Hold It! 

Does Homeless Center Fit with Old Town Plan?

Plans to build a center for the homeless on the so-called Dirty Duck block in Old Town are on hold this Christmas until City Commissioner Erik Sten can meet with its future neighbors to explain why they've been left out of the planning process.

Last month, Sten decided to build the center—which is part of the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness—on the Dirty Duck block (AKA "Block 25"), nicknamed for a bar between NW 3rd and 4th and NW Flanders and Glisan. Negotiations to buy a different parking lot at NW 4th and Glisan from landowner Greg Goodman had broken down in November.

At a meeting of the Old Town/Chinatown Visions Committee last Wednesday, December 12, neighbors voiced their concerns about the new center, which could include up to 200 units of affordable housing as well as a center for homeless people to access services.

"I think it's time for the city to realize that the Chinese community is a presence, and that we're ready to fight back," says Stephen Ying, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), who spoke up at the meeting. He says he first heard about the new center in late November.

Ying is in a buoyant mood, with the CCBA having spearheaded two successful community campaigns in the last 12 months—most recently against the renaming of 4th Avenue after César Chávez in November. The CCBA also fought for the removal of a controversial dragon sculpture in the neighborhood late last year ["Chasing the Dragon," News, Dec 14, 2006].

To Ying, and others, the city has some explaining to do when it comes to where Sten has chosen to build the new homeless center. Sten, after all, signed off on an Old Town development plan in 1999, which aimed to avoid the further concentration of social services in the neighborhood.

"The neighborhood has historically been a dumping ground for social services," Ying told the Mercury. "And once again the city has decided to do what it wants, without consulting the community."

Diverse interests, including businesses and social service agencies, formed the Visions Committee in Old Town in 1995, and the group wrote a development plan for the area, which the city council adopted in 1999. The plan aimed, specifically, at no net gain or loss in the neighborhood's then roughly 70-30 balance of low-income housing to median family income housing.

After last week's meeting, Visions Committee Co-Chair (and 2008 city commissioner candidate) Howard Weiner wrote to the four agencies responsible for planning the center under Sten—the Portland Development Commission, the Housing Authority of Portland, the Bureau of Housing and Community Development, and Transition Projects, Inc.—asking for development of the Dirty Duck block to be put on hold until the city performs another count of low-income housing in the area.

Weiner also wanted to know how the public is going to be involved in plans for the homeless center from now on, and how plans for the Dirty Duck block fit in with the Visions Committee's original goal of having no net gain or loss in its balance of housing. He's also anxious to know how plans for the new permanent access center fit with the city's recent acquisition of the sketchy Grove Hotel on Burnside ["The Flophouse Blues," News, Oct 4].

"I'm a believer in process," says Weiner. "But in this case it seems that the process got broken."

"I think when entities, public or private, with the ability to fund or honor some of the commitments of our development plan don't take the vision document seriously, then it's a rupture in this neighborhood that needs to be addressed," says Sisters of the Road co-founder Genny Nelson, who co-chaired the Visions Committee back in 1995 and was also at last week's meeting.

The four development agencies bowed late last week to neighborhood pressure, agreeing to hold off on further development of the homeless center until Sten can address the next Visions Committee meeting on January 9.

"There is room to make an agreement," says Sten.

The commissioner adds, however, that he is thinking about the neighborhood's "overall strategy, rather than whether the balance of housing fluctuates by 100 units in either direction in a given year."

"There's going to be an access center on Block 25," he continues. "And you'd have to be nuts not to put affordable housing on top of it."

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