Land-use plan hopes to guide investment in commercial hubs

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The Midway area, shown here on Division Street near Southeast 122nd Avenue, could become a major commercial hub if Portlands updated comprehensive plan designates it as a town center, and public investment follows. Division Street could be a focal point for public investments in East Portland in the next 20 years.

City planners who are updating Portland’s comprehensive land-use plan are floating the idea of making the Midway

area around Southeast 122nd Avenue and Division a new “town center.”

A town center, a commercial hub on the scale of St. Johns or the Hollywood district, could give the area a “sense of place” that it now lacks, says Lori Boisen, district manager for the Division Midway Alliance, which is seeking to improve the area.

The Midway area, marked by an iconic clock tower at a shopping center at Division and 122nd, has a 25 percent retail vacancy rate, Boisen says. There are three tire stores in one block, but relatively few places to buy other goods, she says.

The intersection sits on the northern edge of the Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood, which is bisected by 122nd Avenue. It’s Portland’s most populous neighborhood, but also one of its poorest.

A town center designation there would be, in effect, a city stamp of approval for making the Midway area a priority for public investments in sidewalks, street paving, housing, parks, transit and economic development.

Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood leaders complain the city has dumped on the area by zoning much of 122nd Avenue for apartments, yet the neighborhood still lacks basic sidewalks and access to shops.

“That is one of the places where making those investments would pay off because there’s a lot of people there,” says Eric Engstrom, principal planner for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

Though the city’s multiyear update of its comprehensive land-use plan is still a work in progress, Engstrom says two changes on Division loom as perhaps the biggest initiatives in store for East Portland.

The other is a new “neighborhood center” designation for Division and Southeast 82nd Avenue. That area, part of the emerging Jade District, is being transformed by the rapidly expanding Portland Community College campus and an influx of Asian-oriented restaurants, groceries and other business.

Attaching the new neighborhood center label would elevate the status of the pan-Asian Jade District when it comes to setting priorities for city investments.

Division Street also is in line for a new rapid bus line or perhaps even a MAX light-rail line slated along Division and Powell Boulevard. Federal funding might be available to add a rapid bus line as soon as 2017, Engstrom says. If the region pursues a rapid bus line, that would include “light-rail quality stops,” he says, which would be rezoned to spur high-density housing or employment centers.

More centers

In past years, Portland has pushed the ideal of “20-minute neighborhoods” or “complete neighborhoods,” places considered the most livable because most everything residents need is in walking distance.

East Portland doesn’t boast of any such neighborhood.

One way to foster such walkable and bike-friendly neighborhoods, city planners say, is by designating more neighborhood centers, which Engstrom likened to a “village” center for perhaps two or three neighborhoods.

A town center would be a step up, serving an entire quadrant of the city or the equivalent, Engstrom says.

He described some of the key provisions in the still-evolving comprehensive plan as in the “idea-gathering stage.” Planners are slated to send a finished proposal by mid-2014 to the city Planning and Sustainability Commission.

In addition to calling for more centers, the land-use proposal includes an investment strategy for centers that is tilted toward East Portland. The five centers with the greatest infrastructure needs and most vulnerable populations are all in East Portland, and the plan calls for targeting investments in those centers.

Those are the Gateway and Lents centers, plus three new ones proposed by planners: Midway, the Jade District (82nd and Division) and the Rosewood district near the Gresham border.

Mixed reviews

Several East Portland community leaders praised the planning work to date, largely because of the promise of making those centers higher priorities for city investments.

Nick Christensen, the former chairman of the Lents Neighborhood Association, says the more the city can do to concentrate its investments in key places, the better. “Creating a sense of community for the Powellhurst-Gilbert area has been a huge need in East Portland for a long time,” Christensen says.

But some say the plan needs to go further.

“I don’t see any significant change for East Portland,” says Arlene Kimura, co-chairwoman of the East Portland Action Plan and president of the Hazelwood Neighborhood Association.

Nor will the comprehensive plan do much for Gateway, which is included in her neighborhood, Kimura says.

Gateway, at least on paper, has been conceived for decades as a regional center, almost a second downtown for Portland. But that vision has yet to translate into developments other than transit.

Kimura would like the city to have more vision for Gateway, such as requiring ground-level retail topped by commercial or other space, as is done downtown.

The plan, for now, calls for adding some light industrial zoning in the Gateway area, and efforts to spur more mid-rise development there, says Joe Zehner, the city’s chief planner.

“It’s not a dramatic change of course,” Zehner says.

The light industrial zoning is intended to spur the potential for more jobs at Gateway.

The plan also discusses adding about 50 acres of light industrial land or employment zoning in East Portland, such as near Portland Adventist Hospital.

“I think what our neighborhoods are asking for is jobs,” says Jean DeMaster, executive director of Human Solutions and a leading advocate for East Portland. DeMaster doesn’t see commercial development occurring very rapidly, even if the city designates the new centers, because residents in the area have low disposable income. She suggests city planners find new incentives for employers, such as 10-year tax abatements.

But prioritizing the centers is the right thing to do, DeMaster says, because that could lead to more parks, sidewalks and other infrastructure. “They’re not going to get more middle-income people there unless they build that infrastructure,” she says.

City planners say if the city adopts a new comprehensive plan, then zoning changes will flow from that, and then new priorities for city investments.

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