ANDREW FORET was lounging and reading in a secluded clearing in North Portland, while his dog, Bernard, munched on grass. Kristin Deets sat on a bench, drawing in a notebook. Shoppers strolled past and, every so often, one would sit down for lunch.
This could have been any park in Portland. Except it wasn't. Foret and Deets (and Bernard) were relaxing on a well-maintained private lot along North Mississippi Avenue—a patch that's become a beloved oasis in a neighborhood that, in recent years, has seen a tsunami of change.
Now that pocket might be going away, too. And with a battle cry all too familiar on N Mississippi—not to mention NE Alberta and the Pearl district—some neighbors are digging in their heels to keep their green haven alive.
A Lake Oswego-based developer is looking to buy the 5,000-square-foot plot from its owners, the Kurisu family. Should that deal go through, the developer, Chris Rogers, would fill in the space with a 35-unit apartment complex, complete with ground-floor retail.
The project, not quite across from Fresh Pot, would bring a third multistory complex to a crowded strip between Fremont and Skidmore. And while some imagine vibrant, green apartments, others see something else: another gentrifying shift, and one more fault line in a neighborhood that's had plenty.
"It's a green space that people use as a park," laments John Langley, an activist who has lived along the plot's northern perimeter, in the Mississippi House, for five years. "One more building with apartments and ground-floor retail isn't going to make the neighborhood better."
Langley and other residents of Mississippi House—a collective home owned by the nonprofit Portland Collective Housing—are leading the charge. With fliers, a Facebook page, and a hand-painted banner strung from a top-floor window, they hope to rally neighbors against the "destruction" of their "community park"—even though it's not officially designated as such.
Knowing there were concerns the last time someone eyed the site (the Kurisus, who declined to comment, tried to build there five years ago) Rogers attended a neighborhood meeting in April. Afterward, he promised to incorporate any issues into his design—even though he technically doesn't need the neighbors' approval to build.
But upon returning later in the spring, the tone had changed. Mississippi House residents and their supporters told him they didn't want him building there at all. They urged foes to call and email Rogers at home.
"That was the last conversation I had with them," Rogers says. "They made it pretty clear I wasn't welcome."
Langley says his fellow residents are concerned not only with what will happen to their special space, but also with what another new mega-complex might mean for the neighborhood.
"We're not trying to say that Chris Rogers is evil," Langley insists.
Rogers says his project remains conceptual, though he has taken some steps to meet city design standards. He plans market-rate apartments to stay competitive, but doesn't think he'll price anyone out of the neighborhood. But if the land is so valuable to Mississippi House residents, he asks, then why haven't they bought it already?
"They're trying to say what someone can't do on a piece of property that someone else owns," Rogers complains.
One longtime neighbor, Kay Newell, owner of Sunlan Lighting two blocks from the proposed development, is on Rogers' side. She likens the dispute to neighborhood kids complaining that a new homeowner, reversing the generosity of a past owner, wants to boot them from his backyard.
"It's not a park, it has never been a park," Newell says. "Since when does he owe the neighbors the right to play in his backyard? What right do they have to raise this issue for a considerably long time?"
But another neighbor, John Bryant, isn't as eager for the development. Bryant's family moved to a house across from the patch more than five decades ago, when Bryant was a toddler. He learned about the project after a Mississippi House barbecue in the "park."
"There are too many buildings here already," says Bryant, whose 93-year-old mother still owns his childhood home.
Rogers "can say all he wants to say but the heart of the matter is he's only in it for the money."
Bryant recalls the washhouses and meat markets and other businesses that once filled N Mississippi. He also remembers the violence that long overshadowed the neighborhood—only to give way to more changes, some for the better. Rogers' project, he worries, will bring higher rents, tighter parking, and more bars full of visitors not invested in a neighborhood he says is already saturated with drinking establishments
"Half the people on this street don't live here," he said. "It's like the Pearl District here now."
Though Foret isn't part of the formal opposition to the development, he says he doesn't think an apartment building should be built there. After moving from Tempe, Arizona, where he says building was out of control, he thinks development should come in moderation.
"I don't want to see an entire neighborhood preplanned and arranged identically," Foret says.
It's unclear what serious options the opponents have. Members of Portland Collective Housing—who can barely cover their interest payments on Mississippi House—are working to raise money. But they're far from having enough to outbid Rogers.
But Deets, the woman sketching in her notebook, is precisely the kind of neighbor the Mississippi House residents want to recruit.
Deets lived on Mississippi for five years before moving away in 2001—but she moved back two years later. She can't afford to live in the apartment she rented a decade ago, and she worries new development will make the neighborhood even more expensive.
Also, says Deets, "There are no quiet spaces like this."