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Change ready to pounce on Lents

Will PDC's new action plan spur needed development?


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - PDCs Trang Lam talks about the improvements coming to the Lents neighborhood.One sunny morning last week, a leggy woman wearing a tight dress and high heels was seen strolling on the sidewalk along Lents Park, when a man driving a BMW suddenly pulled over to talk to her.

Around the corner, a handsome young dad pushed an empty stroller while his toddler meandered in front of him.

Those two faces of Lents symbolize a neighborhood in transition.

Young families and professionals are moving into the hard-scrabble neighborhood, which suffered a brutal wave of foreclosures during the Great Recession.

Now that Portland’s real estate market has revived, Mayor Charlie Hales is pressing the Portland Development Commission to show more progress in Lents, where the urban renewal agency has invested more than $90 million since 1998 with only sporadic successes.

In response, PDC produced a new five-year “action plan” for the Lents Town Center Urban Renewal Area, which it presents Wednesday to the Portland City Council.

“We are not going to go through a long process where we’re creating a plan just to do a plan,” says Trang Lam, PDC’s neighborhood manager. “It’s all about action.”

One way to achieve that is to aggressively market PDC’s own property. For several years, the agency devoted much of its energy and money for the urban renewal district buying up land and buildings — about 12 acres’ worth — in the town center area near Southeast 92nd Avenue and Foster Road.

That land-banking strategy was a flop, PDC officials now concede. Most of those properties remain empty, as PDC sought — and failed to land — a big catalytic project, or what staff dub the “big play.”

PDC doesn’t need a big catalytic project to get development going in Lents, says Ed McNamara, Hales policy adviser for urban renewal. Such game-changers weren’t needed to get Portland’s Alberta Street and Mississippi Avenue corridors to blossom, McNamara notes.

“I think it’s better to focus on stringing a few singles together,” says Nick Sauvie, executive director of ROSE Community Development Corp. He says the new action plan seeks to do just that.

The action plan calls for a pivot to 92nd Avenue, a retail strip of a few blocks fanning out north from Foster. It’s the historic “main street” for Lents, and also where the agency owns considerable properties.

PDC envisions something like occurred on Southeast Stark Street in Montavilla, says Alison Wicks, PDC project coordinator.

PDC landed one of those singles a few months back, leasing space to a new brewpub called Z Haus, which expects to open in several months. When word of that project surfaced, the owner of a nearby building on 92nd Avenue contacted PDC, saying he wants to talk about redevelopment ideas, Lam says.

If PDC can bring more vitality to the existing buildings along 92nd Avenue, it can extend the retail strip on the agency’s property to the north, a large parcel near Harold Street, a ballfield next to the Wattles Boys and Girls Club.

In the past, PDC sputtered a lot in Lents, says Cora Potter, who served on the Lents urban renewal advisory committee until the agency disbanded it in a budget-cutting move. She faults the agency for its “herky-jerky stop-and-go, second-guess” approach. One example is the 92nd and Harold site, where PDC struck a deal with McNamara to develop the land before the project fizzled.

Now PDC has decided to pursue development on that site in more bite-sized pieces, Lam says.

The idea now is to “turn around” 92nd Avenue, and hope that starts to encourage other projects in the surrounding town center area, she says.

PDC isn’t giving up on the idea of landing a New Seasons-calibre grocer to replace the New Copper Penny night club on 92nd and Foster, which Lents activists cherish, and which could serve to spur other development. And recent talks with the nightclub owners suggest they’re more amenable to a grocery store deal than in the past, if the numbers work out, Lam says.

“They’ve opened up,” she says. “They agree with us that something like that could be the right project.”

Looking for investments

In the past, PDC didn’t have a “coherent strategy” in Lents, Sauvie says. “Urban renewal has been kind of this Christmas tree, where everybody puts their pet projects in it. It hasn’t had a logical approach.”

Sauvie, McNamara and former Lents Neighborhood Association Chairman Nick Christensen praised PDC’s efforts to focus its efforts in the new plan. The agency says it will prioritize its commercial real estate developments in two areas: 92nd and Foster and Foster and 67th. The latter area is where PDC also owns multiple properties, including one near where the Mercado project just broke ground. That complex is expected to attract several small Latino-themed businesses.

PDC’s new plan also showed it can collaborate better with other city bureaus, McNamara says. In the past, it was more PDC operating on its own, without getting buy-in from other bureaus, he says.

The new action plan recognizes that Portland Bureau of Transportation’s efforts to improve the sidewalks and streetscape of Foster, including a new bike lane and a “road diet” that reduces traffic lanes, will make more businesses want to locate there or spruce up their storefronts. And the action plan calls for working closely with the Bureau of Environmental Services on flood issues within the urban renewal district.

The city recently completed a 15-year effort to buy homes and restore the original Johnson Creek floodplain to avert the kind of floods that ravaged the area about once every 10 years. But many businesses along Foster are still subject to rare floods that might only come once per 100 years, and they are reluctant to put more into their properties if they are prone to be flooded out, Lam says. The action plan calls for the city to put forth a strategy for aiding companies in the 100-year floodplain.

The action plan calls for PDC to spend $25.7 million in the next five years on reshaping the two neighborhood centers; $6.7 million to aid businesses along commercial corridors in the area, $3.5 million to buttress the industrial and job-generating businesses in the district, and $9.1 million for affordable housing projects, to be handled by the Portland Housing Bureau.

That sends a message out to other property owners and investors in the Lents area, McNamara says.

“If you want to invest, now is probably the time,” he says.

Or, as PDC spokesman Shawn Uhlman puts it: “Now that we have this opportunity, let’s pounce.”