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Portland Mayor’s $20 Million ‘Anti-Gentrification’ Deal Comes Under Fire

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Portland Mayor Charlie Hales

A deal struck between Mayor Charlie Hales and black leaders, intended to halt gentrification in North and Northeast Portland, is coming under fire for being inadequate and toothless.

Outrage erupted earlier in the year after the city announced that a long dormant publicly-owned property at on the south block of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd would be developed by Californian-based developer Majestic Realty, into a retail plaza anchored by a Trader Joe’s. 

Black activists protested the development, saying it would spur gentrification. Trader Joe’s was eventually replaced by Colorado-based Natural Grocers and Hales eventually struck a deal with activists promising to invest $20 million in affordable housing and to develop a jobs plan for the neighborhood.

But critics now say $20 million won’t be enough to stop gentrification in North/Northeast Portland and that the proposed jobs plan doesn’t have any real power to it.

“Basically, Majestic and Natural Grocers have veto power over anything that the committee suggests,” said Cameron Herrington, who sits on a committee hammering out the jobs plan with the city, Majestic and Natural Grocers.

Jobs Plan With No Teeth

Majestic Realty, with Colas Construction as the primary contractor, is proposing to construct an urban retail shopping center consisting of approximately 20,000 square feet of gross leasable area in two separate buildings.

To make amends for the previous controversy over Trader Joe’s to the local NAACP, Portland African American Leadership Forum and others, the city promised $20 million for affordable housing to be spent in an urban renewal district in the area and community benefits such as economic and job opportunities for local residents that would come with the project.

A coalition of community leaders, developers and city officials have been meeting, trying to work out a so-called Community Benefits Agreement. Another meeting is scheduled for January.

The proposed agreement includes some stipulations like selling local goods at the grocery store and working to recruit for neighborhood residents for jobs at the store.

But a proposal that Natural Grocers agree to allow workers to unionize, if they wished, was quickly shot down.

Herrington said he went into the committee holding his nose.

Development site at the corner of NE Alberta Street and MLK Jr Blvd

“We knew that if there are things that we wanted to propose, that would have in any way limited Majestic’s profit margins, that they would just reject that,” said to Herrington.

The lack of leverage has some black leaders concerned.

“That’s the exact type of thing we’re trying to avoid in this process,” said Katrina Holland of the NAACP Portland. Holland said she’s seen the city break too many promised to Portland’s black community in the past.  “We’re not going to have that again, not on my watch.”

She and others fear whatever plans they come up with won’t be substantial if Majestic and Natural Grocers are not legally required to follow through.

“Quite frankly, I’m going to reach out to our national leadership to see if we can get some support in rallying around making that a legal agreement,” said Holland. ”That’s where the NAACP and other members of the community have to rally around putting outside pressure around them to change that.”

Cat Goughnour, resident of North Portland and equity consultant for Radix Consulting Group, a human rights, racial justice and social equity consulting and training group, also had concerns about the community process. 

"This CBA process is not representative, and does not include black people impacted and displaced by the city's gentrification," she said. 

Herrington said that because the deal with the community was cut after the deal with Majestic was inked, the residents didn’t have much say.

“In general, I think the process has been a bit handcuffed because it’s happening backwards, basically,” Herrington said. “There’s no leverage that this group has to get Majestic or Natural Grocers to do anything that they don’t want to do.”

Not Enough Money to Hold Back Gentrification

As a second part of Hales’ deal with the community, Hales committed $20 million to build affordable housing in the area.  That money will be combined with $16 million already slated for housing by the Interstate Urban Renewal Area.

“Nobody thinks that this $20 million is going to significantly address or turn around the impacts of the kind of 20 plus years of gentrification,” said Midge Purcell, director of advocacy and public policy for the Portland Urban League. “I think that what we really want to see is a real commitment to, you know, kind of anti-gentrification strategies both in North and Northeast Portland.”

Even city officials agreed $20 million for housing is not much. 

Here’s what $20 million could buy:

  • Multi-family rental: 500 apartments
  • Single-family rental: 100 houses
  • Single-family homeownership units: 150 houses
  • Home retention and repair units: 1,500 houses

Martha Calhoon, Portland Housing Bureau spokeswoman, said the goal is to leverage the money for more and it’s just one part of an overall approach.

“The $20 million is … restricted to paying for costs associated with building buildings,” Calhoon said.  She added the bureau plans to request from money from the city's budget process.

An Opportunity

View of the development site. Photo credit: PDC

Some volunteers working on the jobs plan were more optimistic that this time around, with accountability from the black community and others, that something could change.

Bishop Steven Holt, of The International Fellowship Family, is hopeful and confident in this new effort to combat gentrification.

“Someone’s got to be willing to step to the plate, put their name on the line,” he said. “I’m a native. I’ve lived in Portland and have seen the displacement. My family’s been effected by it. We’ve seen the broken promises so what are we going to do: complain or get involved? I choose to get involved.”

The Mayor hopes the $20 million investment and jobs plan will be step in the right direction.

“The folks that want this to work have every reason to doubt it,” Hales’ Communication Director Dana Haynes said.

He added that Hales is optimistic that if the city and the community work together, there is a chance that this development will not result in harm to the local residents.

“It’s entirely possible that you can bring up the neighborhood without driving out the existing residents,” he said, adding a watchdog group over the city is essential to making that work.


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