The future of Lents might also be the future of the New Copper Penny
  • The future of Lents might also be the future of the New Copper Penny
I’d never been to the New Copper Penny until last night. I didn’t dance. I didn’t bet on a horse. I didn’t even get a drink.

The four-decade Lents institution played host to a forum on the future of the neighborhood, and also—in what was a slightly uncomfortable topic—the role the New Copper Penny might play (or not) in that same future.

Lents is one of the city’s more blue-collar and diverse neighborhoods—crime is a little higher than in other parts of town, and home prices are a little lower. But it’s also been put on the city’s gentrification watch list as people pushed out of less affordable neighborhoods west discover its charm.

And as the city contemplates more investment, even after spending tens of millions that many residents don’t think did very much, Lents has finally been receiving more and more attention from city hall and even the media.

The panel discussion was hosted by Portland City Club, which brought together members of the Lents Neighborhood Association, Jillian Detweiler from Mayor Charlie Hales’ office, as well as neighborhood activists. Also in attendance were members of the Lents community… but you could argue that it wasn’t really a true representation of the neighborhood—mostly white folks, some with one foot already atop their soapboxes.

Full disclosure: I was not there as a journalist (the Mercury asked me to write something after the fact), but as a community member engaging in some good ol’-fashioned civic duty—my wife and I bought a house in Lents in May. We love it. It’s working class, and a nice escape from the shiny, yuppified stretches of Division and, of course, the Pearl.

Which seems to be the main point of contention among folks living in Lents. There are those who want to see it grow; then there are those who fear that growth leads to an uglier “G” word—gentrification—and ultimately displacement. But as one of the panelists put it: “If a neighborhood isn’t growing, it’s moving in the opposite direction.”

Growth is inevitable in Lents and its “town center,” and it appears the focus now is on SE 92nd, where the New Copper Penny occupies an entire block (just the parking lot itself is mammoth). Surrounding the cavernous building are about a half-dozen empty lots (all owned by the city) just waiting for the right businesses to come in. Many say the city should do something with those lots before buying more property. Others see the New Copper Penny as the prime piece they need to revitalize the center (negotiations between the city and New Copper Penny owner Saki Tzantarmas to purchase the property have been stifled due to poor communication and Tzantarmas’s current asking price).

Last night—in the presence of Tzantarmas and his son Johnny, in their house—the panel played nice, stating that they’d love to see the Lents institution be a part of the neighborhood’s new look. It’s a nice sentiment, but it left me wondering if businesses would want to set up shop next to such a gargantuan and peculiar-looking spot with a less-than-savory reputation. Negotiations will likely continue, and I don’t see any reason why the city and Tzantarmas can’t reach a mutually beneficial deal.

But there were some bigger questions asked at the meeting. What does the area need? Or, better yet, what’s the one missing piece that might jumpstart the town center? A “game-changer” as some in the panel put it. A grocery store was the popular answer for most in attendance. And new brewery—Z-Haus—is still slated to take over the large, vacant Ararat Bakery building (although there have been delays), and could also serve as a potential anchor.

The meeting also allowed the panel to reflect on what the past 16 years and $103 million the city has already invested in Lents has accomplished. Sidewalks and other infrastructure improvements have been the best investments. Buying up and tearing down buildings, not so much (one gentleman in the audience pointed out that if the city paid taxes on the properties, it might prod the Portland Development Commission to get businesses in there quicker).

It looks like the focus now is to work with the existing properties, and to have a specific plan in place before buying more. Some attention to the floodplain south of Foster Road also was a focus for some in attendance.

It remains to be seen what might emerge as Lents’ game-changer. Or where it will end up. Hales says he’s making the neighborhood one of his priorities this year, and there’s still a lot of money left to invest. Whatever changes come, they won’t make everyone happy. The way I see it you can’t fear improvement to a neighborhood; the alternative is much more frightening. But you can embrace the flavor of a particular place, and respect it.

Respect—now there’s a concept.