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  • 20 Oct 2014

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My View: Old Town/Chinatown needs a vibrant mix

I have lived in Portland for the better part of the past 20 years, and much has changed since I first arrived to attend college.

I remember parking in an abandoned rail yard gravel pit near the Gold’s Gym occupying an old warehouse. I was going for some self-improvement. Back then, the Pearl needed some as well.

Who then could know today I would live just a few blocks from that very spot. That pit is now a park, often filled by children and dogs playing in a water fountain surrounded by shops, restaurants and apartment homes. This new place didn’t just appear from the normal workings of the real estate market or by chance; it was the result of smart thinking and smart investment ... two things Old Town/Chinatown needs from us right now.

I support Mayor Charlie Hales’ efforts to redirect urban renewal funds from the Pearl to Old Town/Chinatown to leverage housing investment for a more diverse economic base. Despite many positive developments, Old Town/Chinatown faces entrenched structural obstacles and requires new and creative approaches that put aside the us vs. them/rich vs. poor arguments of the past.

The historic richness of this place presents both a challenge and an opportunity to create a unique, diverse and vibrant place for many different people to live, work and recreate. It shouldn’t become another Pearl, nor do we want Disneyland historical or cultural sentimentality. Old Town/Chinatown could be a place that blends new with old in a dynamic mix of architecture and activity, education and entertainment.

In the past, we have spent time and money on sexy urban design projects, hoping they will be transformative for Old Town/Chinatown. That includes the transit mall, light rail, decorative streetscapes and countless hours and dollars spent on planning to spend millions to redirect traffic patterns and reconfigure streets and sidewalks, all with the idea that the type of brick will change who and how they step on it.

We all want good design, but these projects are complementary, not catalytic. They don’t get at the real issue of use — the daily actions and interactions of people at the street level and in buildings. This is what drives the quality and the character of a place.

Our public resources should be directed to address the structural impediments to expanding the range and quality of uses in Old Town/Chinatown. Mercy Corps, the University of Oregon, Oregon College of Oriental Medicine, Pacific Northwest College of Art and Airbnb are a good start. We must do more.

I believe the top three impediments are seismic code costs, service provider concentration, and public safety concerns.

We are one earthquake away from losing many of Portland’s historic structures. For safety reasons our codes require expensive seismic upgrades to old buildings when they are rehabilitated, preventing development except for the deepest of pockets — and deep pockets rarely want to risk investment in a challenged neighborhood.

The Portland Development Commission should pay for the seismic upgrades to all historic structures in Old Town/Chinatown to spark diverse creative reinvestment of these unique and important structures. It is critical we preserve Portland’s history and provide a counterweight to contemporary waves of building booms. In 20 years or less, we may come to regret the “success” of many of today’s new developments as the sterile hue of sameness permeates what may appear more akin to a real estate transaction than the organic growth of a neighborhood.

Old Town/Chinatown should and will always have social service providers but for too long has been asked to shoulder more than its fair share. It is our duty to help some of these providers relocate into new upgraded facilities to diffuse the effects of over-concentration and ask other neighborhoods to do their part in contributing to our safety net.

Eventually this neighborhood will be developed simply by virtue of its location. Many service providers may be pushed out by market forces. By taking proactive steps now to assist some to relocate and upgrade their facilities, we can ensure we are maintaining and expanding those services. They are doing important work and we should help them continue to do so. This would be a welcome shift in PDC priorities.

In addition, we need to dedicate a 24/7 security team that will be the eyes and ears during the initial fragile phase of transition.

Public dollars, when applied in smart and targeted ways, can make the difference. But we as citizens of this community also need to take responsibility by giving to providers, patronizing businesses and simply being present.

We cannot avoid Old Town/Chinatown and wonder why it is not a place we want to be. We have to help make it so. Go there. See the signs of those who are hopeful and doing their part to make this a better place.

Let’s leverage our public resources to help more do the same. We can do this.

David Dysert of Northwest Portland is a member of the Pearl District Planning and Transportation Committee.