Does Portland have an Appetite for Restitution?

Restitution – noun – the restoration of something lost or stolen to its proper owner.

Across the country, movements are underway to give land back to descendants of people who had land taken from them. Urban renewal, freeway construction, and other uses of eminent domain removed people from their property at below-market rates across the country. Locally, the City of Portland, Emanuel Hospital, the Oregon Department of Transportation, and others had a hand in a number of these actions in and around our neighborhood. Several large top-down projects cut pieces out of a thriving majority-black neighborhood. There were many more minor land grabs, as well, which are not well documented, about which I have only learned bits and pieces from my older neighbors. Every time the City proposes a new project in the area, this old history is brought up because the impacted residents don’t want the City to forget and because until we make amends, we cannot move forward.

Why do we need to push for restitution in Eliot? Eliot sits adjacent to or on top of land affected by the following government-funded or sponsored projects: Interstate Avenue widening, Memorial Coliseum (and parking lot) construction, I-5 construction, Emanuel Hospital expansion, Fremont bridge (I-405) construction. During these processes, the City and other organizations used their powers to pay landowners substantially less than their properties were worth. The legacy of the 1960s included the Central Albina Plan, which encouraged the demolition of all housing west of NE MLK, Jr Blvd and south of NE Fremont St. The City moved the line to N Williams Avenue, which is why you see housing east of N Williams and almost no historic housing to the west of it. Emanuel Hospital followed this up by buying up roughly 20 city blocks of housing and commercial buildings and demolishing nearly all of them. The justifications from their consultant-written ‘Hamilton Report’ document appear to offer paper-thin justifications for taking all the land at rock-bottom prices and demolishing all the buildings on them. By the 1970s, over 1,100 housing units and countless businesses were lost through various schemes of urban removal, not renewal, and our neighborhood’s population declined from 14,000 in the 1950 census to under 4,000 in 1990 (census tracts 22.02 and 23.03).

What can we do? Taking land from organizations involved with these projects and giving it back as restitution would be taking a real step to recognize the harm done and trying to do something about it. But how can a City that constantly feels financially strapped take this step? We need to be creative. We need to look outside of the box of normal and look to the realm of possibility. We need to look at the vacant land that remains near the areas where land was taken. A few months ago, I wrote an article about Eliot’s vacant land and how much tax revenue we are missing out on. I believe that the easiest way to create value for restitution without breaking the bank is to find land that is not even on the tax rolls and give it away to those who were wronged in the past. It is essential that the land we find has real value for this project. It doesn’t have to be in Eliot, but finding land in the vicinity would be a huge plus.

In Eliot, we have acres of land off the tax rolls. Government-owned land does not pay taxes. That includes the land under roads. One particularly egregious example: ODOT owns roughly 9 acres more land than they need near the I-405 Kerby Avenue ramps, and I think this would be a good place to start. Adjacent to that land, the City of Portland and ODOT own a lot of land underneath and around the I-5 / I-405 interchange that they use to store the entire fleet of vehicles to maintain the City’s roads and respond to natural disasters. Is this really the best use of that land? Perhaps the right opportunity could convince them to move.

I hope that the City can be convinced to acknowledge these past wrongs and figure out how to right them. Leaving things as they are is just old wounds unhealed.