IT WAS EASY to get caught up in the unfortunate symmetry of the other week's big announcement from Mayor Charlie Hales and the Portland Development Commission (PDC).
The hip and convenient Trader Joe's that had been planned for a woebegone lot at NE MLK and Alberta—until a fierce debate over gentrification and the city's treatment of African Americans drove it off—now seems like it will be replaced with another crunchy, upscale grocery store.
On Thursday, August 28, it was revealed that Colorado-based chain Natural Grocers has agreed to slide in as the fallback anchor tenant in a retail project pushed by a Southern California developer—reviving a land deal made possible with deep urban renewal subsidies.
Or, put another way?
Months after one grocery store popular with white, yuppie Portlanders was kept out of a traditionally black part of town, a different grocery store popular with white, monied yuppies is neatly taking its place, while maybe even charging higher prices.
For a lot of people, remembering all the noise over Trader Joe's this winter—including protests and letters from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Portland African American Leadership Forum—it looked like nothing was gained. For anyone.
When the Oregonian broke the news about a preview meeting Hales held with African American business leaders just before the announcement, the lead quote was almost comically tepid:
"It's going to be better than nothing," James Posey, a business owner, told the daily.
That might be the prevailing sentiment. It's also missing the point—and maybe blithely giving city hall a pass on another promise that still needs watching.
Back in March, you'll recall, Hales reached an accord with the groups who'd criticized the Trader Joe's deal—airing grievances whose roots run decades deep into the city's lamentable history of redlining and neglecting some African American neighborhoods while dismantling others—only to rebuild and re-invest in those neighborhoods when they gentrified.
In exchange for the neighborhood groups' blessing as he tried to re-light the flame with Trader Joe's, Hales promised a major concession that directly addressed one of his critics' biggest concerns: He agreed to spend an additional $20 million on affordable housing in the urban renewal zone that stretches up MLK and over to St. Johns—money that presumably might keep more non-white Portlanders from being priced out of their neighborhoods.
The Natural Grocers announcement even mentioned that money, including some new details on how and when it might be spent.
The big news? Though it could be spent anywhere in that zone, it's mostly going to be used on MLK. And community groups, working with the Portland Housing Bureau, will be asked how they'd like to see it directed.
And here's why we still need to pay attention. Much of that money will be coming on top of what's already earmarked for truly affordable housing in the district—people making 30 percent or less of the city's median income. And that could mean the PDC is allowed to spend it on developments for people earning closer to the median income—like it's doing in Old Town.
As of press time, officials hadn't answered questions asking if that had been ruled out. If not, and that new housing money winds up fueling displacement, too? Maybe then you can say nothing was gained. Hell, you'd have a good case for arguing something was lost.