2012-07-12

Portland's Questionable Urban Development Strategies



I have complaining writing about gentrification and development of metropolitan Portland for some time now. It is a subject I think many people don’t want to examine. Recently, it came to my attention (in this PBJ May article) that city commissioners voted 3-1 to create a $169 million dollar “urban renewal area” around Portland State University. For geographical knowledge, PSU is in downtown, flanks the business district as well as the wealthy neighbourhoods around Good Hollow.  The Portland Business Journal said the move would “revitalize the sleepy south side of downtown” and that officials at Portland State claim it’s critical for PSU’s continued growth. (Sidebar: if PSU is growing, then why is it cutting student jobs and health care coverage?)

My apartment complex lies near PSU, on the edge of the so-called business district. As a long-time resident of the downtown area, I will bluntly say that this is an obscene waste of money and resources. This area absolutely does not need any “urban renewal”.

If you compare my neighbourhood to that of the Alberta neighbourhood, the N Williams area, Kenton area, or the Southeast Powell neighbourhoods…you can see we got it good. We have infrastructure that isn’t falling apart, we have direct access to a major grocery store and easy access to an organic grocery. The roads are not messed up, we can access the MAX, the streetcar, safe sidewalks, all of the bus lines and there are well-placed bike lanes. The major source of crime in the area is larceny, which is benign if you compare it to the major source of crime in neighbourhoods further out from the SE Hosford-Abernathy and Belmont neighbourhoods buffer or in North Portland.

In their 2011 November article “Market of No Choice”, the Willamette Weekly pointed out that the Portland Development Commission (another supporter of the urban renewal area) conducted a study that concluded a “high-end grocery store near Portland State University” was needed. Furthermore, it was also evident that the PDC’s study didn’t consider the “food deserts” of Portland. Food deserts are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as concentrations of low-income residents living a mile or more from a large grocery store.
Instead, the study looked at high-income areas including the PSU site, Belmont and 10th as well as two sites at the South Waterfront (the South Waterfront is nothing but high-rises with condos and overpriced townhouses. There are leases due to the housing market bubble, but the residents do not qualify as “low-income”).
Willamette Week further reported that the PDC’s spokeswoman Anne Mangan claimed the agency paid for the $18,700 study because it had heard complaints from downtown residents unhappy with their choice of grocery stores.
Let me break this down for you, assuming that most of the residents of downtown are high-income earners (which minus the students and low-income housing projects, they are); they already have more access (money) to be able to buy food at the grocery store of their choice. I researched mileage from my neighborhood (which is demographically high-income earners) and found four different grocery stores under a mile and a half away: the aforementioned Safeway is 0.5 or half a mile, a Whole Foods is 1 mile, a Fred Meyer is 1.2 miles and a Trader Joes is 1.4 miles away.
So why are these supposed downtown residents unhappy with their access to grocery stores? Two of their choices are high-end and Fred Meyer has all the basics with reasonable prices and quality. It’s true, Safeway isn’t the best…but it is still there. Downtown is not a food desert.
These actions and proposals show that the Portland Development Commission, the Portland Business Alliance, the mayor (also in favor) and city commissioners are not on the side of equality when it comes to access to basic needs for its residents. It looks like it’s pandering to a few whiny rich people honestly. Why not use the grant to improve roadways in Southeast (many with gigantic dangerous potholes), or build a grocery store in the Lents neighborhood of East Portland?
Perhaps most telling of all, the vice chairman of the Portland Multnomah Food Policy Council, David McIntyre, says he didn’t know the PDC was conducting the study and that “when it comes to food [access], this is an issue everywhere, but Portland can be a bit segregated.”
Think about it. Urban development/renewal reinforces the economic (and yes, still sometimes racial) segregation that splits our city. That’s gentrification at work.

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