nd Avenue Portland contains 34 square miles of territory and 56,000 households; if it were an independent city - as activists once tried to make it - it would be the second largest in Oregon.

Part of the tour covered the Gateway area, and showcased the positive: the East Portland Community Center and its state of the art aquatics facility; the pending new, but as yet unfunded Gateway Park site and the described, but not visited, Gateway Green, a proposed 35-acre recreation area at the confluence of the I-84 and I-205 freeways. “We want people to see not just the blight, the unpaved streets and strip clubs,” Fagan said. “People need a reason to come here.”

The tour also visited Portland Adventist Medical Center, and Smith, as he has before, argued its emergency room is remote and hard to find. The hospital is the area's largest employer, with 2,113 employees, and largest landowner, he said. “They are a valuable community partner, and something the (David Douglas) School District wishes were on the tax rolls,” he said.

The tour was concentrated in the southern part of the area, and tended to show problems. The group drove by Lents Park, and those aboard remembered unkindly City Council's abortive effort to turn part of it into a minor league baseball stadium. “The plans were dropped on us from above,” Hanson said. “Literally, this is the oasis of Lents.”

Shortly thereafter, the group stopped at the former Marshall High School, which the Portland School District closed last year after experimenting with cutting it into small programs that shared the campus. “It was sad to see it go,” Hanson said. “A high school is the center of a community, and now we've lost our center.”

Frederick, Ingram and Nolan were outspoken in their criticism of Portland Public Schools' handling of the facility. Nolan said chopping the campus into pieces was “a complete disservice” to the students and community. Frederick was not so sure, saying that the Linus Pauling technical program had been “doing pretty well; some things worked.”

David Douglas High School, with a current enrollment of 3,000, is the largest high school in the state, Fagan said. At its largest it had 3,600 students and thus has additional capacity; however, the district's elementary and middle schools are “bursting at the seams,” she said.

This brought up other issues. Mid-county has 40 percent of the city's school-age child population, and a disproportionately large percentage of immigrants. Fagan noted that nearly 80 percent of David Douglas students qualify for a free or reduced lunch due to their poverty. About 25 percent are learning English, they come from families where 61 different languages are spoken at home and, Fagan said, “A high proportion has never had any formal schooling, even in their native country. We have to bring them up to grade level within a year under the (federal) No Child Left Behind law or suffer penalties.”

East Portland also has a large percentage of the city's recent affordable multi-family housing development, and the issues that accompany this. There are 14 such complexes near the 162nd Avenue MAX station, Ingram said, and it is “the biggest crime spot in the state.” Too much of the housing is poorly designed and offers no amenities such as porches or play areas. Near the 148th Avenue station is “the only liquor store in the state that is open on Sunday,” Smith incorrectly claimed.

For her part, Hanson pointed to three bullet holes in a wall of her business facing an alley near Southeast 85th Avenue and Foster Road. “There's nothing like bullets or bullet holes to get your attention,” she said. “I'm glad I stepped out for a couple of cold ones while this happened.” Across the alley, a cyclone fence with wooden slats is a regular target for graffiti, and has twice been set on fire. “The police response to property crimes is hit and miss,” Hanson said. They wouldn't take a report from me because I wasn't the owner.”

Not far away is the place where football star Joey Harrington was hit by a car while riding his bicycle. A lack of good bicycle facilities, especially on north-south routes, a lack of sidewalks, poor bus service diminished by recent cuts (more than a mile of Northeast 102nd Avenue has no bus service) help to explain why, as Smith pointed out, only 13 percent of area residents regularly use alternative transportation options, half the citywide average. Stacey noted that MAX stations are spaced twice as far apart as they are in the inner city, and Smith observed that on streets such as Burnside or Glisan, safe pedestrian crossings are sometimes more than a mile apart.

Beyond this, Fagan and others said, the area has been developed with no overall planning, no amenities or focal points, and has no sense of identity or community. “A lot of the development was unplanned and not well done,” Smith said. “We need to develop a sense of place and overcome the suburban feeling.”

In the attempt to address this, another layer of bureaucracy was added with the creation of the East Portland Action Plan in 2008. It contained a long list of Action Items intended to address these and other issues.

Still, Smith said, “It's great stuff, but we need to treat it as a route to accomplishments, rather than an accomplishment in itself."
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