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82nd Avenue emerges as the Pearl's Asian counterpart

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - The O'Sushi restaurant, in the Fubonn Shopping Center on Southeast 82nd Avenue, is bustling with business as customers watch plates of fresh sushi roll by on a conveyor belt. Sometimes a name change helps give an area a new image or sense of vitality.

Northwest Portland’s redeveloped rail yards, initially dubbed the River District, got more panache when they changed the name to the Pearl District.

Now eastside community leaders are working on a counterpart to the Pearl seven miles away, using the same jewelry theme.

They call it the Jade District.

Still in the formative stage, the Jade District is an Asian-dominated commercial zone along Southeast 82nd Avenue between Division Street and Powell Boulevard, and spilling east on both arteries.

It may seem audacious now, but organizers hope it will one day be a tourist attraction focused on Pan-Asian food, entertainment and culture, with a thriving street scene filled with pedestrians.

Dan Cogan, manager of the Burgerville restaurant on Northeast 82nd and Glisan Street, already has a tag line for the marketing campaign: “The Jade District, another jewel in Portland’s crown.”

During several years, the area has become dotted with restaurants selling Chinese seafood and dim sum, Vietnamese pho (beef noodle soup) and sandwich shops, Korean barbecue and cafes specializing in “bubble tea,” a fruit-flavored or milk tea drink with tapioca balls originating from Taiwan. Those were followed by Asian groceries and immigrant service businesses, such as accountants and insurance offices. Then came an Asian mini-mall, Fubonn Shopping Center.

Portland Community College’s fast-growing Southeast campus, on 82nd and Division, is offering language and other classes catering to the Asian immigrants in the area. And for the last 11 years it has sponsored or hosted Asian New Year festivities, including one this week at Warner Pacific College.

Some call the area New Chinatown, recognition that it has supplanted the historic Chinatown in Northwest Portland as the heartbeat of that community.

Where the idea came from

In 2011, then-Mayor Sam Adams and Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen quietly rolled out six mini-urban renewal districts in lower-income eastside commercial areas, called the Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative. One was located around the intersection of 82nd Avenue and Division Street.

When a few local business leaders banded together to plot how to use modest city funds to launch the project, 82nd and Division seemed like a pretty “blah” name, recalls Nancy Chapin, executive secretary for the 82nd Avenue of Roses Business Association.

Organizers realized the business district had taken off without city support, thanks to Asian immigrant entrepreneurs. They wondered, Chapin says, “What can we have out here that acknowledges what’s happening?” A neighborhood blogger suggested calling it the Jade District, says Cogan, also the vice president of the 82nd Avenue of Roses Business Association. The idea seemed like a natural.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - With 'prosperity' painted on her face in Chinese, volunteer Khah Nguyen welcomes guests to Portland Community College's Year of the Snake celebration Monday, held at Warner Pacific College's McGuire Auditorium in Southeast Portland.Jade has a connotation that’s broader than Chinese, reflecting the other Asian immigrant cultures that have taken root in the area.

“A lot of Asian countries, they consider jade as precious,” says Rosaline Hui, editor of the Portland Chinese Times and an early participant in the effort.

It doesn’t take long for Asian immigrants to discover the eateries and other familiar stores — including the many commercial signs in Chinese — along 82nd Avenue.

Rebranding the area as the Jade District might bring Asian immigrants more pride and recognition, organizers say. But it’s really tailored to the rest of Portland, to get folks to visit the area, and for those visiting Portland from afar.

Starting small

Portland is close to maxing-out the land it can tie up in urban renewal districts, which siphon off any growth in property taxes to fix up an area. So the Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative starts out small.

The Division and 82nd district includes 109 acres — about 85 acres of which is in private ownership. The district stretches along the 82nd Avenue corridor, about a block or two in each direction, south from Southeast Harrison Street, near Harrison Park, down to Franklin Street, just north of Powell Boulevard. There’s also an east-west spine along Division from 81st to 93rd avenues.

Under a city ordinance, the district can borrow no more than $1.25 million. Little city money is expected to accrue initially, and the urban renewal district is not expected to last for more than a decade.

Cogan is thinking big, though. He envisions enlisting private investments, securing grants and doing community fundraising, such as the buy-a-brick campaign used for Pioneer Courthouse Square.

Ironically, many of the Chinese who live in the pedestrian-unfriendly area don’t own automobiles, and like the area because they can walk to various services, Cogan notes. To widen its appeal, and make it safer for pedestrians, district organizers want to see traffic slowed down in that stretch of 82nd Avenue. That will require transferring 82nd Avenue from state control to city control, Cogan says.

Organizers also eventually want to see more crosswalks and expanded sidewalks so street crossings are narrower.

“We really want it to be a walking tourist attraction, so people don’t have to drive from one side of the road to another,” Cogan says.

Others would like to see a new Chinese garden in the area, and a community center where Asian arts, entertainment and community meetings could occur.

Some of that role can be fulfilled by the PCC campus, which currently is undergoing a major expansion.

Ultimately, Cogan can foresee having a district that uses covenants, codes and restrictions, known as CCRs, which might bind businesses to use certain signage that conforms to the Jade District theme.

The Jade District rebranding plan has been so low-key that it was news to Stephen Ying, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Oregon. He likes the idea, but says to really make the district succeed, it will need the blessing of the city. “Otherwise it’s not a good project,” he says.

Ying and Hui both note that the Asian business owners along 82nd haven’t been that involved in collaborating with one another, or working with the city. Fubonn Shopping Center doesn’t encourage use of the mini-mall as a place for people to hang out, Ying says. “They don’t like people hanging around who don’t spend money,” he says.

The grocery store seems to be a popular destination at the shopping center, but there are a large number of vacancies in other spaces there.

To get more buy-in from Asian business owners, the Portland Development Commission, which oversees the Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative, provided money to hire Stanley Moy on contract through the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. Moy speaks the Cantonese dialect, and is going door to door to communicate with business owners about plans for the Jade District. They seem to like the idea, Moy says.

Though the Jade District name has been used informally for some months now, organizers haven’t really gone public with it yet. They decided the first step is to gain more support from within the business community.

A district coming-out of sorts may happen in April. The 82nd Avenue of Roses Business Association is organizing a parade on the last Saturday in April. And there’s talk of an 82nd Avenue community cleanup in April, Cogan says.

They’re calling it “Polish the Jade.”

Good fortune lives on 82nd Avenue

82nd Avenue has a poor reputation among many Portlanders, who associate it with used-car lots, speeding traffic, pedestrian fatalities and street-walking prostitutes.

But the area has an advantage in attracting people of Chinese background, says Rosaline Hui, editor of the Portland Chinese Times and a Hong Kong native.

The numbers 8 and 2 connote “reach” and “easy” to Chinese, Hui says, which translates into easy access. When Chinese look to buy houses in China, she says, some look for 8s and 2s in the address.

“So of couse this is a good thing for businesses,” she says. 

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