In adopting the Cully-Concordia Community Assessment last month, the Portland City Council gave lavish praise to the staff and volunteers who had created the document, while acknowledging that its recommendations need to be not only admired but implemented.
Under the leadership of Northeast District Liaison Planner Debbie Bischoff, the study examined the physical, economic, social and recreational condition of the two neighborhoods, with an emphasis on their three public schools: Faubion, Rigler and Harvey Scott. To do so, they recruited and worked with a large advisory group that included neighborhood and business leaders, housing and ethnic group advocates and, especially, the administrations and parents of the three schools.
As presented to the Portland Planning Commission in October, and reported in the November Star, the study found that the Cully neighborhood, with a high percentage of Hispanic residents, trailed or led the city’s neighborhoods in all the wrong ways: it has a higher percentage of streets lacking basic infrastructure, higher percentage of children from poverty families (70 to 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches at the three schools), lower-than-average household income, lower proportion of commercial services, and less park and open space.) The adjacent Concordia neighborhood, while not wealthy, does perceptibly better by these measurements. All three schools are overcrowded, and Faubion is in a severe enough state of disrepair to prompt consideration of replacement.
Among the study’s recommendations are utilizing the school buildings for uses that serve the entire community.
Much of the report, and Council discussion of it, concerned a fourth school site – the vacant former Whitaker-Adams property on Northeast Killingsworth Street at 42nd Avenue. Doug Capps of the Portland School District said that the original thinking of the planners was to leave this out of the study because the discussion of potential re-uses could “overwhelm the study.” However, it was hard to avoid it because the ten-acre site is a potential location for a replacement to Faubion. A study led by consultant Sumner Sharpe several years ago called for the district to retain three acres for a new school and sell the rest for owner-occupied housing development. Since then, Concordia University has been lobbying the district to instead sell them the housing land as the site for an indoor athletic facility for their own athletes and the public at large. “Portland Public Schools is not in the best position to be the best arbiter of non-school uses,” Capps told Council.
Overall, he gave effusive praise for the study and the way it was managed by Bischoff. “She should put ‘community organizer’ on her business card; that received some attention during the last election,” he quipped. “Thanks for funding this assessment. I can’t tell you how proud we are to have been partners. This is a new and different level of cooperation. We hope to repeat this in other neighborhoods.” He agreed strongly with one study conclusion: “Schools should serve as multi-purpose contact points of community life.” He noted that the Rigler School library is open at night and available for use by the larger community. He cautioned, “There are many ideas here, compelling ideas, but the most important thing is the follow-through. You must keep faith with the community.”
Several study participants spoke, all praising the Bischoff and the process and several emphasizing the need to implement its recommendations. Representatives of Central Northeast Neighbors, the Mosaic Church, Concordia University and the Portland Community College Skills Center spoke of their contributions and commitment to the community. Robert Granger, who said he moved to Cully 25 years ago and praised the “vibrant nature of the grass roots activity,” said he was “incredibly impressed” by the process. The recommendations would fit well with the pending Portland Plan process to review the Portland Comprehensive Plan, and especially its call for “20-minute neighborhoods” in which essential services are within walking distance of homes. If implemented, the neighborhood could become a “robust environment people can walk to, the best of what Portland could be.” However, he cautioned, “It won’t happen with business as usual.”
Ann Rothert, the incoming chair of the Concordia Neighborhood Association and a participant in the earlier Whitaker study, said of the current effort, “It was exciting to see how many connections were made with the community.” She urged the Council to “make a commitment to some kind of funding to keep the project moving forward.”
Concordia co-chair Tony Fuentes, who owns a business in the Fox Chase area on Northeast Killingsworth Street at 30th Avenue, urged Council to “build from the bottom up, strengthen what’s already there” in revitalization efforts. “Provide skills (training) and opportunities for local residents to fill jobs,” he said. “Local entrepreneurs need readier access to capital.”
Cully Association of Neighbors chair Kathy Fuerstenau quoted a recent newspaper story which portrayed a woman for whom grocery shopping was a four-hour saga, illustrating the lack of both neighborhood-serving retail and transit in Cully.
The Council was equally intrigued by the study, especially its newest member, Commissioner Nick Fish, and Commissioner and Mayor-elect Sam Adams. Fish asked Fuentes and Fuerstenau if they supported rezoning Northeast Cully Boulevard to attract more local businesses. Fuentes replied, “I have a mixed view of that. We should allow the existing commercial to sustain itself. The fear is that agents may come from the outside, and the existing people will be pushed out. There should be ways that everyone is able to benefit.”
Fuerstenau’s answer was, “If we were guaranteed that neighborhood-friendly businesses would be there, we’d be all for it. The fear is that we’ll get more liquor licenses.” Asked by Fish if Cully would be a good location for a Winco Foods outlet she said she doubted Cully Boulevard was big enough to support such a facility. “If we had something smaller, with meat and fresh produce, there are people who would just love to shop there.”
Fish spent some time talking about Whitaker-Adams, which he called “the lynch pin for all other pieces” of efforts to revitalize the neighborhood. “A lot of priorities could be addressed if we do it right,” he said. Reminded by planner Joe Zehnder that there is already a master plan for the site, Fish said, “If we do go down the road of housing, what kind of housing? The schools have expressed a desire for market-rate housing, but Council hasn’t weighed in yet.” Speaking of the report in general he said, “This is so rich we could spend all day discussing it.”
Adams sounded a cautionary note. “I see a lot of requests that seem very appropriate, but they require funding we don’t have,” he said. “I look strongly to a neighborhood, entrepreneurial approach. This is not a tax increment (urban renewal) district, and it might not want the density necessary for one. The adult businesses are there because they offer the best return, although a very scrappy 42nd Avenue Business Association hangs on.” He pressed Bischoff to provide priorities from among the study’s 36 action items. “Government can try to discern what the priorities are,” he said. “It’s better for the neighborhood to do that.” He added, “But here you’re very, very close, closer than most planning documents I’ve seen. This is really great work. Thanks to the neighborhood, the partners, the school district.” Adams told Fuerstenau, “Thank you for your stalwart, persistent advocacy. I wish every neighborhood had the kind of leader you’ve been.”
Fish called the study “the best plan I’ve seen. You’ve set the bar very high. Debbie, good things are always following your steps. This is public outreach in a different way. I’ll play whatever role I can to ensure that Whitaker-Adams is redeveloped in ways that meet the community’s desires.”
Commissioner Randy Leonard said that he grew up in Northeast Portland, and has lunch once a month at Sam’s Billiards in Hollywood. Of Fuerstenau he said, “I’ve very much enjoyed working with Kathy.” Of Bischoff he said, “I love people who work for the city who have a passion for what they do. It’s not just nine-to-five for them.”
Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who is responsible for the Bureau of Parks, said, “There are a lot of good specifics in this.” He said the bureau is currently working to provide more park land in Cully. (See below).
Mayor Tom Potter recalled that, when he was first elected, Fuerstenau gave him a neighborhood tour that was “quite an experience. I understand the needs of Cully a lot more than I did a few years ago.” He said that strengthening the neighborhoods would go far toward reducing the area’s street gang problems. Of the study he said, “We’ve heard a lot of superlatives, but they’re all deserved. The Bureau of Planning is doing things differently. I’m really, really happy with where you’re headed. If you do half as well in the Portland Plan, you’ll be super-stars. The people in the community are super-stars.” Noting that Concordia University’s new library has entrances on the street, symbolically inviting public usage, he said, “Every time I talk to them I’m impressed.” He added, “This plan should be under a Christmas tree instead of on a table. You’re giving more people a chance to succeed.”