The empty lot on the corner of Martin Luther King Blvd. and Alberta St. in Northeast Portland may soon be home to a new development, again, or not. Early in February, Trader Joe’s decided to dismiss the project to build on the vacant lot when construction plans were met with negative reactions and community concern about the store propelling gentrification issues in the northeast neighborhood. Portland Mayor Charlie Hales planned to re-address the Northeast Portland’s community gentrification issues this Monday in Los Angeles in an impromptu meeting with Trader Joe’s officials, but early Friday evening TJ’s head office called Hales’ office and regrettably postponed the meeting due to scheduling conflict, but they did not reschedule.
Back in November, the Portland Development Commission, who owns the long-vacant land, secured a deal to sell the land to a California-based developer, the Majestic Realty Co., a Roski billion dollar development company, for only $500,00, much less than the recent property tax appraisal indicated. The property is net worth about $2.9 million. However the city was excited for the deal, because the corner location was considered to be a “food desert,” and the northeast quadrant of the city had long-awaited a Trader Joe’s grocery store in the area. Majestic’s $8 million plan was to develop the two-acre site into a Trader Joe’s, a 100-space parking lot,and enough retail space to house four to ten businesses. Also a minority-based, Portland contracting company, Colas Construction, was slated by Hayes and the PDC to head the construction.
As early as December, the Portland African American Leadership Forum professed strong disapproval with the project, addressing the issue that the PDC’s business plan was not “transparent,” and they feared a Trader Joe’s in that specific northeast location would “further contribute to gentrification in the neighborhood.” A month later, Portland’s NAACP branch supported PAALF’s position and requested suspension of the project “until all impacted parties have had a chance to be respectfully heard.”
Considering the dissension from community advocates, Trader Joe’s executives respectfully declined becoming part of the development. The company stated in an email to the Oregonian that when choosing store locations, they deliberately develop sites with success potential. “We run neighborhood stores and our approach is simple: if a neighborhood does not want a Trader Joe’s, we understand, and we won’t open the store in question.”
Overall, the news was considered “a loss for the city and particularly for Northeast Portland,” city leaders said. “Moving forward, we will be communicating with the various stakeholders: Including those who wanted this development and who were excited about it, and those who didn’t want it to happen. It is too soon to say what comes next for this site. We will work with the full range of stakeholders to determine the next steps.” city officials said.
PAALF members have administered two community forums since Trader Joe’s withdrawal, and supporters of the grocery store’s opening in the area took the opportunity to express their disapproval and disappointment with the interactions that ensued unravelling TJ’s commitment. However, advocates that spear-headed the opposition recanted that it was not the grocer’s business that fueled their protest. It was the city’s extended history of displacing African-Americans. “The Majestic deal is the just the latest in this long history,” Avel Gordly, former state senator, said in a press conference regarding the issue.
During the meetings, PAALF members re-addressed previous demands they had with the PDC which included affordable housing components on the vacant site that were not present in the Majestic business plan. PAALF also requested that the PDC administer small business assistance to community-owned store fronts in Vanport Plaza, the development a block north that sprang up within the last decade, invested in by owners who wanted to provide capital for the community. Executive director of Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives nonprofit, Maxine Fitzpatrick, who is also a spokeswoman for Vanport Plaza business owners, said her concern is that the PDC has exhausted its end of the bargain considering promises made, but not yet kept. She believes the onus is on the PDC to pursue “restorative policies” in order to make it up to the community.
PAALF claims if perhaps the PDC or Majestic had committed to offering affordable housing within the site development, the plan might have continued without controversy. Neighbors began to worry that since Trader Joe’s removed itself from the project that the PDC might not even be able to administer the community’s demands.
In an attempt to settle differences and give both the northeast community what they asked for and the city of Portland what it wanted, Hales brought together 50 leaders, including PAALF and NAACP leaders, from within the area to discuss the project and come to a consensus one way or another. By the end of the meeting, the consensus strongly proposed Hales do whatever he could and “go get Trader Joe’s.” The Portland chapter president of the NAACP, said opposition for the development was overturned, because the project refocused its intentions, which will bring “economic empowerment and opportunities for all.”
Hales finally succeeded to secure an appointment date with Trader Joe’s leaders after a few weeks of dismissals, and a trip to reconvene was scheduled for Monday, Mar. 24. A PDC official was expecting to go along with Hales, and they planned on packing a lot of punching power. “We’re going down with a lot of leverage,” Hales stated. However, the mayor was aware of what he called a “puncher’s chance” in persuading the grocer’s to re-evaluate their choice. Hales also tried to engage the president of Colas Construction, Andrew Colas, the selected general contractor for the $8 million development, in the ongoing activities, but Colas involvement is yet to be determined. Whether or not representatives from Majestic planned to attend is also unknown.
If and when the meeting is rescheduled, Hales contends to ask for $20 million extra in urban renewal subsidies devoted to affordable housing within the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area, a north Portland neighborhood, as well as affordable housing within the development, which PAALF had demanded. Even with the particular gentrification issues having been re-addressed by the mayor, the PDC, and the advocacy groups, it may take more than city politics for Northeast Portland to regain the interest of Trader Joe’s.
By Stacy Feder