The Multnomah County Library Promised Equity. It’s Starting in Northwest Portland.

State Rep. Ricki Ruiz (D-Gresham) says east county residents took the campaign at its word.

In November 2020, the Multnomah County Library asked voters to approve a $387 million bond to build a massive new library in east county, renovate or replace eight library branches, and string high-speed internet throughout the system.

To win the support of voters, who later approved the measure 60% to 40%, the bond campaign emphasized the inequities of the current library system.

“Underserved communities need neighborhood libraries with more space for children’s reading programs. In East County, where library space is limited, 1 in 4 children lives in poverty—the highest rate in the state of Oregon.”

State Rep. Ricki Ruiz (D-Gresham) says east county residents took the campaign at its word. “We mobilized a lot of people to show up and vote,” Ruiz says.

Library officials divide the county into five zones. The east zone, which stretches from Interstate 205 to the county line, contains the largest number of county residents and, on a square-foot basis, less than half of library capacity per capita as the rest of the county.

Planning for the bond took years. The architecture firm that produced the plan for spending the money began work in June 2016 and identified the projects—highlighted by a new “flagship” library in east county equal in size to the 103,000-square-foot Central Library.

But despite that long lead time, WW has learned the first land purchased with the new money won’t be anywhere near Gresham, or even on the east side.

Instead, the county library is negotiating the purchase of an 18,000-square-foot building at 2030 NW Pettygrove St. in the Slabtown neighborhood. That’s more than 18 miles west of downtown Gresham.

The Slabtown neighborhood had a median family income of about $80,000 in 2018, according to census data, compared with $50,000 in Gresham.

The current library branch in Northwest, located at 23rd Avenue and Thurman Street, is a rental building of only 4,700 square feet. The plan for the bond identified it as one of the eight branches that needed to be upgraded or replaced, but work was scheduled to occur near the end of the list of projects, after nearly every other branch was finished.

Library spokeswoman Liz Sauer confirmed county officials are in the process of purchasing the Northwest Portland site. (The property last sold for $7.3 million in 2015, but details of the pending transaction remain confidential.)

However, Sauer says that doesn’t mean it’s a higher priority than other projects.

“Site acquisition is not tied to construction sequencing,” she says. “Instead, we want to make sure we do not miss an opportunity to acquire a site that meets an already-identified need.”

Finding space for the east county flagship library is more complicated, Sauer says. “Due to the size and nature of this project, we have some stringent criteria around parcel size and transit access that are primary considerations in our search.”

That doesn’t entirely satisfy state Rep. Andrea Valderrama (D-East Portland), who, like Ruiz, endorsed the bond measure. “I was really excited to see all the focus the bond campaign put on east county,” Valderrama says. “It’s disappointing to hear that the first purchase comes where the need may not be as great as it is out here.”