Illustration by Valerie Pensworth

NEIGHBORS ON N WILLIAMS are fighting a development—a project that embodies Portland's shiny new ethos—on the former site of an African American landmark.

For almost 50 years, African American record store House of Sound occupied the corner of N Williams and Beech. In December, developers razed the dilapidated building to make way for the Albert Apartments, a 72-unit complex that may qualify for a $1.12 million city tax break thanks to its sustainable, transit-oriented designs.

Four different groups of neighbors and historical preservationists appealed the tax break at city council last week, arguing that the planned four-story apartment and commercial space does not fit the character of the community nor does it create a public benefit worth subsidizing. At the heart of neighbors' anger is their distaste for perceived gentrification.

"It's not like this is some real amenity for the neighborhood, it's a commercial apartment building. This is a land grab," says Tracy Olson, who filed one of the four appeals—Olson lives near the controversial corner and owns Random Order Coffeehouse on NE Alberta. "When I talk to my neighbors about it, they're like, 'Well, what are we going to do?' Which is a sad thing for people who own the neighborhood, not monetarily but culturally."

The House of Sound was an African American cultural keystone before it closed its doors in 2001.

"Everyone who loved music had to go to the record store because our type of music wasn't played on the radio. It was the most popular business on the street," says David Dawson, who owned the store from 1967-1973. "Communities were much stronger then."

While many locals considered the building historic, the business owner never applied for any official "historic" designation in 2001.

Developer Jack Menashe of Ruben J. Menashe, Inc., says he was shocked to learn that neighbors cared about the place. "The building was derelict in every respect, there was unbelievable graffiti inside, lots of needle use, people sleeping on the floor. Those buildings didn't look like anyone cared about them, nobody seemed to care about it until it was gone."

"I think that when the community wakes up one morning and important buildings are gone, that's a signal to people that change is coming very fast," says Cathy Galbraith, who appealed the apartments' design on behalf of the Architectural Heritage Center. "They're wiped away and what's proposed to replace them is a massive 72-unit apartment building that makes no effort to be compatible with the neighborhood."

While neighbors criticize the height, small sidewalk setbacks, and "ugly" design of the new apartments, the planned Albert Apartments are actually smaller than the area's maximum zoned limits. The development falls within the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard Transit Corridor, which is zoned for high-density development.

Several design elements qualify the Albert Apartments for a 10-year tax abatement, according to developer Menashe: 18 of the 72 apartments will qualify as low-income housing, they will be LEED silver certified and the commercial space will help cluster new businesses in the area.

"With all the vacant lots in this area, there's going to be a lot of tall things going on," says Menashe. "But we're the first ones in the door and we're putting this area's zoning on the neighborhood's radar."

The promise of new businesses and apartment clusters sounds like gentrification to African American neighbors, says Sylvia Evans, cross-cultural neighborhood organizer with the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods. "What they did to House of Sound is what's being done to the entire street. All that history isn't being respected because all the people who ran that neighborhood don't live there anymore," says Evans.

Mayor Sam Adams wound up not approving the tax break in council last week, but referred the project to Commissioner Nick Fish's office for further review. Meanwhile former House of Sound owner Dawson takes a cynical, matter-of-fact view of the changing neighborhood.

"It's the same old story," he says. "The money comes in and people make choices."