Over 70 East Portland residents recently packed into the cafeteria at Ron Russell Middle School, located just south of Powell Boulevard on Southeast 112th Avenue, to provide input on the efforts of the Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability to explore viable and sustainable ways to improve the Southeast 122nd Avenue corridor. The corridor consists of the land within a quarter mile east and west of Southeast 122nd Avenue that is south of Division Street and north of Foster Road.

The aptly named Southeast 122nd Avenue Pilot Project stems from the City’s 2007 East Portland Action Plan. In it this specific area is identified as a place to initiate the “20-minute neighborhood” concept noted in the Portland Plan, an update of the City’s Comprehensive plan that is currently in progress. Through East Portland Action Plan dollars, Lents Urban Renewal dollars, and a grant from the Northwest Health Foundation, the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability has been charged with exploring ways to create a viable, sustainable and healthy area within the Southeast 122nd corridor. They are doing this by looking into possible changes in land use, transportation and connectivity, and development design issues in multi-dwelling, residential and commercial zones within the area.

The SE 122nd Avenue Pilot Project Study Area

“This project first started when the city created the district liaison program about five years ago,” said Barry Manning, a district planner with the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability who was the original district liaison for East Portland. “I heard a lot about infill and infrastructure issues due to the rapid residential growth in the area.”

He continued, “Due to these concerns we decided to implement a program that we think will not only identify the problems, but will also help come up with solutions.”

As the Northwest Health Foundation became aware, and eventually involved, with the project an element of health was added to the initiative.

“The health community caught wind of this idea and approached us to see if we took social health determinants into account in this study,” he said. “Not being health experts, we decided to team up with them to start talking with the community about ways to improve health through infrastructure redevelopment.”

Many neighbors attended the February 23rd Community Workshop

The “20 minute neighborhood” is the idea that residents living within a specific district should be able to have most all of their basic needs met without having to leave the district. This means that schools, businesses, homes, services and community spaces are all within the “20 minute neighborhood”.

“We thought 122nd Avenue was the perfect place for this pilot program because its history is fairly rural, but it is evolving into a much more urban area, so it really encapsulates the idea of rapid growth,” said Manning.

The project officially kicked-off last July when members of the bureau and neighborhood residents got together for a series of neighborhood walks over two months. Neighbors were asked to identify what they would like to see along the streets they walked. Once these walks were complete, neighbors got together for two separate workshops/open houses, the second of which took place February 23.

This is how SE 122nd study area looks today

The project is driven by four groups: a community working group (neighborhood and business representatives), an underrepresented communities group, health partners working group and a youth planners group (charged with finding out how the youth envision the community and what they want to see happen).

Early on in the process neighbors were asked to take a survey where they ranked how pertinent certain issues were to this area. Results showed that neighbors felt the biggest issues in their neighborhood were:

1. Access, connections and pedestrian issues
2. Community amenities and livability
3. Convenience and availability of services
4. Infill development

“What we found was that people really do use the amenities that they have in the neighborhood, but find themselves having to travel out of the area to do specific shopping,” he said. “And in a lot of cases, even the amenities offered within the area were not conveniently located.”

Shops and services are primarily located at two key intersections.

The bureau took the opportunity during the December open house to find out what amenities community members wanted to see in the area. There was a strong desire for new grocery options, a pharmacy and a local coffee shop. But, there was also a strong desire to make better connections to the things that are already in the area, like: Zenger Farm, Leach Botanical Garden and the Springwater Corridor.

While the December workshop focused on what residents wanted to see come to the neighborhood, the February workshop focused more on technical changes that can make it easier to obtain these desires. The bureau provided options, and asked for input, on four topics: land use framework, residential infill design, streetscape design, and community livability.

Population density had been a major concern at past meetings so Manning proposed three new land use frameworks and showed them next to the current framework. The new land use frameworks all accounted for the same amount of overall density, but each had specific zoning in slightly different locations depending on how the neighbors envisioned the area. The three new land use frameworks suggested either a greater influence on mixed-use development, commercial development at intersection centers or higher density residential on 122nd Avenue.

Some of the new high density housing proposed within the study area

“We need to try and balance density between the main streets and the neighborhoods,” he said. “People have mentioned that they want less density and more shops. But, can the area handle more shops with less residential density? We need to find out what people want, if it can actually happen and what it will take to make it happen.”

The general consensus of those in attendance was that they wanted the density rolled back, which is a hard thing to accomplish. When the area was first annexed by the city in the nineties residents switched from septic systems to the city’s sewer system. This allowed for higher density zoning with relatively low property costs. Developers saw this trend and quickly took advantage of it.

“I have seen residential development for years now, but where is the job development and public services?” asked Annette Mattson, a 30-year resident of the area and member of the community working group for the pilot project. “Take our schools for example. They have 2,000 more students packed into them today then they did 15-years ago.”

Many of the side streets lack the infrastructure needed to
make the area pedestrian friendly

The idea behind the three new land use concepts is that each one helps promote business growth in a different way, depending on how the residents envision their community. While attracting business to 122nd Avenue will bring people to it, the attractiveness of the street and its surrounding will keep people coming back. Due to this, Manning turned the focus of the workshop to infill design.

Considering a lot of infill issues, like zoning issues, are dealt with at the citywide level, BPS proposed six different areas of infill that could possibly be enforced at the neighborhood level. These were wider setbacks, usable open spaces, tree preservation, on-site parking, street orientation and architectural detail. Audience members were asked to rate the importance of each in the major corridors (SE 122nd, Division, Powell and Foster) and in the neighborhood areas.

During this discussion Manning showed the audience aerial photographs of two separate properties. One depicted a lot that put a priority on parking, while the other lot put a priority on on-site open space.

Once the image appeared, Mattson stood up and asked, “Why does it always have to be more parking spaces or more trees? Can’t we compromise and have both?”

A strong round of applause from the audience followed these questions. One concern that was expressed numerous times was that the residential development has taken away a large number of the community’s douglas fir population, the iconic tree for the area (the local high school, David Douglas, is named after the botanist who first discovered the douglas fir tree).

SE 122nd lacks the streetscape needed to make it pedestrian friendly.

Manning acknowledged this issue and turned the conversation towards streetscape design as a possible solution to these issues. Currently, 122nd Avenue has two lanes going in each direction and a travel/turning lane in the center. BPS suggested five alternative streetscape designs that would make the street more attractive and inviting. While each would slightly take away from the functionality of the street, it would greatly improve the street image. These included:

1. Street tree sidewalk enhancements
2. Median streetscape design
3. Streetcar streetscape design
4. Greenstreet, bike and pedestrian enhancement

While the feasibility of each is in question, every single concept accomplished two of the issues brought up by community members: visual improvements to 122nd and tree enhancement.

While most of these concepts and ideas are merely talking points, they do get community members and city government on the same page and working towards the same goals. The feedback from both of the workshops, as well as the neighborhood walks, will all go into a final written recommendation by BPS that will eventually be presented to the city.

“All this work is evolutionary,” said Manning. “Even though a lot of this stuff can’t happen tomorrow, this is a necessary part of the process so they can happen in the future.”

Most would agree that this pilot program is a step in the right direction. But, some neighbors are proceeding with caution because they feel East Portland doesn’t get the representation they deserve considering they make up a quarter of the population.

“I’m hopeful but I’m cautious because the previous promises to East Portland haven’t always been met,” said Mattson. “I just hope this is the start of a new relationship between City Hall and East Portland.”

She continued, “Sometimes I feel like we don’t do a good enough job talking about why we love to live in this area, and this program has made us do that. When we talk about the negatives we forget about the incredible diversity, great natural areas and the high quality of the schools in the area.”

Get involved and make your opinion heard!

Anyone looking to get involved in the 122nd Avenue Pilot Project should visit the web site: http://www.portlandonline.com/bps/index.cfm?c=50636. Or call Barry Manning at BPS: 503.823.7700.