‘Best use’ of historic Lents Little League site pondered by PDC

Neighbors were hoping for a grocery store, and other retail stores; but, see why it looks like this 3.5 acre site will bring outer East Portland more high-density housing instead …

PDC’s project manager for the site, Justin Douglas, says it’s likely that high-density housing will be the chosen use for the Lents Little League site.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
While Lents has been an Urban Renewal District for years – many folks in the area are wondering when they’ll actually see some tangible results.

The most visible changes thus far have been the addition of lighting in Lents Park, the now-fading storefront improvements along SE Foster Road and SE 92nd Avenue, and the new Assurity building.

A lot of residents say they pinned their hopes for a major grocery or large retail store – there isn’t one for miles around – on the 3.5-acre lot now occupied by the Lents Little League field on SE 92nd Avenue at SE Harold Street.

PDC holds exploratory open house
We met Justin Douglas, project manager for the SE 92nd & Harold Redevelopment Project, with Portland Development Commission (PDC), at an open house held at the Wattles Boys & Girls Club – a facility that borders the property.

“This is the first of three public open houses,” Douglas told us. “We’re looking at this site, owned by the PDC, and trying to figure what can be done. The Lents Little League is moving up to Lents Park; they’re having new facilities built up there for them.”

Douglas stated that the Wattles Boys & Girls Club would stay put. “We’re trying to figure out what will be complimentary to the Lents Town Center and the surrounding neighborhood, and will take advantage of the new MAX station and the proximity to I-205.”

High-density housing looks likely
We ask what the PDC has in mind for this, the largest empty parcel of land in the district, other than the privately-owned “Freeway Land” property.

“We image it will be a mix of uses,” replied Douglas. “At this point we have a consultant who has been doing a market study. There is definitely a possibility for residential use. The market for retail and commercial uses is not as strong; retail traffic is a concern at this site. Whatever happens at this site needs to pay respect to the traffic concerns. It will be something that doesn’t make the traffic inordinately worse.”

The PDC official said that current zoning allows for between 75 to 125 units on the site. “We’re exploring changing the zoning to allow for more units. But again, what will keep this from being an ultra-dense project is the traffic concerns.”

We ask how the development’s design might relate to the new MAX Green Line that runs past it.

“I’m glad you pointed that out,” Douglas responded. “We’d like to think that people who live and work at a site like this would take advantage of light rail. It is a stone’s throw away from the site. Whatever goes here can take advantage of it. We’ll do whatever we can do to encourage that.”

“Will this residential development include Section 8 housing?” we ask.

Douglas sidesteps the question, replying, “Our intention, at some point in 2008, through a RFP process, is to see what private development would like to do with this site. The PDC doesn’t want to hold it forever. We’d like to dispose of it to a private developer.”

Neighbor Jeff Poling tells an acquaintance why he’s enthusiastic about the property’s development during the open house.

Suggested development gets mixed response
“I’m thrilled about the future plans for the area,” is what neighbor Jeff Poling told us. “It will bring people into the community. Even with the increased density … it’s not a bad thing at all.”

Poling says he looks forward to an increase in traffic to his home-based business at 5411 SE 92 Avenue (at Harold Street), the “Green Line Barbershop”.

“I’ve been here for three years,” commented Poling. “I’ve seen tremendous change and renovation. I think this area is being recognized and appreciated more, as these things are happening.”

Concerned about high density housing
Speaking only for himself, Dewey Acres, president of the Lents Neighborhood Association, expressed reservations. “My concern is that we need to stay focused on mixed-use for this site. The [Portland City] Council’s objectives are not quite in concert with that. They are heavily focused on creating low-income housing. And that’s not appropriate for this site.”

Acres continued, “The most exciting opportunities are for a mixed-use development that will help further the goal of developing the Lents Town Center. This is really only one of the sites available for that purpose.”

At the beginning of his presentation, PDC consultant Jerry Johnson let neighbors know that retail development of the Lents Little League is not likely.

Consultant disparages retail use
During a brief, formal presentation by PDC’s consultant, Jerry Johnson of Johnson Gardner LLC, he told the group, “We don’t see this as a phenomenal retail site. We don’t want to take away from the retail energy of the center as a whole.

“We’re thinking ‘condos’. It may be a short term before we see a demand for condominium development. We’re still seeing pretty good strength in town homes, as far as ownership for sale. The rental apartment market is actually getting better. Industrial isn’t a viable use of the site; that is better for the Freeway Land site.

“If you take a look at constituent land use, there’s a scenario [in which] people are really looking at this area; [it has] really good locational criteria; the location makes sense. Light rail is going to help a lot to get high value for residential and as well as office space.

“Unfortunately, we are in a ‘market pause’ right now. I think that there aren’t a lot of short-term opportunities. But I think the next few years will be Lents’ turn, to some extent. I think there will be a lot more attention paid to development in the region, in the investment community. . .

“I think this area will be coming around. We see residential [housing] is making the most sense; then, in a limited fashion, office; and, in an even more limited fashion, retail. Probably a range of residential uses could work between ownership and rental. We’ve been asked about senior housing; that works quite well.”

Jerry Johnson says he envisions a mix of mostly residential units, mixed with some office space, at the Lents site.

Questions answered
A neighbor says, “If you are leaning toward residential instead of retail, where will people shop for groceries, get dry cleaning done? It looks like it’s being left more wide open for low income set-aside. This doesn’t seem like a positive thing at all. I’m curious why we’re not talking more mixed use, not less.”

Johnson responded, “All those things you’re talking about are great. We’d like to see that. Years ago we looked for ways to get a major grocery store to anchor it. [The site] is a little off the main road. The freeway interchange is good for them. But they favor arterials like 82nd.”

Another attendee stated, “Then it sounds like you’re gearing your development towards more auto-related services when, in fact, it is better suited for public transportation, not automobile access.”

“We’re not looking into auto-oriented development,” replied Johnson. “One of the things we’re looking at is a more pedestrian-oriented sustainable environment. If we’re doing commercial, we want the commercial [development] to compliment the remainder of the district. That is, not to pull too much weight down here. A medical office could work. It could be a mix of uses; we anticipate a mix of uses.

“Because PDC has control the site, there is more latitude to, you know, work with the market to [find] something that the community is happy with. That’s why they’re doing these efforts to reach out to the community to see what they’re looking for. I’m not advocating any development type. My role in this is to make sure that the numbers we come up with in the development type is something we can interest a developer in. If we [create a project] that nobody has an interest in building, it will become a fenced-off, vacant lot.”

Says survey is ‘loaded’
One neighbor bristled at the fact the questionnaire was highly structured to focus on questions that the PDC was asking. She said she was hoping for a more open-ended questionnaire which would allow people to express their “lifestyle and neighborhood character” concerns.

PDC officials thanked the woman, and all who attended the meeting for participating and asked that they continue to give their input regarding the project.

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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