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Albina Vision: Better by design
Since the construction of Emmanuel Hospital, Interstate 5 and the Veteran's Memorial Coliseum brought demolition and discord to the Albina neighborhood, the Albina Vision now has an intention to bring back the structure of the community as if it had never left.
On March 12, architecture students at the University of Oregon presented their ideas for the Albina Vision after 10 weeks of preparation.
The Albina Vision is far from a master plan, but only because it's in the early stages: it's in its third year of work for a 50-year vision.
Rukaiyah Adams, chief information officer of the Meyer Memorial Trust, is chair of the Albina Vision Trust, the nonprofit that was created to shepherd a community-centered development vision for the area that used to be known as Lower Albina. The Albina Vision Trust intends the community to be a stand-alone place to live, work and play.
"We want the neighborhood to include community spaces. It has to be viable, we want affordable living, and by affordable we mean not just a few mandated units of housing in a community where people who live in those units can't afford to eat or get their hair cut in their own neighborhood. We'd like to curate development so that there's a diversity of options for people of different income levels," Adams said. "It'll have housing, commercial space, creative space and here's the deal: it's almost 90 acres of a blank slate other than the Moda Center and Coliseum, it's really open, believe it or not. There virtually is no residential housing there now."
The Albina Vision isn't just about developing new buildings in North Portland: a key goal is to create a public performance hall and art areas where the community can participate in the arts without shelling out $200 for Hamilton tickets.
"The community was largely African-American... it was lively and full of creative arts. It was the Portland jazz district, you didn't have to be rich or wealthy to enjoy it," Adams said. "The Albina Vision is based on an open-space design framework and you'll also see art at the center of the vision. We want to take what was there and reimagine how it would have evolved it had continued undisturbed."
It's an uncommon way to go about developing a neighborhood master plan.
"Here's the reality: the city is growing fast, it feels like we are shedding our skin and becoming something else," Adams said. "It's not the growth making people uncomfortable, it's growth without regard to history, to what was here... growth without a sense that we have shared values."
There are two specific elements planned in the Albina Vision for pedestrians and bicyclists: reconnecting the East Side to the river by continuing the waterfront paths through the Rose Quarter and fixing the screwed-up area where the bike paths head east from the Eastbank Esplanade and get dangerous.
"Albina encapsulates a lot of our biggest urban challenges in America. It has environmental issues with pollution in the lower Willamette due to industries where many of our grandparents worked, it has entangled transportation infrastructure and it has the legacy of the placement of interstate highways though vulnerable Black communities,"Adams said. "We have (issues) in the taking of land by eminent domain to build a monument to veterans, even though the people whose homes were bulldozed were also veterans, except they were Black. We're trying to say now, as a more inclusive, pluralistic Portland, wait a minute. We're going to talk about how we go forward together. All of us."
Visions of the youth
Ivy O'Neal, a pro temp instructor at the University of Oregon's School of Architecture, originated the idea for her students to use the Albina Vision as a jumping-off point for a 10-week studio program. She developed the program with faculty professor Gerry Gast.
O'Neal has a bachelor of architecture from the University of Oregon and a master of education policy from the University of Washington. Her work and research focuses on civic architecture, urban planning, education and public policy with an interest in how policy and design can address issues of social equity.
"At Design Week Portland's opening event last year, I saw Rukaiyah and Zari (Santner, Adam's colleague at the Trust) — who have been instrumental in this — present, and at that point they didn't have any imagery to go with it ... it was the first time I came across it (the Albina Vision)," O'Neal said. "The opportunity for me to teach a studio came up, and something caught my attention at the time: I operate in this how-do-you-make-society-better-by-design standpoint, so it really spoke to me personally."
Outside of faculty professors, working professionals often rotate in to teach studios like this every year or two for the school.
"It's an exciting form of architecture to talk about these big issues of what it truly means to design for an inclusive society — who are we designing for and what are we designing for?"
So she turned it into an academic study to help young students understand the racist history of the site, and how homes were razed when the Memorial Coliseum was built.
"It's to get their heads around the site, history and urban planning also, and give them framework and ask them to adopt this framework and to design a performance hall," O'Neal said. "The Portland architecture program has this undercurrent of urban design in it, way stronger than the Eugene program. Because it was only a 10-week studio, I didn't ask them to examine or do any redesign of the urban planning."
That is more of a topic for an urban planning thesis studio.
"It's more about giving them a tool to study and then to design within this future vision," O'Neal said.
Rukaiyah Adams came in to visit the students' studio.
"It was really fabulous to have her, and one thing came up multiple times: how does this not just become another Pearl District?" O'Neal told the Business Tribune. "From seeing Rukaiyah and Zari speak, the students had a rough idea of what they were trying to do from a financial side. Rukaiyah (said), 'How can we fund this differently and not have it be strictly development-driven?'"
It was interesting to have Adams explain the thought process behind the financial makeup, and know the people working in the nonprofit Albina Vision Trust.
"Knowing it's not fully profit-driven and knowing there is a big range of people involved in this mission and vision, it was really interesting to have conversations about that, and about who has the voice of the people," O'Neal said.
On Monday last week, her students presented their final projects for final review. Each student presented her work to a panel of three to five professionals working in general architecture, including development and structural engineering.
"This site really hits home because of the racist policy that happened and the wipe-out of that neighborhood. I think that forced their hand a little more to really consider what does it means to be inclusive," O'Neal said. "It was a lot to roll into 10 weeks."
Between the Steel and Broadway bridges on the north side to the edge of the Lloyd District, the 94-acre former residential grid was bulldozed to make way for what's now the Moda Center and I-5. Most Portlanders remember this razing as part of Prosper Portland's — formerly the Portland Development Commission — whitewashed past.
"For three years leading up to the formation of the Albina Vision Trust, we did a lot of historical research to learn what was in that part of the city — before it joined the City of Portland, Albina was a separate city, and we wanted to learn what was there before white settlers came to Portland," Adams told the Tribune.
Between 1930 and 1960 the area was largely an African-American community. The Trust met with those who are still alive and around town, along with folks at the Historical Society to get a sense of what happened there. They also dug up old city council minutes from the '60s to the '80s to try to understand the city council thinking and the Prosper Portland thinking at the time.
"Originally that part of Portland including just South of there where produce row and OMSI is, was kind of like the Ellis Island of Portland," Adams said. "It's the part of the city where new Portlanders, migrants from other parts of the country and immigrants from mostly Eastern Europe settled to adapt to the Northwest. It was a really affordable, really diverse part of the city, a working-class part of the city."
One of the reasons why it was affordable was the river from time to time flooded, and the community was adjacent to the river.
Before OMSI's current location there was a coal fire plant just south of there, it was grimy, trains ran through there and wealthy people didn't want to live there. It was a working-class community, acquired by eminent domain, and a largely Black working-class community.
"People who lived there moved during the Great Migration, worked in rail yards, walked over the Steel Bridge and Broadway Bridge to go to work at the train station or Albina rail yards just north of there," Adams said. "A lot of folks, like my grandmother, worked in the garment industry where the Pearl is now. It was a great neighborhood in Central City where working-class people who drove economic engineering to growth at the time, it's where they lived."
The Albina Vision Trust's plan so far has six values, the first of which is to honor what was, what happened and what could be.
"That part of the city has always been affordable. That was what it was all about. The vision for the future is a place of affordable living, affordable housing."
A second Vision value is to re-engage average eastside Portlanders with the river.
"We try to imagine what life could be like. This was a neighborhood a lot like Ladd's Addition. The streetscape is still there, it just got bulldozed when we created the Memorial Coliseum. There was a time it was stitched in to Sabin, stitched into the Lloyd like any other neighborhood," Adams said. "Can you imagine bulldozing Ladd's Addition today to build a cricket field? That's what we did, for Buckaroo's hockey. It didn't even survive. We bulldozed this beautiful community of old Portland houses in order to build an ice rink, in essence. "
The group surveyed the U.S. and found examples to template in New York that helped develop Harlem, and one program in Detroit that could be a good model, and also looked globally to how East Berlin and Warsaw rebuilt after World War II.
"Look at pictures of what happened in Albina: in material, it looks like a bomb was dropped on it," Adams said.
Two big fulcrums are likely to affect whether or not the Visioin will ever see reality. The Trust wants ODOT to cap the entire I-5 section that runs on the North side of Albina, when ODOT only planned to cap a small area, and there is currently a political process engaged on the topic. In the Vision, pedestrians can walk a normal street grid all the way from the Lloyd Center down to the Willamette River.
The other big lever is the Blanchard site, the Portland Public School District Headquarters at the northern tip of the district. Nothing has been decided yet, but the conversation has been opened with the City, school district and County.
"That's nine city blocks where we could do some really remarkable work," Adams said. "The development plans, it will all be beautiful, hopefully be inclusive and affordable. We are saying that our development and growth should not be designed to extract common wealth of the people of Portland and deliver it to investors in the form of personal wealth. We don't want that anymore."
The 50-year vision is not a short-term plan. It isn't likely that the people working on today's Albina Vision will be around to see its conception themselves.
"Because we don't own the political process or own the land, what we're trying to do is create a new way to drive community-based development outside of the traditional city government system," Adams said. "We're essentially saying we want a community-centered vision and we're going to drive that vision regardless of whether we have the support or mandate from the City or Prosper Portland. We think there's a better way of doing this."
Three years ago, the first series of conversations began trying to understand the history and imagine the future. About 25 people from all parts of Portland came together to initially discuss, and a year later, a smaller group met and took a year to come up with the six values. Last year, a small group of fewer than 10 met to process the values from the first groups' sets into the vision that recently came into the public domain, and also officially formed the nonprofit Albina Vision Trust.
By Jules Rogers
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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