Growth coalition reassures PSU neighbors

You’re the new neighbor on the block and the old neighbors are not comfortable with you. What do you do? You invite them to your party.

Portland State is exploring that approach with apparent success. The university is spearheading a University District Coalition to ease the voiced anxieties of its new neighbors. PSU’s holdings have been spreading ever outward, even leapfrogging into new areas. These moves have brought out neighborhood questions and complaints.

Recognizing the potential strains, the university organized and is funding this coalition where all points of view may be presented and considered.

The group includes representatives from three distinct neighborhoods – Corbett, Terwilliger, and Lair Hill (CTLH), South Auditorium and the University District. Its area of interest straddles the I-405 freeway and is generally bounded by Southwest Market Street, Southwest Gibbs Street, the South Park Blocks, other park and green spaces and the I-5 freeway.

Having formulated a vision statement for the coalition, the group is inviting input from any interested parties. An open house will be conducted Monday, January 26, 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the PSU Native American Student Community Center, 710 Southwest Jackson St. Attendees are invited to discuss and contribute to the coalition’s visionary plan to define future change and development.

The nine-member steering committee includes Nohad Toulan, dean of the College of Urban and Public Affairs, and one student, Justin Myers, a junior in community development.

Two recent university expansions intensified neighborhood anxieties. First, PSU acquired the DoubleTree hotel at southwest 410 S.W. Lincoln St. for student housing. Residents of American Plaza condominiums directly east of the site expressed fears that the DoubleTree would turn into a rowdy student ghetto. The purchase also affected the Village at Lovejoy Fountain apartments, north of the DoubleTree.

The CTLH concerns were stimulated when on July 1 PSU acquired a lease with option to buy the 40,000 square foot David Evans building at 2828 S.W. Corbett St. This extended the PSU presence across the I-405 freeway. CTLH, particularly Lair Hill, has long been sensitive to the persistent encroachment of development into its historic residential character.

Two steering committee members represent the CTLH group, two the American Plaza Condominiums, two the Lovejoy Fountain interests and two from PSU.

The vision statement acknowledges that each of the three involved areas has unique characteristics that need to be preserved and enhanced. Lair Hill is identified by historic single-family residences adjacent to I-405, along with some commercial buildings.

South Auditorium consists mainly of tall residential buildings and lower commercial buildings. It boasts trees, open park areas and a through street, which does not carry vehicular traffic. Many residents are retirees, empty-nesters or never-nesters.

The PSU campus is built to the street in most cases. The west section features closed streets with landscaping. The east campus is more consistent with downtown.

The coalition territory remains affected deeply by what Ewart calls “the moat,” the I-405 freeway. It divides Lair Hill from the university and south auditorium to the point that interaction between the areas becomes difficult, especially for pedestrians.

Although representatives of CTLH and South Auditorium have expressed concerns about the creeping presence of PSU, both areas feel the need of enhanced services which university expansion could feed. There exists a persistent need for more retail space.

The coalition statement sees the desirability of a full-service grocery store accessible to the neighborhoods. It would be smaller but not tiny, about 50,000 square feet, becoming a resource but not a destination. One suggestion is to put a grocery in the present PCAT building on campus. There is also a need for a full-service pharmacy in the area, more restaurants and other night-life amenities, plus a hardware store.

These kinds of retail amenities would fit into the larger vision articulated recently by Jay Kenton, Vice President for Finance and Administration. He wants to see both present and future university structures emphasizing ground floor retail.

“We support each other’s causes,” Ewart said of the coalition work so far. “We haven’t found any issues that are divisive. Some groups have issues of not much interest to other groups.”

The student member of the coalition steering committee, Myers, admits, “I was a little suspicious at first. I wondered if the university was trying to pull a fast one. There was a lot of nervousness in the University District. It wasn’t clear if the university was trying to take over the neighborhood.” Now he has become a supporter. He felt the students had been left out of the PSU expansion process.

“The university’s purpose is to serve the students,” he said. “But the students don’t feel much ownership of the growth. They don’t feel involved.” His experience with the coalition has increased his enthusiasm.

“It’s a very inclusive process,” he said. “It is being very inclusive in determining the needs of the surrounding neighborhoods.” He expressed interest in new retail establishments as providing jobs for students. Also, he emphasized that the residents in the neighborhoods want to know what is going on at PSU and vice versa.

“It is a really powerful thing for the students to feel attached to the neighborhoods.”

Other than enhanced retail, coalition members have differing ideas of a more desirable future. Lair Hill is adamant about preserving its historic park. One vision sees covering Southwest First Avenue and I-405 for retail and park space. Another proposal would cover I-405 from Front Avenue to Southwest Third Avenue for an educational park or open space.

A pedestrian scenario would develop a walking bridge between the neighborhoods and improve access to the YMCA on Southwest Barbur Boulevard.

The coalition’s vision statement covers five pages and four maps. Its general fields of interests include neighborhood preservation, cultural amenities, connectivity, services including educational, community facilities, enhanced safety and security, orderly design concepts and cooperative participation.

“There is a recognition that we want to be better connected,” Ewart said. “These people are very, very pleased to be connected. They’re good people, all of them.”