Envisioning Eliot’s Future

“It is difficult to predict, especially about the future.”

Streetcar along Williams in 1889.  Homes have been replaced with warehouses.  Courtesy Mrs. Dorothy Thompson Smith
Streetcar along Williams in 1889. Homes have been replaced with warehouses. Courtesy Mrs. Dorothy Thompson Smith

This quote is rooted in a Danish proverb according to the ever- reliable internet, although it has been attributed to a number of notables.  Regardless, it is true.  I personally subscribe to the maxim “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”  One of Eliot’s predominantly German residents from the 1920s would still recognize many of Eliot’s homes, but would miss the streetcars along MLK and other streets, and the residential community that used to exist west of the gulch occupied by I-5.  The number of automobiles would be a shock as would the lack of livestock in rear yards.  Even indoor plumbing would be novel.  But, their Eliot would still look a lot like ours.  Many of the houses would be the same along with the streets, but the street names have changed over the years.

In the 1970s and 1980s,  the predominance of residences was not the plan the City had envisioned for Eliot.  Their view was residential Eliot would be replaced with warehouses and distribution centers serving the Oregon Convention Center, the Rose Quarter and inter-city truckers supplying goods and services via readily accessible freeway ramps.  Enraged Eliot residents banded together to reverse that trend by challenging the City’s proposed Comprehensive Plan.  After three years of effort the plan the City adopted not only preserved Eliot’s residential zoning, it recognized it as a historic conservation district.

Planning and zoning is poorly understood by most homeowners and residents.  It is typically seen as limiting private property rights, which it does.  But contrary to what many planning opponents claim, its primary purpose is to manage growth and development so what your neighbor does doesn’t affect your use of your property.  Houston Texas is the poster child for lax zoning.  In theory, an oil refinery could locate next to a daycare; the resulting toxic pollution be damned!  Those Eliot residents 25 years ago recognized this power and harnessed it to protect Eliot’s historic character.  Although the resulting Eliot Plan (included within the Albina Community Plan/Portland Comprehensive Plan), includes predictions of how Eliot might look in the future, that Plan did not dictate Eliot’s future appearance.  It could only identify where residences should be and separated those from areas zoned for commercial development.   It mostly succeeded, although recent developments have highlighted new threats inherent in that plan.  Fortunately, a new Comprehensive Plan is about to be adopted.

Once again, Eliot residents working through the Neighborhood Association and Land Use Committee have proposed Eliot’s own plan for our future.  Eliot is alone among Portland’s 90 plus neighborhoods to have submitted a plan for the entire neighborhood.  This proposal addresses the obvious flaws in the prior plan and requests additional protections for Eliot’s historic core while allowing innovative development along our busy north-south streets.  The proposal has earned the support of the vast majority of reviewers, including city planning staff.  It has also attracted criticism from the usual chorus of developers and other neighborhoods that would see Eliot sacrificed for development for their profit or to prevent development in their neighborhood.  Which of these views wins the day will be decided by City Council late this year and by the State of Oregon sometime next year.

The Loop Streetcar testing on NE Broadway.  Photo courtesy Portland Streetcar Inc.
The Loop Streetcar testing on NE Broadway. Photo courtesy Portland Streetcar Inc.

If the proposed Eliot plan survives intact, the future Eliot should not surprise our early German or later black residents from the 1940s and 50s.  Most of our existing homes should survive another 20 years.  Unfortunately, our expansive rear yards are likely to disappear under new in-fill; however infill  that is more in scale than most recent infill construction.  Our streets will become more congested with parked vehicles, in part because the currently sleepy commercial strips along MLK and Williams will attract visitors citywide and be active until late at night.  And, with luck, we may see a new streetcar on MLK so Eliot residents once again won’t have to rely on our personal vehicles for transportation.  I can’t predict what Eliot might look like, but I think it will still feel like Eliot.