What has been billed as a blessing for North Portland over the past few weeks has turned out to be a curse: When city developers first conceived a plan to extend the MAX line into the anemic neighborhood, they recognized they were installing a vital artery. According to theory, by tracing Interstate Blvd, the mass transit line will bring customers to rejuvenate sleepy businesses and will connect the residents of North Portland to the core of the city.

But Portland Development Commission, the city agency overseeing the urban renewal project, also recognize they hold a double-edged sword of revival--the same upward economic swing that could save the neighborhood could also cut off the poorer residents who can't keep pace. Seeking to dull these ill effects, PDC brainstormed a unique plan--eighteen major anti-displacement projects and assistance programs for small businesses. The idea was unlike what any other major American city had done, say city planners--a comprehensive overhaul to a lower-income neighborhood that revitalizes without displacing. But over the past month, that master plan has fallen apart like a jigsaw puzzle pushed from a tabletop.

The trouble began in November, when a judge declared that PDC had inadvertently and wrongly been drawing money from tax revenue flows. The legal decision, prompted by a lawsuit filed by Shilo Inn, threatened to cut off a significant portion of the revenue to PDC. Since then, PDC has been in an ambiguous state, trying to figure out exactly what the ruling means to their future and the future of their development projects. Last week, reality came into focus. On Wednesday, PDC publicly explained that eighteen of the nineteen projects in North Portland will not move forward.

The one remaining project is the very development that threatens massive displacement in North Portland: the MAX line. By the time the legal decision was announced, construction contracts were already signed and slabs of asphalt were already peeled back from Interstate Blvd in preparation for the new rail line.

The other projects, however, were still largely in the theory stage, still waiting for funding and contracts. Don Mazziotti, Executive Director of PDC, says the choice between which projects to push forward and which to abandon was not a matter of priority, but of reality.

City officials have also tried to make assurances that the change in plans does not necessarily spell disaster, but those assurances have been tempered. "To some degree, the current economic downturn has taken the heat off North Portland," explained Marshall Runkel, assistant to City Commissioner Erik Sten. "Speculators and bottom-of-the-barrel types have less access to capital," said Runkel, referring to land developers who often operate by purchasing homes from low-income residents struggling with mortgage payments and, in turn, selling the houses at large mark-ups.

But city officials have also sheepishly admitted that the cancellation of the anti-displacement projects and homeownership initiatives have left North Portland more vulnerable than ever. What residents and developers agree on is that the fate of North Portland stands at a critical juncture.

"Would North Portland be better off [if the MAX line weren't going in]?" asked one official. "Yes, in some sense, yes."

According to officials at PDC, Commissioner Sten's office is pressuring for a wide-ranging plan that will assure that 200 to 300 current residents are turned from renters to homeowners by 2004. The belief is that homeownership will bring stability to the neighborhoods. Although several ideas that would help current residents have been brought to the table--ranging from direct assistance on down payments to seminars on cleaning up credit reports--so far, officials say, they do not have a definite plan.

"We had anticipated homeownership money," explained Leah Halstead with PDC, "but things have been derailed."

According to Halstead, PDC believes they can assemble several anti-displacement projects by early summer. But, she admits, brainstorming is only one step; they still need funding.

Community Alliance of Tenants has also allegedly hobbled together a plan to help current renters purchase their homes, but was unable to return repeated phone calls to explain their plan.