Think Out Loud

Portland school board agrees to sell headquarters property to Albina Vision Trust

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
Feb. 22, 2024 9:19 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, Feb. 26

Last week, the Portland school board unanimously passed a resolution allowing for the sale of its North Portland district headquarters to the Albina Vision Trust. The local nonprofit has been working to restore the historically Black Albina neighborhood through redevelopment efforts such as the construction of 94 affordable housing units it recently broke ground on. The idea for AVT’s acquisition of the PPS property goes back several years and gained momentum last month when AVT presented its proposal to the PPS board, including a commitment to help the district find a new headquarters location that matches or exceeds the value of its current site. The resolution establishes a timeline of up to one year for a new location to be identified, along with various milestones that must be met. Michelle DePass, a Portland Public Schools Board member who grew up in the Albina neighborhood, and Winta Yohannes, executive director of Albina Vision Trust, join us to discuss the details.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Last week, the Portland Public School Board passed a unanimous resolution allowing for the sale of its district headquarters in North Portland to the Albina Vision Trust. The local nonprofit has been working to restore the historically Black Albina neighborhood since 2017. Under the deal, the nonprofit would help the district find a new headquarters. The old site would be turned into a mixed-use area with 1,000 affordable housing units.

Michelle DePass is a Portland Public School Board member who grew up in the neighborhood. Winta Yohannes is the executive director of Albina Vision Trust. They both join me now. It’s great to have both of you on the show.

Michelle DePass and Winta Yohannes: Great to be here. Thanks for having us.

Miller: Winta first, it’s been a little while since we’ve talked about your nonprofit. Can you remind us what the mission of Albina Vision Trust is?

Yohannes: Sure.  Albina Vision Trust is the largest restorative redevelopment effort in the nation. We seek to rebuild the lower Albina neighborhood in a way that reroutes culture and belonging in a district that was historically home to four out of five Black Portlanders. We know that Albina represents the opportunity to demonstrate what it means to develop at scale, without displacing or disrupting the lives of people who already exist there.

Miller: Your nonprofit has been doing this work for seven or so years now. What do you see as your biggest achievements to date?

Yohannes: There have been many.  I think the most important is the belief that exists now that this is possible for most Portlanders, right? When we first put forward this vision, it was so big, it was so aspirational, that I think there were questions. And in the last few years, we’ve built momentum through breaking ground on our first affordable housing project. We’ve spurred imagination around what can happen in Portland. And I think in general, Portlanders believe that we can do big things and that we can redevelop Albina.

Miller: That’s fascinating. It seems like, in addition to some concrete things, what you’re saying is that the biggest achievement is more public embrace of the vision. So to build a movement, you first start to get people behind you.

Yohannes: Correct. We know it’s not hard to build buildings or even to transact in complex real estate deals. We’ve done that for generations in Portland. What we’ve never accomplished is embracing the idea that our city’s growth will depend on our ability to build around the lives of those most marginalized.

Miller: How does the property that we’ve invited both of you on today to talk about - the current site of PPS’s Central Office - how does that fit into your vision?

Yohannes: It’s absolutely critical. The Portland Public Schools’ Headquarters site is sitting on ten city blocks. So it’s a campus that should be home to more than 3,000 families. And this is the cornerstone of the vision where we will pilot what it means to have child-centered development and create the kinds of places that reflect belonging, where wealth participation is shared broadly. This is the heart of the vision.

Miller: Maybe my number then was incorrect at the beginning, because the number I thought we were dealing with is 1000 affordable housing units. You just had 3,000 families.

Yohannes: 3,000 families in 1,000 units of housing.

Miller: Because there’ll be more than one family within a unit.

Yohannes:  More than one person.

Miller: Okay. Michelle DePass, can you describe the current state of the central office of the PPS Headquarters?

DePass: Sure, are you talking about from a physical facility standpoint or..I can just describe it..

Miller:  Physical. Both what it’s like and what are the problems with it.

DePass: Sure. I’m not sure when the building was constructed, but it’s a very brutalistic-type concrete building with two basements in it, parking, warehouse facilities, public service areas, public meeting places, and is outdated, doesn’t have a lot of natural light in it, etc. The facility feels outdated.

Miller: Is it possible to just have the district fix it up?

DePass: To do so, and we looked at preliminary figures, would cost taxpayers quite a bit of money, upwards of $200 million to fix it up. And as a lover of adaptive reuse, there’s just, architecturally and functionally, not a lot there.

Miller: Winta, the way your organization or nonprofit has described it, it would be a “cost neutral transfer of the headquarters property for the district.” What does that mean? What does “cost neutral” mean, specifically?

Winta Yohannes: Correct. As Michelle alluded to, the district looked at a few different options for addressing the unfunded liability inherent in their building. The district will either have to do something to fix the building or it will have to bond for a failing building in the future. So across the scenarios, the only option where the district is not pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the building is for them to relocate into an existing building.

AVT - Albina Vision Trust - is proposing that this is the time to do it, when real estate market conditions are most favorable for that kind of transaction.

Miller: Maybe because there’s a lot of unused office space right now, because of the pandemic and work from home, and general Portland malaise?

Yohannes: Correct.

Miller: I said it. You didn’t. So, is your offer that you’ll take over their old building and then you will give the district, at no cost to them, a fully, ready-to-move-in headquarters, somewhere on the west side of the river?

Yohannes: Close. We are proposing that we will work with the district to source a competitive deal for an alternate site. The district will use the revenue from the sale of their current building to then acquire the new space and move into it. And that all of this will be on a cost neutral basis to the district.

Miller:  Meaning you’ll make sure that you give them enough money for the old headquarters that they can use that money to fully pay for a new - to them - headquarters, that is seismically okay and that will fit for their needs?

Yohannes: Correct.

Miller: And Michelle, even if there weren’t a question of redressing historical wrongs - and that’s a big “even if,” I want to talk more about what Albina means to you, what this project means to you - not just as a school board member, but even if that weren’t the case, this seems like a no brainer for the district.

Instead of having to pay upwards of $200 million for a renovated central office building, you’ll get one that is in better shape, at no cost. Am I missing something from the district’s perspective?

DePass: I don’t think you are. I think that’s true. The potential of what we can do with the sale of the building and what we can get on the market currently - and we don’t have a location, by the way. I want to make sure that we don’t have locations picked out.

We are in the midst of developing a list of criteria. So we’ll look for a space that has enough parking for a number of employees, enough spaces for a number of employees, and a public meeting space that the tenant improvements can pencil out.  We want to make sure that all of our stakeholders are able to be served.  But also with this transaction.. and the resolution was just to go to transact with Albina Vision Trust, not to buy anything in particular in a particular location.


Miller: It was to go forward, to say…

DePass: ..You can go forward, with a timeline and a process. So we have the potential to do right and do good at the same time. We have the potential to locate staff and employees in a cost neutral way, in a building that has better benefits than the current building.

Miller: Those are reasons why it made sense unanimously for the board to go forward. But there’s also, to me, the question of timing. I mean, folks who were paying attention to PPS issues will hopefully know, there are really serious budget issues right now. The teacher positions, for example, are going to be cut, and there’s…even if Albino Trust is going to be helping out with some of the due diligence here and some of the real estate work, this is still going to take some district resources at a time when you have a lot going on. Where does this fit in terms of the district’s priorities at a challenging time?

DePass:  I want to acknowledge it absolutely is a challenging time, budget wise. And the cost neutrality piece is important to articulate, because the plan is not to have the district pay anything. The plan is for the transaction to pay for itself.

In other words, the sale of the building will go towards the purchase of another building. Anybody that was to read the Daily

Journal of Commerce would be able to look at real estate in the Pearl, for instance, and see that our dollar would go a long way in Portland real estate, and in particular in downtown.

Miller: Let’s just remind folks, if you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now about the plan that’s in the works to transfer Portland Public Schools Central Office, the District Headquarters that’s currently in the old Albina neighborhood, to the Albina Vision Trust. Winta Yohannes is the executive director of the Trust, Michelle DePass is a member of the Portland Public Schools Board. Michelle, let’s go back a little bit. What was the neighborhood like when you were growing up?

DePass: Sure. My grandparents moved into the Albina neighborhood in 1940 and were able to pay off their house within three years and they did that because they had a vision for my mother and her siblings to be able to go to the Catholic school across Broadway. When I was born, the freeway was already in, the Memorial Coliseum was underway, and my grandfather, who didn’t have a car, walked past the PEC every day on his way to work at the train station.

Miller: What’s the PEC?

DePass: That’s the Profit Education Center. It was just renamed last year from the Blanchard Education Center. It’s the big pink building on the east side of the Broadway Bridge.

Miller: He would, he would walk across it…

DePass: He would walk across the Broadway Bridge to work at his job, basically, a waiter on the train leaving from Portland.

Miller: What does it mean to you to be on this school board now? And to be in a position of power, to be a part of the transformation of this area?

DePass: I’ve been involved with the transformation, not as a decision maker, for the last many decades, I don’t want to say…

Miller:  As the other end of it.

DePass: Sure. And when I was growing up, again, nobody had a car. Everything that we did for our family, from buying car insurance to going to the dentist to grocery shopping was done on Williams Avenue, everything essential services were there.

There were Black-owned businesses, cultural institutions, and I remember walking those streets as a child and I also remember walking those streets as a teenager and seeing fires, people’s houses burning down, seeing the loss of the population in the neighborhood, seeing the businesses shuttered.  I’ve seen it.

I actually worked - my first job was on Williams Avenue in 1973. I was not old enough to work then. And so, yeah, I’ve seen the storefronts closing, the neighborhood store closing, the population leaving, and actually we had a family home there, until just recently.

Miller: Can you describe the broader plan you have, and the role that this property is going to play in it?

Yohannes: Yeah, the type of neighborhood that Michelle was describing can’t be recreated, but this offers us the opportunity to think about what it means to build those kinds of neighborhoods for the future, and so on the current Portland Public School site, we envision building the kind of community where there are renters and homeowners, where there are spaces where everyone can keep eyes on the children, where those living in affordable housing will still have million-dollar views of the city, access to the regional waterfront park that is in development by Albina Vision Trust; that we can create a world-class neighborhood where being born in that district will prescribe success for the children that are born and raised in that district, as opposed to the opposite, particularly for Black and Brown children.

Miller: Where is the money for all this coming from?

Yohannes: It’s coming from public and private sources. We’ve become experts at fundraising and mobilizing the kind of capital that is necessary to execute. As I said earlier, the first step is really getting people to dream big and to be able to imagine again the kind of future where everyone is safe and prosperous. Once we believe, then we have found that the next steps are easier.

We’ve already brought $70 million of new investments to the district just in the last four years. So this resolution by the school board is a really important indicator that they are serious about relocating. And this will enable us to continue to fundraise to bring the sources necessary.

Miller: As our listeners may remember, the district still has some undefined plans to move the Harriet Tubman Middle School, which is overlooking I-5, just a tiny bit north and east of the site

you’re talking about. That potential move, or planned, but still without definite plans, where. That move is because of proximity to I-5 and concerns about air pollution. The site you’re talking about is not that much further away, and so I imagine some of the same, even if we’re not talking only about middle schoolers’ lungs, there are still human lungs. How much do you worry about that, when you’re planning for a major new residential neighborhood?

Yohannes: It’s absolutely critical, it’s critical. So, we know that Albina currently not only suffers from the traffic from the freeway, but also, it’s actually an urban heat island because of all the parking lots that have replaced homes, businesses, and cultural centers. So as we think about Albina of the future, we see this as the opportunity to build a district that is climate-friendly, so that has to be a key part of how we plan for the district.

We know from Albina One, which is just east of the Portland Public School site, that the air quality is safe for families living there. So we feel comfortable and confident about the residential redevelopment envisioned at the PPS site. But climate justice has to be at the center of how we move forward.

Miller: You said at the very beginning that Albina Vision Trust is the largest effort in the country of its kind, and the kind of “urban renewal” projects that tore up, especially Black or people of color neighborhoods all over the country, that put freeways where people lived, those happened all over the place.

But what you said is your effort is the largest in the country to reverse that, to address that. Does that mean you don’t have models you can look to, that have already, I was gonna say paved the way, but that seems like... unpaved the way?

Yohannes: No, it’s in Portland and in Albina that we are creating the model. In Lower Albina, we’re looking at 94 acres right on the central city, adjacent to the river, with only a dozen or so property owners, most of whom are public entities; those conditions don’t exist anywhere else. So models we look at in other cities might include components around a freeway cover or river restoration.

Miller: Those happen - “big digs” - in various places have happened.

Yohannes: Yeah, but there’s nowhere else that all of these elements exist together, and nowhere else is a redevelopment vision of this scale so feasible.

Miller: Finally, Michelle DePass, what do you see as the potential impediments to making this work. I mean, this does, in the end, have to pencil out in some way and either be cost neutral or cost very little for the district. What might get in the way of that?

DePass: There’s always a process piece in which you’re working with seven board members and many other stakeholders, by the way, that need to agree to move forward on a timeline and a budget which would ideally and absolutely need to be cost neutral; that can take time to build a coalition, to build understanding. So, timeline, we’re in a very special kind of a market space right now, where we have an opportunity to move at a pace that allows us to take advantage of the market. So I see that being an impediment.

We also need to assure all of the stakeholders that we’re taking employees and families and students into consideration at every step of the way. Ideally, what we end up with, in terms of a building for the district, is better than what we have now, is easy to get to, is transit friendly, has parking places for people that drive, is easily accessible to the public, etc.  The vision is that we’re going from something that’s not great to something that’s great, and at the same time doing something very positive for the community.

Miller: Michelle Depass and Winta Yohannes. Thanks very much.

DePass and Yohannes: Thank you.

Miller: Michelle Depass is a member of the Portland Public School Board. Winter Johannes is the executive director of the Albina Vision Trust.

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