Root shock, the changing fortunes of affordable housing policy, concerns about what living in Albina will be like for black residents who return, and the brouhaha that started the conversation about city spending on affordable housing on the East Side:
In 2013, the Portland Development Commission (PDC) ignited a major controversy by selling city-owned land in the Albina district to Majestic Realty, a commercial developer that wanted to bring in a Trader Joe’s. Some residents, especially young Blacks represented by a new organization called the Portland African American Leadership Forum (PAALF),objected to the sale. They called for a mixed-use project that would include affordable housing in the floors above the supermarket and other benefits such as job guarantees for local residents.
Their protests led Trader Joe’s to pull out and nearly caused Majestic Realty to back away. This infuriated some of the older members of the Black Northeast who had long seen the site as an opportunity for commercial growth.
Whatever side they were on, however, most stakeholders agreed the city had unnecessarily divided the community by failing to inform residents about their plans before awarding the contract. In addition, to lure Majestic back to the project, the city was forced to submit to many of its terms.
Mayor Charles Hales, defending the project to Colorlines, notes that Majestic Realty had hired a Black firm as general contractor. Yet he also says that the PDC has learned from past mistakes. “We’ve learned a lot about displacement and gentrification from the economic change that’s happened in Northeast Portland and elsewhere in Portland, and we now know how to do a better job,” he says.
Years before the Trader Joe’s announcement, the PDC was already studying the effects of gentrification in the inner N/NE Urban Renewal Area, and issuing reports. Did the city learn anything? Not that we’ve ever been made aware.
Colorlines notes where the city government did fail the community in attempting this project – failing to inform residents beforehand (which could’ve given more time, etc, to working out a compromise among all interested parties), and for bending over backwards to kiss Majestic’s ass, which was both thoroughly unnecessary, and also has long-term negative consequences for inner North/Northeast.
What Colorlines fails to note is that in its attempt to ram the Trader Joe’s proposal through, without substantive engagement with folks critical of the proposal or of its implications for urban renewal policies more generally, Portland Development Commission staff worked hand-in-hand with vocal supporters of the project, some of whom lived in the neighborhood – and most of whom did not.
What was so disconcerting about the PDC’s behind-the-scenes work to keep the project moving forward in the face of staunch opposition from multiple sectors of the community, was seeing our city employees climb into bed with the nearby residents who used both coded and overt racist and xenophobic language to dismissive any and all critiques and critics of the proposed Trader Joe’s deal. Such language – racist, xenophobic, deliberately exclusionary – was a core feature of the rhetoric used by supporters of Trader Joe’s to explain and excuse their ‘entitlement’ to this particular grocery store, no matter what other community needs might be seen by others to be at play on the long-empty lot at MLK & Alberta.
This usually-coded, sometimes-blatant exclusionary language was at play from the first time a neighborhood resident expressed official public support for this deal to give an important piece of inner North/Northeast Portland property away, basically free, to billionaires, and to site an unneeded grocery store on the lot. It continued through the months that followed, both on-line and in community meetings (at one, someone remarked that ‘gentrification’ is “impersonal, it’s just a word, it doesn’t have meaning to me,” which is as good as spitting on the thousands of people negatively impacted by gentrification).
The lesson the City might’ve learned here is that just because someone sees things your way, it doesn’t mean they’re the best partners for you in getting something accomplished. However, the City tried to do ‘community engagement’ on the cheap, essentially giving these exclusionary, sometimes-vicious Trader Joe’s supporters a free rein to attack opponents wherever possible.