Statewide talks focus on redevelopment of once-tainted sites

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Kem Marks, a volunteer for the Division-Midway Alliance, lives nearby the vacant site at Southeast 142nd Avenue and Division Street. He wants the city to help develop the site as an economic driver for the community -- not another fast-food option. Is that vacant site across the street an old gas station or dry cleaner, by any chance?

Now there’s a way to find out.

The city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability has just updated its inventory maps of every brownfield site in the city — all 910 acres of those that had been used for commercial or industrial use dating back to the 1930s.

Prior to this, there was no such comprehensive guide for the public to access, says Tyler Bump, economic planner for the planning bureau.

Anyone can now pin-point these sites, putting an up-close-and-personal face on something that exists in every neighborhood and business district in the city.

In all, the city’s inventory of brownfields is 910 acres. And city officials have an ambitious goal of redeveloping 60 percent of that land in the next 25 years.

That goal is articulated in the proposed Comprehensive Plan and a 2012 report on brownfields in the city.

One of those sites is a vacant parcel of land at Southeast 124th Avenue and Division Street that has sat empty for three years, the only potential buyer being McDonald’s.

At the urging of neighborhood leaders, the mayor’s office has reached out to the property owner to see what redevelopment alternatives he’d consider.

“If I can learn more about what his business needs are, then I can brainstorm some ideas,” says Jillian Detweiler, a policy director in Mayor Charlie Hales’ office. “If he’s already past the point of no return, that’s not something the mayor can turn around.”

The property owner of the site, Steve Sosa, did not return a phone request for comment from the Tribune last week.

Typically, it’s not the city’s business to get involved in a site that is privately owned and is not part of an urban renewal area, Detweiler says: “We’re generally not in the position of being able to plan the city site-by-site.”

But neighborhood leaders with the Division-Midway Alliance and the nonprofit Groundwork Portland have been calling on the city to help redevelop the site in a way that will serve that neighborhood’s best interests.

“There’s no community suport for another fast-food option in the neighborhood, given the fact that we have eight to 12 restaurants at that intersection,” says Kem Marks, a Southeast Portland resident and Division-Midway Alliance volunteer. “We think something better can go on that property.”

The alliance is proposing a multistory mixed-use development of commercial, retail, office space and residential space.

“What we need in that area is people who are going to frequent the other establishments there,” Marks says. “We need office professionals in our area.”

Marks says the alliance has talked with the property owner, who indicated that if the McDonald’s deal didn’t go through, “he’d be interested in opening a dialogue with us at that time.”

But Marks says there’s too much at stake, with plans for a bus rapid transit along Division, and 124th Avenue being a prime location for a major transit stop.

“It would be a real shame to have a real piece of developable land taken off the market by something like McDonald’s, when something else could have been there,” he says.

Marks points to other parts of town where city leaders took a hit to try to develop prime parcels of land.

He cites the failed bid to develop Trader Joe’s on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard as one example. “A lot of people in East Portland are bordering on angry at the fact that they can do these things in affluent parts of town and not here,” he says.

Marks wonders why the city can’t do a land swap, trading one parcel of land for another like what is being done with the New Copper Penny property in Lents, part of the urban renewal area.

Detweiler, in the mayor’s office, says the difference is that 124th and Division is not part of an urban renewal area, so the same redevelopment tools don’t exist.

Instead, she points to the Prosperity Initiative, which that business district has access to, which can give up to $1 million in development help for 10 years.

She has posed the land swap idea to the property owner but hasn’t gotten a response.

Detweiler says from her experience in urban planning, she doesn’t feel the time is right to redevelop the site.

“I’d wait for the plans for bus rapid transit to have been realized,” she says. “I’d address some of the vacancy rates in the neighborhood. Then I’d propose an office or other higher-wage job kind of place. The market would be able to support that. I think there are better days ahead for a higher and better use of that property.”

Fear is a stumbling block

Jenn Bildersee, coordinator of the city’s Brownfield Program, says it’s a shame there’s so much stigma attached to sites that might have been contaminated from past use.

Often, brownfield sites have many advantages over other pieces of land, she says, such as being located in a prime spot with good connections and existing infrastructure.

“The fear around brownfields can sometimes be a real obstacle,” she says. “Sometimes that fear is justified, but sometimes it’s about not having familiarity with a way through these obstacles. ... Sometimes with a former gas station it’s a matter of pulling a tank out of the ground. Then you have a site that’s basically good as new.”

The city’s Brownfield Program provides resources for landowners who need to assess and clean up the contamination. Since it began in the late 1990s, it’s provided financial help to 70 sites.

Two of the recent projects include the Dharma Rain Zen Center, a Buddhist community center in Northeast Portland that is being built on an old construction landfill site that had been vacant for decades; and the June Key Community Center in Northeast Portland, an old gas station that was redeveloped as Oregon’s first commercial living building.

Currently the city is limited to EPA grants and a revolving EPA fund, but the city is actively pursuing other revenue streams to help redevelop brownfields, which are a universal issue, Bildersee says.

Wider discussions underway

There’s a lot of brownfield redevelopment discussion happening statewide. A Brownfield Task Force organized by Metro formed in 2013 and has been meeting regularly to look at what more can be done to help redevelop brownfield sites in the state. The group includes about 35 nonprofits, business groups, environmental groups and local governments.

Miranda Bateschell, a Metro senior planner coordinating that process, says the group is looking into potential changes, such as incentives to their redevelopment program, changes to the regulatory process, and best practices from other cities and states that have led to successes.

One idea, she says, is to enable a land bank authority in the state — a legislative change that would allow a public authority to manage and develop tax-foreclosed property. Cities like Detroit and Cook County in Chicago have land bank authorities. The Metro coalition is looking deeper into how they’ve made it work: what their statutory language says, how many properties have been revitalized, to “better understand if it’s worthwhile here or not,” Bateschell says.

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