Glisan Commons represents the kind of taller, denser development planners say will turn Gateway into a true regional center. It's also highly controversial. (Faith Cathcart/The Oregonian)
Glisan Commons, the concrete and steel
creation rising at Northeast 100th Avenue and Glisan Street, is that rarest of things in Gateway: New construction.
Despite bold plans to remake Gateway into "Portland's second downtown" and a "regional center," the east Portland district remains a mishmash of car-centric, suburban-style sprawl, much of it dating to the 1950s and '60s.
Up until a year or so ago, this busy corner was home to a shuttered golf-club manufacturing plant, a dirt-floor barn, two houses and a crowd of homeless people and drug users who occupied it every night.
Human Solutions, a nonprofit that helps poor families find permanent housing, bought the land in 2006 with plans to build 155 apartments. Then the recession hit.
"The timing was horrible," said Jean DeMaster, the nonprofit's executive director. "We couldn't make it work."
In 2008, Human Solutions sold the land to the Portland Development Commission for $1.9 million. Two years later, the Portland Housing Bureau released a request for proposals from developers interested in building affordable housing in Gateway.
Two groups responded. The winner was a two-phased partnership between three nonprofits.
In phase one, Human Solutions will build 67 apartments for people just entering the workforce. The ground floor will include 16,000 square feet for Ride Connection, which helps seniors and people with disabilities find transportation options. Some 50 Ride Connection workers will relocate to the new headquarters.
In the second phase, Reach Community Development Inc. will build 60 apartments for senior citizens.
The city is providing $5.9 million in urban-renewal money for the two phases, and the land for $1 a year.
From government's perspective, the project meets multiple goals: It's taller, denser, environmentally friendly construction in a stretch of the city envisioned as more urban in feel. It targets two of east Portland's fastest growing demographic groups in new workers and seniors.
And it meets a city requirement that 30 percent of money spent in urban renewal districts pay for new affordable housing, a policy pushed by former Commissioner Erik Sten as part of his effort against homelessness.
"I think it's going to be a fantastic project for the community," said Patrick Quinton, executive director of the Portland Development Commission. "If there are complaints, I'm not sure where they're coming from."
They're coming from years of frustration with how city leaders have handled Gateway redevelopment.
The PDC has done a smaller series of street improvements and storefront upgrades with urban-renewal money, but neighbors and property owners say the big-ticket items funded with tax increment financing always seem to be projects dearer to elected officials downtown than people in Gateway.
"I'm positive about Glisan Commons because we need more good, affordable housing for seniors," said Bob Earnest, a longtime east Portland resident. "I also feel like we're always spinning our wheels in Gateway."
"The idea behind urban renewal is to generate tax-increment financing and use that to reinvest in our community. That just hasn't happened here. This is one more case."
Residents and private developers in Gateway note that the city's decision to buy land from Human Solutions then quickly -- at least, quickly in development terms -- donate it back to a Human Solutions project looks inappropriate. But city and Human Solutions officials say there was no deal in the works when the city made its purchase.
Affordable housing is always a controversial topic in east Portland, which has seen a flood of cheap apartment complexes and publicly subsidized projects in the past decade. When early plans for Gateway's transformation into a regional center were in the works, some residents argued for putting all new affordable housing in the district on property along I-205.
"I remember standing up at a meeting and telling people, 'That's not right, and that's not fair,'" Earnest said. "It also wasn't realistic."
Community advocates also have a more specific concern: That Glisan Commons puts a publicly funded project in direct competition with private developers.
Riad Sahli, Reach's housing project manager, said surveys done pre-construction suggest most Glisan Commons apartments will cost about 20 percent less than the market average.
"Our housing prices are still so cheap," Kimura said. "A lot of people who qualify for Glisan Commons could also afford something offered by the private sector."
That equation may be true today, but city officials and project organizers are betting it won't continue as Gateway grows and the private market becomes more upscale. The Housing Bureau's request for proposals required that the Glisan development meet the criteria to be considered affordable housing for 60 years.
"Yes, we'll probably be competing for some of the tenants in the area right now," DeMaster said. "But we're building something that we know has to last 60 years. By that point, it might be the only affordable housing on this street."
In that regard, project organizers sound more optimistic than Gateway advocates about the future success of redevelopment here.