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Can North Portland Be ‘Saved’?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


North Lombard St.

North Lombard Street is a major artery in North Portland, connecting the Piedmont district westward to St. Johns. The thoroughfare is strewn with small businesses, gas stations, and neighborhood favorites like pizza shops and pubs. 

Designated as a state highway and freight corridor with four vehicle lanes and no shoulder or bike paths, N Lombard is functional, but it isn’t pretty. 

Ask some local residents and business owners and they’ll say N Lombard is in serious need of a face-lit. 

On March 6th, the Portland Development Commission (PDC) hosted the “North Lombard Branding Workshop,” which welcomed local business owners and residents to brainstorm how N Lombard could be improved. The goal of the PDC is to give the street an identity, one that tells a more welcoming story.  

Held in the gymnasium of De La Salle High School, just off of N Lombard Street, the workshop participants were asked to answer key questions about N Lombard’s identity.

What are some words to describe N Lombard today? Locals shouted out, “potholes”, “disjointed”, “run-down”. What words would you want to associate with N Lombard? “Walkable”, “safe” and “destination” made it onto the brainstorming board. And finally, when asked what people who live and work on the street are passionate about, participants answered, “weed”, “guns”, and even “cats.” 

The PDC is working with a budget of 1.5 million dollars to improve infrastructure on N Lombard, with additional programs that will provide business assistance, such as storefront improvements and property development. The targeted area is between N Chautauqua Blvd and N Williams Ave, with the final plans scheduled for September.

Michele Reeves of Civilis Consultants, who presented the workshop, says, “North Lombard is telling a lot of confusing stories,” by dividing neighborhoods that include every type of business, from payday loan operations and furniture rentals to health-food stores and Mexican restaurants. 

The task does not come without challenges. “The lack of any kind of business district group is another challenge,” says Carol Herzberg, senior project coordinator at the PDC. “The businesses along the street don’t know each other.” 

Evelyn Hall, store manager of N Lombard’s Green Zebra Grocery, attended the workshop to meet her fellow businesses, but she isn’t as eager to change her street. “I just want to run a great grocery store. I don’t necessarily need to a tell story to do that,” says Hall. “I just need a community.”

A New Commercial District

The Portland Development Commission has been actively working for over half a century to make neighborhoods more vibrant and livable. In 2010, the PDC spent $2.85 million dollars revitalizing the historic district of Kenton, north of N Lombard towards the Columbia River. Kenton underwent a streetscape improvement project that resulted in wider sidewalks, “business-friendly” trees, pedestrian street lighting, stone benches and a new branch of the Multnomah County Library. 

Jessie Burke owns Posies Café on N. Denver Avenue in Kenton. “My business has only increased as the neighborhood has grown and more retail businesses opened in Kenton, so people have more of a reason to visit,” says Burke. When her business opened, Kenton was four blocks of mostly vacant storefronts. 

After Kenton’s construction was completed, Burke remembers reveling in an entirely new commercial district, “one where mothers with strollers could be seen walking everywhere.”

“I think Kenton and N Lombard are moving at a manageable pace, where the community can provide input and guide the process more,” she continues. “And for that I'm grateful.” 

North Lombard St.

Safety and Walkability

Apart from upgrading “the look” of N Lombard, a major concern from residents and businesses is provisions for safety and walkability along the corridor. 

Pat Lanagan is the owner of the adult entertainment store, Fat Cobra Video on Interstate Ave, and the bar Eagle Portland on N. Lombard. He’s currently in the process of developing two additional properties – a pizzeria and a café – on N Lombard, next to Eagle, for which he's received a grant from the PDC to improve the storefront.. 

Lanagan says he’s behind the efforts of the PDC, but regardless of flowerpots on lampposts and welcome banners, he would like to see safer access for residents when crossing the barrier of I-5 between east and west N Lombard.

“We can make it as nice as we want, but we could kill people the way it’s set up now,” says Lanagan. “While it’s not a nice, cute project people want to work on, I think it’s the most important aspect of re-branding N Lombard.”

Jessie Bukre agrees. “If a re-branding means more cross walks and slower traffic so that pedestrians don't feel like they're walking along a highway, then absolutely.”

Casually Commodified

Adriane Ackerman resides one block north of N Lombard and has lived in the North Portland neighborhood for a decade. She feels the street’s raw character is part of its appeal. “I don't believe the street is tired or run-down. It’s working class and active and lively,” she says. 

And while she supports the effort to economically support the street, Ackerman says, “The last thing that our neighborhood needs is to be casually commodified. I would much prefer a ‘re-imagining’ or a ‘restoring’ approach. I only feel the need to re-brand a product that needs to be sold.”

But the PDC ensures that their initiative is not simply a re-brand. “We’d like whatever happens to be organic and authentic, and that honors the down-to-earth nature of the street,” says Herzberg. “This is much more than a marketing effort. It’s really an effort to help the community create its own identity, to offer a way for businesses along the street to coalesce and recognize and build on the unique strengths of N Lombard.”

N Lombard is one of many upcoming projects for the PDC. It’s currently developing along Foster Road and in the Halsey Weidler commercial district, and has ongoing commitments to neighborhood capacity-building in Lents and Old Town/Chinatown.

Herzberg also cites the PDC’s Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative & Main Street Network, a program through which communities are strengthening their own business districts from the inside. “Portland definitely suffers from disparities in income and opportunity within the city,” says Herzberg, “and we see a number of fronts where we can make a difference.”

Melanie Sevcenko is a journalist for radio, print and online. She reports internationally for BBC World Service and Monocle Radio (M24) in the UK, and for Deutsche Welle in Germany. Melanie also reports for the online news source GoLocalPDX, in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been broadcast by CBC in Canada and the Northwest News Network, and published by Al Jazeera English, Global Post, Pacific Standard, the Toronto Star and USA Today, amongst others.


Related Slideshow: Emmanuel Community Services Reunification Shelter

An innovative program in North Portland’s Kenton neighborhood has drawn scrutiny from neighbors for not delivering the services it was contracted to do, while endangering the people it is intended to serve

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Kenton business owners are unconvinced of the program’s effectiveness, and the process through which ECS acquired the contract. 

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MESD spokesperson Laura Conroy said the district has never conducted an audit into the program. ECS is also subject to evaluation by DHS. It is unclear whether the DHS has conducted an evaluation. 

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The Emmanuel Shelter, an interim housing project for which ECS first won a no-bid contract in August 2013 worth $280,000, is run through the Multnomah Education Service District (MESD) and state Department of Human Services (DHS). 

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According to DHS spokeswoman Andrea Cantu-Schomus, there was no request for proposals (RFP) from other non-profits because the Emmanuel Shelter is an “innovative pilot project.” Although it is an “innovative pilot project,” Cantu-Schomus said the Emmanuel Shelter is not the state’s first reunification program.

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Emmanuel Community Services has been a 501(c)3 designated organization since 1995, and has extensive experience with gang outreach programs.  The organization sprung from the Emmanuel Temple Church in North Portland, founded in 1984.

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Compared to the property’s $441,330 value, one year, or 365 nights, at $47.50 per night coupled with 365 nights at $60.00, for 15 units, is $588,562.50. 

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The landlord, Bhavin Patel, paid no property tax on the building last year, still denoted as a motel according to Portland Maps. Patel would not say how much the state or ECS is paying him for the annual lease. 


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