By Kathy Eaton
photos by Judy Nelson
A decade ago, Concordia neighborhood residents viewed the area as a rough-and-tumble neighborhood, according to Daniel Greenstadt, current chair of the Concordia Neighborhood Association (CNA). “Today we have a mix of manufacturing activities that now ranges from heavy machinery to handmade ice cream. And in the middle of it, a major private university (Concordia University). All of this brings a certain spice and unpredictability to life in Concordia,” he said.
“What’s good for the community is good for Concordia University,” the school’s mission statement says, reflecting the school’s philosophy founded as a boy’s academy in 1905. Today, Concordia University, 2811 N.E. Holman St., is a private, Lutheran liberal arts university with a student body of 7,000. Concordia University offers 25 undergraduate majors as well as post-graduate degrees and distance-learning options. For more information: Visit cu-portland.edu.
Named for Concordia University, the neighborhood is bounded by Columbia Boulevard, Northeast 22nd Avenue, Northeast 42nd Avenue, Northeast Prescott Street and Northeast Alberta Court.
It’s about people
Concordia resident Art Wahlers, now age 90, was the first president of the Concordia Neighborhood Association. “It’s the importance of neighborhoods, and it’s about the people. It’s not a one-man show,” he said.
In 1946, Wahlers moved to Portland to teach Latin, history, health and physical education, and coach baseball and basketball at Concordia Academy. Last month, while sitting in his Concordia home thinking back about those days, Wahlers said he recalled when Centennial Hall was the only building on campus. While the main floor of the wooden building housed classrooms and “the boss’s office in one corner,” upstairs included a library and living room. Dormitory housing for about 50 boys was located in the attic.
Wahlers married Carol Johnson in 1953, moved into their home near the Concordia campus in 1959 and raised four children. Their oldest son, Mark, is the current provost of Concordia University. Art and Carol Wahlers celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary last year and still live in the same house.
Over the course of 68 years, Wahlers witnessed many neighborhood changes. “There were a lot more vacant lots back then and woods where the university’s library stands today,” he said. When the neighborhood experienced sewer problems, Wahlers was asked by the Academy’s principal to help fix it.
Sewer problems created beastly project
According to Wahlers, sewer problems plagued the neighborhood where they bought their home. “It was bad. Many basements had a foot of water, and that brought in rats. Residents spotted some rats and feces in the street gutters,” recalled Wahlers.
“People have always organized around problems,” said Wahlers; “and that’s why we founded the Concordia Neighborhood Association (CNA) in the mid-1950s.” He was elected president of the CNA shortly after. According to Wahlers, the organization attracted common, everyday folks interested in resolving problems. “We tackled other projects, including installing a stop sign at Lombard and Northeast 27th Avenue near the railroad tracks. The CNA defeated a proposal to build multi-level housing projects on nearby Dekum Street between Northeast 23rd and 27th avenues,” said Wahlers. He credits the city of Portland for endorsing the formulation of neighborhood associations as “they give citizens a voice for those who live there.”
New Seasons moves in
“We didn’t have the budget to restore the Kennedy School, 5736 N.E. 33rd Ave., but we love what the McMenamins did when they acquired and renovated it,” said Wahlers. He’s also a fan of New Seasons Concordia, 5320 N.E. 33rd Ave., as it replaced a seedy building that had become an eyesore. Concerned about increased traffic congestion at the intersection of Northeast Killingsworth Street and Northeast 33rd Avenue, some residents opposed New Seasons Market that opened in 2001. “I love the Market’s customer service. If you ask for help, they’ll attend to you. I think other stores could learn from them,” said Wahlers.
Danielle Halstead, who’s managed New Seasons Concordia for the past two years, said, “It’s wonderful to see neighbors drop by to shop and chat with the butcher, baker and cheese monger. We enjoy being part of this vital community where customers are friendly and interactive.” For more information: Visit newseasons.market.com or call (503) 288-3838.
Future challenges and opportunities
Today’s CNA, chaired by Concordia resident Daniel Greenstadt, doesn’t face down rats or sewer issues, but he acknowledged that development has come at a price. “It’s hard to imagine any neighborhood that has undergone more rapid changes in terms of business and economic development, demographics and reputation,” he said. Greenstadt noted that McMenamins Kennedy School and the commercial strip known as the Alberta Arts District attract visitors from elsewhere in Portland, the country and even the world.
Redfin, a Seattle-based online brokerage, reported in January 2014 that Concordia neighborhood is Portland’s trendiest among homebuyers and is ranked eighth nationally. Redfin based its analysis on website searches and the use of the “favorite” function on listings. Redfin broker Michael Morris said that much of the new interest comes from further north in the neighborhood, near Northeast Killingsworth and Northeast Ainsworth streets.
Demographics shift dramatically
The 2010 U.S. Census revealed Concordia maintained a population of roughly 10,000 but the demographics shifted dramatically. In the past decade, white residents increased by about 20 percent but the African American share of the population fell by almost 40 percent.
“Whether you view those kinds of changes as creatively dynamic or painfully disruptive, it has certainly meant dramatic change for families and individuals in our and surrounding neighborhoods,” said Greenstadt.
Issues resulting from demographic change include limited affordable housing options with escalating prices of single-family homes and very few available apartment units. On a positive note, there’s a resurgence and revitalized interest in improving neighborhood schools. According to Greenstadt, many residents favor more mixed-use development occurring on opportunity sites such as Alberta Street but those types of project seem slow in coming.
Good neighbor agreements
Issues resulting from the growth of bars and restaurants that impact neighbors with traffic, noise, parking and litter are mitigated by using Good Neighborhood Agreements, according to Greenstadt. CNA also is challenged to maintain funding for popular events such as park concerts, clean ups and support for various community improvement projects. Two large parks contained within Concordia’s borders―24-acre Fernhill Park between Northeast Ainsworth and Northeast Holman streets and Northeast 37th and 42nd avenues, and 16-acre Alberta Park, between Northeast Killingsworth and Northeast Ainsworth streets and Northeast 22nd and Northeast 19th avenues―contribute to the neighborhood’s high livability and walkability scores. For more information: Visit movingtoportland.net.
Concordia’s conundrum over development
Greenstadt believes residents support efforts to maintain Concordia’s local, small-town atmosphere in the face of continuing economic growth. The commercial zone in Fox Chase, a micro-neighborhood in Concordia at the intersection of Northeast Killingsworth Street and Northeast 30th Avenue, is experiencing a growth spurt of restaurants supplanting some small businesses. In 2013, after a decade in their respective locations, business owners Mary Taponga of Hail Mary and Amy Watson of Whole Mama Whole Child lost their leases. According to Greenstadt, although some residents welcome the growth of dining options, others express concern about the loss of commercial diversity. Negative impacts and inconveniences to residents may be offset by potential benefits of seeing the influx of customers to the area and growth of local employment opportunities.
Experimentation welcome in Concordia
Concordia seems to be a good place for experimentation, according to Greenstadt, who cites four-star vegetarian dining at Natural Selection, 3033 N.E. Alberta St., to four-star meatetarian feasting where any protein is fair game at Beast, 5425 N.E. 30th Ave. “There have been and continue to be many opportunities for creative people to test their ideas in Concordia,” Greenstadt said. As he contemplates Concordia’s future, Greenstadt speculates that the neighborhood may be receptive to opportunities to welcome new visitors by offering options like AirBnB that allow folks to rent out a spare bedroom or granny flat to visitors for a few nights. “These are visitors who will likely support our local businesses, go out to eat, check out our funky local shops, support neighborhood grocery stores and really get a feel for what this part of Portlandia is all about,” said Greenstadt.
Clustered together are these five-star Concordia neighborhood restaurants:
5425 N.E. 30th Ave.,
beastpdx.com, (503) 841-6968
Cocotte Bar & Bistro:
2930 N.E. Killingsworth St.,
cocottepdx.com, (503) 227-2669
5519 N.E. 30th Ave.,
cocottepdx.com, (503) 946-8592
5515 N.E. 30th Ave.,
nonnapdx.com, (503) 894-9840
5411 N.E. 30th Ave.,
yazukalounge.com, (503) 450-0893
McMenamins Kennedy School
The Kennedy Elementary School, constructed in 1915, ended a 54-year run as a neighborhood school in 1970. The Renaissance Revival building with a single-story plan designed by Portland public school architect Floyd A. Naramore, was considered innovative and reflected concerns for safety and growth. When school was not in session, Kennedy School served the community as a public meeting hall, polling place, Red Cross blood-drawing center and flood-relief shelter. During the 1920s, residents watched feature movies screened in the school’s gymnasium. Declining school district enrollment coupled with building deterioration resulted in final closure of Kennedy School in 1980.
In 1994, the McMenamin brothers. who own a chain of 65 brew pubs, microbreweries, music venues and historic hotels in Oregon and Washington, proposed to renovate the Kennedy School. They reopened it in 1997 by ringing the original principal’s school bell. Today, visitors can view four bas-relief panels and reproductions of 15th-century Florentine masterpieces originally exhibited at the Portland Art Museum, as well as artifacts from the old Portland Hotel. Informational guides (The Skinny on Kennedy School and Kennedy School: A Walking Tour of Art and History) are available in the building’s lobby. For more information: Visit mcmenamins.com/KennedySchool.
Property manager Mel Jensen loves her title, principal of McMenamins Kennedy School. “Fifteen years ago I began working a summer job at McMenamins and never wanted to leave,” said Jensen. At the Kennedy School for two and one-half years, Jensen said her favorite place on the property depends on her mood; she gravitates to the Boiler Room after work to relax. “It’s quite different from the Cypress Room where I like listening to reggae music,” she said. McMenamins Kennedy School also partners with the CNA by allowing groups to rent their Community Room. Proceeds help sponsor cultural, educational and social activities for the benefit of the neighborhood.
Like the University it’s named for, Concordia continues to build community with neighbors.
Look for coverage of the Alberta Arts District in a summer 2014 column.
Link to Facebook album with all of Judy Nelson’s photos here.