Recipe for progress
A group of developers have a vision for Rockwood — one that would bring affordable housing, shared spaces, a new park and learning opportunities into the community.
It all began with a survey. Through support from the Portland State University Center for Public Interest Design, the developers knocked on doors to discover what was needed within the community. The answer? More assets.
"We knew we could use our project to fill in needs within the community," said Eric Paine, CEO of Community Development Partners. "There are major holes for recreation and shared community spaces."
Those conversations led to the lofty designs for Rockwood 10, a 224-unit apartment community encompassing 14 acres wedged between Southeast Stark Street, 187th Avenue and Yamhill Street being co-developed by Community Development Partners and Hacienda CDC. Beyond affordable housing, Rockwood 10 will feature green spaces, community programming and other resources that take it beyond a standard housing project.
That vision for Rockwood is one step closer after Gresham's Design Commission unanimously approved plans put forward by the developers during a public hearing Wednesday evening, March 27, at Gresham City Hall.
"I appreciate how far (the development) has come since our first meeting," said Commissioner Tom Orth.
With plans approved, construction on the estimated $50 million project should start in September, with completion expected about 18 months later.
"We are excited to provide a diverse-income workforce housing, with a park and services," Paine said. "Having stable housing provides a base in the community and economy. This will be a stabilizing force."
To visit the development site now, one encounters a chain link fence blocking South Rockwood Park, a named green space that's inaccessible to the public.
"It's not a real park right now," Paine said. "It's totally fenced in. The public has no access."
The Rockwood 10 plan includes opening South Rockwood Park to everyone as a 2-acre open space within the middle of the complex, linked by several paths. The developers refer to the idea of having permeability, or multiple access points, from nearby streets.
The park would include a 5,000 square-foot community garden, which developers are working with Outgrowing Hunger to create; a playground for children; a community building with a small kitchen that members of the public can reserve; and grass fields for picnics and sports. The plan also will preserve a grove of Douglas fir trees.
"We wanted to retain as much nature as possible," Paine said.
A key component of the project is to provide affordable places to live. Geared to young families moving into the city, Rockwood 10s units will range from one to four bedrooms. Eighty percent of the units will be designated as affordable, with the remaining being rented at market rate. That marks a city of Gresham-requested change from early designs, which initially called for all the apartments to be designated "affordable."
"Our affordable housing is at the higher-end of the spectrum," Paine said. "They will all look like market rate."
The development will include on-site parking, accommodated by restoring nearby lots now commonly occupied by homeless camps. The site also is accessible to a MAX light-rail stop, a few blocks from Vance Park and within walking distance of the future Rockwood Rising Catalyst Site, for which ground will be broken soon.
"I like your approach ... and the subtlety and cleanliness of the designs," said Commissioner Camilla Cok.
Upon the development's completion, both Community Development Partners and Hacienda CDC plan to remain on as co-operators of the site, with Hacienda running community classes and training sessions.
"We don't sell property," Paine said. "We develop and operate."
Bumps in the road
The project has had some vocal opposition throughout its development, caused in part by different visions for the space and breakdowns in communication. Vocal opposition to Rockwood 10 came from the Rockwood Neighborhood Association and Rockwood Preparatory Academy at 740 S.E. 182nd Ave.
"There was a lot of misinformation out there," Paine said. "We are going to work together with the school and neighborhood association. We don't want to fight. We want to reach out and collaborate."
The neighborhood association was concerned about bringing a higher concentration of low-income housing into Rockwood, as the neighborhood already accommodates the bulk of the city's affordable housing. The group wanted homes that would encourage residents to put down roots in the community.
During the public hearing, the seven person Gresham Design Commission heard comments from many of those neighbors and other members of the community in overwhelming support of the most recent plans. Most of the excitement centered on the possibilities for programming at the site, as well as the responsiveness of the developers in changing contentious ideas to better fit within Rockwood.
"I think a lot of the focus on the issues we have brought up have been dealt with by you guys," said Commissioner Pat Lando. "This is the way great projects are done."
While the Rockwood Neighborhood Association hasn't had an official vote on the project, the board supports Rockwood 10, entering into a good neighbor agreement with the developers.
Rockwood Preparatory Academy, which has about 350 students from kindergarten through sixth grade, were concerned about losing grassy play areas to development. Initial plans had parking areas abutting the edge of the school, which posed a safety concern for students. The school also would have lost sports fields and recess space, leaving only a small concrete patch.
"We have had some productive conversations with the Rockwood 10 folks, and we feel they are committed to being a good neighbor," said John Nelsen, executive director of Rockwood Preparatory Academy.
Rockwood Prep also has robust after-school activities, meaning not just students would be affected. Several groups use the green space, like nonprofit Play-Grow-Learn, which hosts camps for foster and homeless children.
Since the early stages, both sides have worked on solutions. The developers are collaborating with Rockwood Prep and the city of Gresham to create a mixed-sports court where people could play futsal and basketball. The courts would be for students during school hours, then open to the community the rest of the time.
The developers are also discussing a fence between the project's border and Rockwood Prep, with a gate the school could open and close as needed.
"Rockwood Preparatory is in support of the construction," Nelsen said, "and this all shows the importance of honest, open dialogue."
Though South Rockwood Park would be available to the general public, Rockwood 10 planners understand neighbors could be intimidated to venture into a new development to use play equipment. To combat perceptions of exclusivity, the project calls for ample signage and information to welcome visitors. Planners will work with the city to add the site to Gresham's list of community parks and post prominent signs at entry points.
Rockwood 10's main entrance will feature a mural with the name of the park. Developers also plan to have a street mural in the main intersection, along Yamhill, to bring more color to the neighborhood. The latter was suggested by the Rockwood Neighborhood Association.
"We want to work with our neighbors to make sure this is the best project possible for Rockwood," Paine said. "We feel this project is now world class."