Is Portland's neighborhood association system broken?
(Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series. The second part will appear on Tuesday, Oct. 3.)
Portland's volunteer-run, city-sanctioned neighborhood associations have served as a solid avenue to community change for decades and were once viewed as a national model. But lately, some in the community are wondering if the system, overseen by the city's troubled Office of Neighborhood Involvement, is in need of an overhaul.
"I think lately (the system has) been broken, and that the city has created a one-way street, and the city doesn't really want to listen to the neighborhood," said Chris Trejbal, chair of the Overlook Neighborhood Association, a North Portland community that has been in the news recently for its ongoing battle with a nearby tiny-house village for homeless people.
Participation in Portland's neighborhood association system has ebbed and flowed over its more than 40 years — sometimes seeing lots of participation, and sometimes very little. Lately, it seems to be going through yet another iteration as the city's fabric changes and evolves into something much more diverse, tearing at the threads of its previous identity.
Portland, although still a majority white city, is seeing a more diverse population move in, and a shift in who's living in its neighborhoods. Currently, 47 percent of the city's occupied units are renters, according to city data, a trend that has been changing in favor of renters since 2000.
While the Office of Neighborhood Involvement has begun tilting its focus to minority-based and other organizations to encourage involvement by different groups, some neighborhood associations are struggling to find footing. They're often criticized for being too white, and too NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard).
The city of Seattle cut ties with its system last year facing criticism that neighborhoods were no longer serving the modern population, a move that Portland isn't following, according to bureau officials, who have worked to dispel those rumors.
"There is nobody here saying we're getting rid of neighborhood associations. We're saying that neighborhood associations need to think about how they can best help all people and represent all people," said Dave Austin, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly's deputy chief of staff and who served as interim director of the bureau.
"It's time for the city to look more closely at what the fundamental purpose of the neighborhood association is," said Bonny McKnight, who was the chair of the Russell Neighborhood Association for more than a decade, and has served on a number of city advisory committees since the 1970s.
These days, neighborhoods make headlines for their infighting about supposedly racist historic districts and homeless people in parks.
But one issue has remained at the crux of neighborhood activism: development.
Portland's neighborhood activism began in the late 1960s and '70s, when urban renewal efforts began threatening neighborhoods.
"Buckman neighborhood agency fights back at urban blight," said a news story published April 30, 1972. A photo caption continued: "Apartments are taking over land throughout much of the Buckman area. Developers feel there should be more; residents want to retain mixed older homes, parks and freedom from the automobile."
In 2017 Portland, neighbors are still fighting infill and aiming to preserve the city from what they call out-of-character "McMansions" and housing that isn't really affordable.
"Infill" developer Vic Remmers' name has become notorious around town as neighbors have repeatedly attempted, sometimes successfully, to fend off his projects, including in the King, Eastmoreland, Overlook and Sunnyside neighborhoods, and most recently, the Hayhurst neighborhood.
In King, neighbors paid Remmers $1.1 million in order to save a house from demolition last year.
Flashing back to the 1970s, one of the first major neighborhood association's successes included helping to prevent construction of the Mt. Hood Freeway — a proposed 6-mile, eight-lane highway that would have stretched across the river from the Marquam Bridge to about Southeast 122nd Avenue.
"Neighborhood groups strongly oppose freeway," an Oct. 3, 1973, Oregonian headline said. Their statement to city government, in part, read: "Do not ask us to sacrifice our community for a monolithic stretch of concrete."
The freeway was never built, and the debate, instead, helped pave the way to the 95 neighborhoods that exist today.
At first, the city wasn't so willing to lend an ear, though.
"The city planning bureau recognized that neighborhood activists were very informed and organized, and had a lot of value to bring," said Paul Leistner, neighborhood program coordinator at the Office of Neighborhood Involvement. He wrote a dissertation about the system in 2013. "They asked, who are we planning for — ourselves, or the community?"
Sanctioning the system
An Aug. 20, 1971, an Oregonian article highlighted the moment past city Commissioner Lloyd Anderson called on the rest of the City Council to involve citizens in planning.
Talking to the Portsmouth Kiwanis Club at the time, he said the city government "simply must be sensitive to these human needs" and suggested a five-point program for citizen involvement. Anderson, who died this past March at age 91, oversaw public works while on the City Council between 1969 and 1974.
The ordinance that would formally start the city's neighborhood program was adopted in 1974, when the then-called Office of Neighborhood Associations was created.
Starting off with a budget of $105,995 and seven employees, it now has a budget of $10.9 million and more than 50 employees.
"It was a way of bringing a popular voice into the bureaucratic conversations, and they were supposed to be independent voices," said Carl Abbott, a professor emeritus of urban studies at Portland State University.
A historian as well as an expert on urban planning, Abbot has written four books on Portland and contributes to The Oregon Encyclopedia. "It's basically supposed to be no-strings attached, it's like funding a loyal opposition," he said.
ONA's mission was to help associations, then called neighborhood planning organizations, "workable instruments of citizen participation in city government."
"At that time, (neighborhood association participants) were heavily people who tend to participate — well-educated, middle-class people who have the time and energy to devote to neighborhoods and testify at city hall and that sort of thing," Abbott said.
Many fights were about preserving inner-city neighborhoods from major development, including communities like Corbett, which is now part of the South Portland Neighborhood Association.
"And Irvington, which is hard to think of now as a neighborhood that needed protection, which it did at that time — Buckman, Ladds Addition, neighborhoods like that," Abbott said. He lives in the Irvington neighborhood, where in 2015, the neighborhood made headlines over the establishment of a historic district — another hot topic in Portland as neighborhood association boards pursue designation on the National Register of Historic Places, which they see as a tool to make it more difficult for developers to build.
"Neighborhoods and neighborhood associations were really strong at the start and, in some cases, remain strong ... and what looked like protecting a threatened asset of a neighborhood under real threat in one generation, a few decades later could look like protecting privilege," Abbott said.
Abbott said he did some volunteer consulting projects for ONA back in the 1980s, when he participated in the Irvington Neighborhood Association.
"One thing ONA did was give affordable recognition that the neighborhood voices should be heard, not that they should win all the time, but that there was a formal way in which neighborhood groups could have input, for example, on planning decisions that affect their neighborhood," Abbott said. He said he moved to Portland in 1978 and was happy that the door to local government was open.
But these days, Abbott thinks the system has lost its way, in part because ONI has strayed too far from the original missions of ONA, taking on too many unrelated tasks.
The bureau changed its name to the Office of Neighborhood Involvement in 1998 following the final report of a major review of Portland's neighborhood system, which found similar problems to today's — little participation by minority groups — and conflict and communications issues that discourage participation.
The bureau has struggled to find its own identity as it has evolved over the years. A 2016 audit found serious issues with the bureau itself, including mismanagement, disproportionate funding and unfinished plans. There since has been a major shift in staff, including a new director.
The audit also found that minority groups aren't so much participating in geography-based community groups — but more on shared interests and identity, something the new administration is taking seriously.
"I don't think any neighborhood association acts exactly as they did in (the 1970s). That wouldn't make any sense," said Suk Rhee, ONI's new director. "Neighborhood associations have been improving and adapting all along the way. Yes, we could have a more systematic look at how neighborhoods are now — and how they want to be. We can and will do that."
But that doesn't appease some who still think it's more of the same, trying to change the system into something that, perhaps, it's not.
"The ONI was built upon the ONA," McKnight said. "They were distorted into something else that has never show any real ... I don't know, they've never done what they promised."
She added, "If we truly want to diversify the city, I don't think we can do it from the top down. I think we have to do it from where people live. And where people live are within the boundaries of a neighborhood association."
Reporter, Portland Tribune
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The article originally misspelled Carl Abbott's last name. The Tribune regrets the error.