The First Course
The Portland Plan planning process continues as does the Central City and Rose Quarter Plans. The Portland Plan process focuses on an updated vision of what residents want Portland to be like in 25 years. That kind of process allows for setting goals that include government and the private sector, such as high school graduation and employment rates, access to fresh, local food for city residents, and so on. The Central City Plan is focused on specific land use and transportation actions that are expected to be taken in the next 25 years to accommodate goals that are more dependent on future development, such as providing housing and employment in the core of the city, which includes the Lloyd District and parts of the Eliot neighborhood. The Rose Quarter Plan process is focused on two specific areas in the inner eastside; the Rose Quarter and the area north of it centered on the school district property known as the Blanchard Block.
All of these planning processes are multi-year efforts. Specific recommendations for changes to the Central City Plan and to the I-5 freeway between I-84 and the Fremont Bridge will be forthcoming by this summer. Development proposals for the Blanchard Block are being driven by behind the scenes efforts by the Mayor and the Portland Development Commission to attract a new tenant to the building, which will determine how the surrounding area should develop. The Rose Quarter Plan is also being driven similarly, although this time with the participation of the Blazers. There are expectations these two efforts will produce specific development proposals within a year. The Portland Plan process is expected to take another two years to complete. Of all of these activities, the Central City Plan and the Rose Quarter Plan will have the greatest impact on the Eliot neighborhood. The Eliot Land Use and Transportation Committee of the Eliot Neighborhood Association has been very actively involved in an advisory capacity to the Central City Plan and therefore are able to provide early notice of the key elements of both that are beginning to emerge.
The involvement of the Mayor’s office, the Blazers, the Portland Development Commission (which is a vehicle for the Mayor and Council to manipulate urban development), and the Oregon Department of Transportation (for I-5 matters) makes the Central City and Rose Quarter planning processes highly political. It is said that the “mother’s milk” of politics is money. If funds are plentiful, almost all political problems can be solved simply by spending more. That is not the case currently, so it has tempered the ambitions of planners and heightened competition for the limited resources that are expected to be available. In the case of the Rose Quarter area that includes funding that may be available from the Interstate Urban Renewal District that could be used to facilitate redevelopment of the Blanchard Block. The Oregon Convention Center Urban Renewal District expires within two years, although approximately $20 Million remains to be invested. It is expected to be replaced by a new district that can invest in development in the Rose Quarter and Lloyd District while the Interstate District picks up investment north of Broadway that is currently in the Convention Center District boundary. The Oregon and Portland transportation departments have limited funds available for freeway improvements, including changes to I-5 access ramps in the area.
The Keystone Planning Issue – The Blanchard Block
The Central City Plan consists of four Quadrant Plans of which the Northeast Quadrant includes the Lloyd District and the southwestern portion of Eliot, including Lower Albina, the area along Broadway, and the portion of Eliot south of the hospital but west of north Williams, which includes Tubman. The area around Tubman includes a number of thriving light industrial firms that are unable to expand due to current zoning restrictions. Eliot has endorsed rezoning many of these parcels to allow these firms to continue to grow so they can create local employment and wealth. Revised zoning will also facilitate redevelopment of the Tubman site if the school district considers selling the land again (which it briefly did a year ago as part of its school realignment plan). The keystone to future development in Lower Albina hinges on the future of the Blanchard Block.
Development of the Blanchard Block is complicated by the fact that it is a large parcel, six acres, owned and used by the school district. If it is sold, the school district will need to replace it at considerable expense. As a result, the property will have to be sold for a high price. Estimates from the school district have ranged from $20 to nearly $80 Million. The Portland Development Commission is working with the Mayor’s office and the district to refine that estimate and to identify potential buyers who could afford to purchase the property. To aid that process, they have identified three development schemes, each of which may appeal to a specific kind of tenant and development. These were characterized in a recent city Planning document, the “North of Broadway/Blanchard Site Development Study,” which is available on the City’s web site.
The study area included private property south of the Blanchard site, including the old Bekins storage building and the motel. The owners of these properties have indicated they will redevelop their properties once the future of the Blanchard site is settled.
The six development options were initially considered; mixed-use residential; research and development; incremental industrial; big box/mixed use; employment incubator; and entertainment. The last three appear to have the greatest potential to attract specific kinds of ownership and tenant mixes, at least for the Blanchard property. They don’t exclude potential use for the other options, however.
The Entertainment concept is an extension of discussions for reuse of the Memorial Coliseum with a focus on performing arts and recreational sports uses. The concept envisions significant public plazas and outdoor recreation venues, such as major skatepark. Unfortunately, there is no obvious private sector owner for such a development and insufficient public funds to undertake it in a timely manner. The employment incubator concept envisions mixed use of the site with commercial/flex space in mid-rise towers on the primary site along Broadway with mid-rise residential projects in the Lower Albina area along with, potentially, some residential over the office space or in buildings along Broadway. Success of this concept is largely dependent on attracting a major tenant, likely one with need for a headquarters function in the area. The Mayor and PDC believe the ideal candidate would be a sports related firm, such as Columbia Sportswear or Adidas, although the development would be large enough to accommodate multiple tenants in the “incubator” spaces. Finally, the big box/mixed use concept envisions a commercial tenant as an anchor for the project. Because of the size of the site, and the need for substantial private investment, the likely commercial tenant would be a big box store. Fortunately, many big box developers in urban areas incorporate mixed uses on or adjacent to their sites. Although it is unclear if any big box firms have an interest in the site, they do have the financial wherewithal to develop it; More so than any of the other options.
Plans for significantly increased traffic from Vancouver into Oregon via the proposed Columbia River Crossing Bridge (the CRC) will result in traffic tie ups between I-405 and I-84, which is down to two lanes in this area. That will increase air pollution in Eliot and other inner North/Northeast neighborhoods. That possibility may jeopardize construction of the CRC. As a result, the City and state transportation departments are planning to expand capacity on I-5 from four lanes, total, to six. On and off ramps may need to be revised as well. These plans are incorporated into the Central City Plan process.
The City and state have explored a number of options to increase capacity in this segment of I-5 over the years. All of these assumed a level of funding far in excess of what is currently available. Although some elements of these plans may be used in the current plan, the assumption is that the right of way will not be expanded. As a result, the additional traffic lanes will have to fit within the current right of way. That will require widening of overpasses through the area and expansion in the freeway shoulder area. Widening of overpasses is expensive, so the City is interested in ways to reduce this cost so that funding may be available for improvements to local streets that enhance livability. For example, elimination of the Flint Street overpass could provide funds to redirect freeway traffic away from current congested intersections. Eliot has stated its opposition to elimination of the Flint Street overpass. Preliminary sketches for its elimination retain vehicle access via Tillamook. Eliot’s representative has demanded a pedestrian/bike overpass connecting to north Broadway as a minimum condition for neighborhood support. State and City transportation staff will be developing additional sketches and options over the next few weeks. These will be presented to the public in April.
Although revisions to local streets and potential land use changes are dependent upon proposals for the Blanchard Block and I-5, the Central City Plan process has developed some options. Revisions to Williams/Vancouver/Flint as noted above are one of those. The three neighborhoods surrounding the Lloyd District support turning Broadway and Weidler into two-way streets from their current one-way flows past NE Seventh. The new “Loop” streetcar that ties inner NE and SE Portland to downtown will follow NE Seventh through the Lloyd District, which makes Seventh a natural dividing line for a transition of Broadway/Weidler to two-way flow. This change is expected to facilitate more “neighborly” connections between Irvington and Lloyd Center. It could also facilitate development of a pedestrian plaza/village center more or less at the old Coffee People (now Starbucks) site. Improved connections to the Rose Quarter have also been proposed, including reinforcing the connection via Clackamas using a pedestrian overpass across I-5. The best of these options will be presented to the public in April along with those for I-5.