In an attempt to right a wrong five decades in the making, the City of Portland and Legacy Health announced a development Tuesday aimed at rebuilding the city's relationship with its African American community.
City leaders say the proposed project — in the historic heart of the city's black community — will be comprised of affordable housing, a community center and support for the area's cultural assets.
They also said it would help promote existing and returning African American businesses to gentrified Northeast Portland.
"It goes without saying that Portland's history around race is not always a pretty one," said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler during a news conference announcing the project. "There have been episodes in our history that we are forced to confront and forced to reckon with."
During the early 1970s, the Portland Development Commission purchased and condemned nearly 200 properties to make way for an expanded hospital that never materialized on the lots.
That decision displaced more than 170 mostly African-American families.
"The urban renewal process in this community did indeed destroy the heart of the African-American community, resulting in a long-standing wound that we’re here to attempt to heal," said Dr. George Brown, president and CEO of Legacy Health.
The site of the proposed development is on a 1.7-acre field at the corner of North Williams and North Russell avenues. It's owned by Legacy Health.
The area along Portland's North Vancouver and Williams avenues have been at the center of the city's gentrifying inner North and Northeast neighborhoods.
In the years since the Great Recession, the trend of tearing down the neighborhood's old homes and replacing them with apartments and high-end condos has only increased.
Developers have said they're trying to ease the city's housing crunch. But many longtime residents say the types of housing developers continue to build isn't affordable — further exacerbating the decades old problem.
"In thinking about it, today's announcement is grounded in our collective recognition of a painful history that continues to impact our community today," said Kimberly Branam, executive director of Prosper Portland, the city's economic and urban development agency formerly known as the Portland Development Commission.
Branam acknowledged the agency she now leads was responsible for demolishing homes in the 1970s, "largely to the detriment of the African-American community."
"While this terrible chapter in the city's history does not represent who we are today, or how we do work, what happened then must and will continue to inform how we move forward alongside community members," she said.
While recognizing one project can't fix the past, Branam promised this development would be different.
"We are also hopeful that a project that is grounded in a shared commitment to Portland's African-American community and to the health of individuals and families can promote community healing," she said.
The development is the first major one Prosper Portland has undertaken since announcing its new name in May.
"Its focus will be on equitable development and equitable opportunity," Wheeler said. "This should send a strong signal to the community at large: that this is the direction that we choose to go."
This summer, the city and Prosper Portland will create a working group to guide the development. That group will begin taking community input this fall.
Construction at the site is expected to begin in 2019.
"This is not an attempt to make up for what has been done. We don't get the privilege to revise history," said Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capuia, a board commissioner with Prosper Portland. "Now is the time to move forward and actually do something about it."