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Portland Leaders Look To Spread The Renewal Wealth Around

Portland leaders are looking at a new way to help an area that’s suffered the effects of gentrification, by taxing one of the chief beneficiaries.

The idea would re-define the controversial concept of “urban renewal.” And, as Rob Manning reports, the plan could add a new way for school districts struggling to manage booming student enrollment.

Commissioner Erik Sten’s idea is to create a direct connection between opposite ends of Portland, both geographically – and financially. For years, the big financial winners in the city of Portland have been businesses and investors just north of downtown in the Pearl, or River District. Sten says that’s created negative consequences elsewhere.

Erik Sten: “In this economy, for the foreseeable future, when the city fixes up the River District, we actually, whether we like it or not, we keep fueling displacement. We push people out, because prices go up.”

Sten argues that the people who are moving are disproportionately of modest income, and often have families. One of Sten’s ideas is to send money to where families are going.

The David Douglas School District has seen student enrollment grow by 36 percent in the last ten years. Many of them are from poor families, displaced by gentrification.

Gilbert Park Elementary is a small school building, bursting at the seams with more than 630 students. School administrator, Andy Long, says Gilbert Park has to send so many kids through their small cafeteria, they run six lunch periods that are just twenty minutes long.

At 11:30, he’s working on getting the kindergartners out.

Andy Long: “We’re trying to get these guys out to recess, and we’re getting our fifth graders in, sometimes it gets congested, so we’re working on that. Having these guys leave a little early.”

Rob: “So, by leaving a little early that means, they wouldn’t even get a full 20 minutes?”

Andy Long: “Um, yeah, you could say that, sometimes. I mean we try to give them as much time as they need.”

Down the hall, three kindergarten classrooms have about thirty students in them, each. Administrators say that teachers emphasize orderly and organized classrooms, to deal with their numbers.

From classroom: “If you're at Mrs. Jensen's table, you're going to walk to the animal table, and draw your favorite animal…”

School improvement coordinator, Andy Long, says it's not just the number of students, but the number who come from difficult home environments.

Andy Long:  “You know, for the teacher, to be able to engage, 32, may not seem like much of a difference from 26, 24 to 32, but it can be, especially depending on the students that you have.”

Paying for teachers is not the problem. As enrollment at David Douglas rises, it gets more money on a per-student basis from the state funding formula. The problem is that the district needs more classroom space.

That’s where Commissioner Erik Sten says the city should step in. What he’s proposing is adding a small part of the David Douglas school district to the River District urban renewal area – clear across the city. It would tap into the hundreds of millions of dollars created by the Pearl District.

Erik Sten: “Let’s take some of the money that’s been created, and hit some of the issues that it’s caused. Nothing’s all good or bad, and good redevelopment in the central city does push lower income people out to the fringes, so this does have a direct tie.”

Sten’s proposal is popular with leaders at David Douglas.

Sten would add  about half of this 15-acre property in East Portland to the existing urban renewal district in the Pearl.

This hillside is owned by the David Douglas school district. But Superintendent Barbara Rommel says right now, the district can’t afford to build anything here.

Barbara Rommel: “You know, the money that we have is dedicated to operating costs.”

Rob: “And the last attempt the district made to pass a bond…”

Barbara Rommel: “We put a $45 million bond before voters in the fall of 2006, and the voters in the area definitely said ‘no’, they didn’t want to have that kind of obligation.”

Meantime, the district continues to grow. Drive along Southeast 122nd, or Powell Boulevard, and infill developments are everywhere. Rommel says a new elementary school along Johnson Creek would shrink class size from an average of 28 kids.

Barbara Rommel: “Those are high numbers, and so by having a school that would accommodate another 600 students that would allow for a reduction – it isn’t probably as much as you might think – especially if you anticipate that the area is going to continue to grow, but it would make a reduction of those numbers and have a little more space in the existing buildings, too.”

The plan may not be an easy sell, though. For one, the city hasn’t tried a satellite renewal addition like this before. Commissioner Sten argues the city’s renewal agency set the precedent already by having a renewal area that ties together industrial areas on either side of the Willamette River.

Erik Sten: “Now I’m making a bigger policy jump as to why these things make sense, but legally it’s the same thing.”

Officials at the Portland Development Commission say they’re still looking at the legal ramifications of creating such a satellite. The discussion is certainly not over, and business groups haven’t weighed in, yet.

Portland Business Alliance spokeswoman Megan Doern says her group is interested in tweaking urban renewal, but not in the same way.

Megan Doern: “We have not reviewed the commissioner’s proposal, but in fact, the alliance has been working with the task force to develop on another innovative approach to urban renewal areas.”

The business group suggests essentially re-configuring the current River District in a contiguous renewal area. But she says, it could be set up to send more money to city and county budgets than it does currently.

The plans will likely come before city officials this winter, as part of two broad discussions – one about schools and housing, and the other about how the city uses urban renewal money.

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