This Is Lents

Does this long-neglected neighborhood really need a new minor league baseball stadium?

Photos By Jarod Opperman

Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Beavers baseball team, says his proposal to bring a minor league stadium to Lents "puts that neighborhood on the map."

He calls his public-private venture with the city "a major transformational opportunity that's the biggest one in the history of this area."

Last week, Commissioner Randy Leonard tried to make that same pitch in front of a mostly hostile and unreceptive crowd, in a Lents elementary school cafeteria with handpainted sea creatures climbing the walls and piles of styrofoam trays clogging trash bins.

"Having a Triple-A baseball stadium would be the best thing we could ever have happen in Lents," Leonard told dozens of neighbors.

(TOP) A SHOW OF HANDS: Most people who attended a neighborhood meeting in Lents May 20 opposed the stadium deal. (BOTTOM LEFT) SIA SELLU: A Lents resident criticized the project at Lent Elementary School. (BOTTOM RIGHT) RANDY LEONARD: The city commissioner says the more others oppose the stadium, the more he wants it.

Leonard, who represented Lents in the Oregon Legislature in the late 1990s, found support at the meeting from Damien Chakwin, president of the Lents Neighborhood Association. An imposing 44-year-old man with a goatee, a sparkling bald head, and tan lines from a pair of sunglasses etched into his temples, Chakwin chastised a neighbor who questioned the deal and who, in the process, called Lents by its derogatory nickname "Felony Flats." Earlier, Chakwin dismissed naysayers, saying, "I group them with the people who think the world is flat."

But there is wide disagreement among residents about the possible impacts of the stadium—positive and negative—on the neighborhood. Emotions were running high at the meeting May 20 when Sia Sellu stood up to voice her opposition to the project. "This makes me feel very angry, because it feels like we're being steamrolled," she said.

Just about the only thing people in Lents can agree on is that their neighborhood has long felt like the "redheaded stepchild" of Portland. "We've been here all these years, and it's time for the city of Portland to realize we're here," says longtime neighborhood activist Judy Welch.

Neither the poorest neighborhood in Portland nor the most dangerous, Lents still suffers from material and political neglect. Interstate 205 splits the neighborhood in two, and many Portlanders would be hard-pressed to locate Lents on a map.

But there are signs Lents is emerging from the shadows. "A lot of good things have been happening in Lents over the past few years, and most residents of Lents would say the neighborhood is improving," says state Rep. Ben Cannon (D-Portland), whose district stretches from Laurelhurst to Lents. "It's a safer place, and it's a more livable community than it was even a few years ago."

And while elected officials like Mayor Sam Adams and Leonard say the stadium would be worth the public investment, there is evidence that using that money to build the stadium could actually hinder the progress that's already under way in Lents.

"They feel like it's their time right now," says Alan Stubbs, a loan officer with the Portland Development Commission who helps small businesses in Lents with money set aside for the neighborhood by City Council. "[The stadium] would basically devastate our budget and hamper our ability to help small businesses. If our budget gets blasted by this, we could be sitting there with an empty building and no budget to attract businesses. That to me would just be horrible for Lents."

On a recent Friday night, a small group of Lents residents gathered at the aptly named Lents Crossroads Plaza around 6:30 pm.

To some Lents residents, the neighborhood always feels as if it's at a juncture. Over the years, it's been visited periodically by Portland's power brokers, who have all vowed to make Lents more livable—and more visible. As recently as 2006, Leonard was promising to make way for a New Seasons or Trader Joe's, an effort that ultimately failed but that he hasn't given up on.

The Plaza is not grand. It's basically a small expanse of bricks, about the size of a typical Portland home lot, on the corner of Southeast 92nd Avenue and Foster Road near the landmark New Copper Penny nightclub, where cars whiz by after exiting I-205. If Portland filmmakers ever needed a street corner that looked like the Eastern Bloc, the Lents Crossroads would be a perfect fit.

Jeff Rose, a former TriMet bus driver who lives around the corner in a home he bought after moving from the Hawthorne District five years ago, organized the gathering—a weekly event he started this spring as a way of reclaiming the streets of Lents. It's sort of like Critical Mass, with neighbors playing pingpong together instead of riding bikes. Only, borrowing from Walt Disney, Rose calls what his neighbors are doing "urban imagineering," an attempt to conjure a bustling urban landscape.

It's not quite there. There is still no full-service grocery store inside Lents' borders. Five percent of the city's unpaved roads are in Lents even though it accounts for less than 3 percent of all city streets.

But the signs of Lents' revitalization are noticeable. It's just that they're small and, for the most part, not very sexy. Think curb enhancements along busy streets, renovated Little League fields and new coats of paint on dilapidated storefronts. In other words, motorists speeding along Lents' busiest roads, like Foster Road and Holgate Boulevard, aren't likely to detect the changes.

But to residents of Lents they're like tiny wildflowers sticking up from the cracks in the sidewalk after a long, long winter. "The change does happen so slowly it's easy to believe it's not happening, but I do notice things," Rose says.

Many of those changes trace back to a critical 1998 decision by the Portland City Council.

Eleven years ago, City Hall decided to create an "urban renewal area" in and around Lents to combat "blight."

The purpose of urban renewal areas is to take taxes from increasing property values and put them in a separate pot from the city's general fund. The money is then supposed to be used to spur more development within those areas. In the past decade, the Portland Development Commission has used such funds to support small businesses, mixed-use developments and to buy older buildings to make way for new uses.

In 2008, a decrepit strip club on the corner of 92nd Avenue and Woodstock Boulevard—just a few steps from an apartment complex where Woody Guthrie's family lived in 1941 while the folk singer wrote songs for the Bonneville Power Administration—was torn down.

A sex shop on Foster Road adjacent to the Crossroads Plaza has been turned into a craft store specializing in recycled works.

Assurety Northwest, an insurance agency that used to be based in Gresham, built new headquarters down the street from the craft store with the help of PDC. It now employs about 50 people.

Le Sorelle Cafe, a lunch and breakfast spot that would look equally comfortable in the Pearl, opened in the Assurety building last July.

And Ararat, an Armenian bakery with a restaurant that doubles as a disco where "DJ Boris" spins records on weekends, opened in 2008 in a 28,000-square-foot storefront.

And those are just the businesses.

In September, TriMet will inaugurate a light rail line abutting I-205. For a contribution of $5 million from the urban renewal district, Lents will get four stops.

Kristina Lake, a real-estate agent who was living in Tualatin in 2005, bought a house a couple of blocks from Lents Park, where the stadium would go, because the home was in an urban renewal district. She saw the potential for grassroots change then, and she sees the incremental results of that now. She's dead set against the stadium and wants to spend money instead on projects that are far less grand, like Lents' transportation infrastructure around the new light-rail stations. It's in those smaller, neighborhood-driven projects that Lake, a former president of the neighborhood association, sees the real possibility for economic development. "I do think eventually we'll reach the point where we'll be able to tip the scale and people will take notice," she says.

Leonard, Adams and Paulson say a stadium will tip the balance in favor of Lents.

To do that, however, they say they need $42.3 million from Lents' urban renewal district, which would amount to nearly the full cost of building the $49 million stadium.

It's not yet clear how much of the remaining $6.7 million gap Paulson will fill. But some portion of it will be covered by the city's Spectator Fund, which makes money from ticket taxes at PGE Park and the Rose Garden, plus parking fees in the Rose Quarter.

If it gets that amount, the city will have accomplished a huge feat: It will have filled the $15 million gap in funding that Commissioner Dan Saltzman created for the overall stadium deal March 11. (That's when city commissioners voted 3-2 to spend $88.8 million to renovate PGE Park for Major League Soccer and find a new home for the Portland Beavers baseball team; the two deals are linked.)

But that contribution also comes with two principal risks. The first is a risk to taxpayers citywide.

The $42.3 million investment is so large compared with what the Lents urban renewal area typically spends in a two-year period that city officials are also considering a second $15 million loan to make the first investment work. That loan, which would act like a second mortgage on a home, would be backed by the city's general fund.

Second, the cost of paying off the $42.3 million would swallow most of the urban renewal money now spent on things that some feel are far more important to the neighborhood's improvement. The maximum amount of money available in the Lents urban renewal district is about $200 million, but depending on how the stadium is financed, that amount could go as low as $140 million.

To fund the stadium, the city would have to curtail almost all urban renewal-financed business development programs in Lents—or significantly reduce its commitment to affordable housing. (In 2006, City Council voted to require that all Portland urban renewal areas set aside an average of 30 percent of their direct expenditures for affordable housing projects.) On May 20, the Portland Development Commission issued a report that outlined what building a stadium in Lents would mean: Either funding for business development would drop from almost $52 million to $2.3 million over five years or funding for affordable housing projects—which includes money for down-payment assistance and foreclosure prevention—would have to be cut in half.

Paulson does not see the latter as a problem.

"You wouldn't suggest that a neighborhood that's overflowing with affordable housing should be required to spend on affordable housing," Paulson says. "That's all that's there is [in Lents], affordable housing."

Not all of that money would go toward new construction, however. Some of it would go toward home renovation projects and other programs for low-income Lents residents. "The question is not whether Mr. Paulson thinks Lents needs additional investments in housing," says Commissioner Nick Fish. "The question is whether the city and the people of Lents believe we should continue to make smart investments in housing in that area."

No deal had been reached for a baseball stadium in Lents as of May 26, meaning Lents residents did not know the final trade-offs they will be asked to consider.

But that doesn't stop many residents from backing Paulson's proposal, which would also require substantial changes to Lents Park.

Judy Welch moved to Lents in 1961 with her husband, a retired meat-cutter for Safeway. They paid $11,325 for their three-bedroom house near Marshall High School, and over the past five decades Welch has become a neighborhood den mother for numerous neighborhood causes. She's hopeful the franchise will bring long-term jobs and a boost to Lents' reputation. "I love this neighborhood and I've worked hard for his neighborhood," she says.

Cora Potter, chairwoman of the Lents urban renewal district's volunteer advisory committee, also wants to see the stadium in her neighborhood because of its potential to attract additional private businesses. But her enthusiasm can't hide her doubt about the project. "As soon as [the price] got over $30 million, it became a really hard decision to make," Potter says. "They've made it a very, very hard decision to make."

Part of Potter's concern stems from wanting the stadium to be successful. And she knows committing $42.3 million to the project means Lents will have far less money to spend on other improvements to the area that will help make the stadium thrive. "If you deplete all of the resources for one project to do the other, you're not really doing it right," Potter says.

Leonard points to the Hawthorne area as an example of the trajectory he predicts for Lents. But that comparison only goes so far. The Hawthorne area does not have a stadium. It has the small businesses and amenities Lents is being asked to hold off on funding, in favor of a stadium that proponents say will attract private investors.

"How can we be sure we're not getting just a ballpark?" asks Lents resident Jeff Rose.

The History Of Lents

A working-class neighborhood bound by 82nd Avenue on the west, 112nd Avenue on the east, Powell Boulevard on the north and the Clackamas County line on the south, Lents was its own town until 1913, when the City of Portland annexed it.

Legend has it Lents was named in the same manner as Portland: with a coin toss. Oliver P. Lent, an original settler, won. William Johnson lost.

Lents' early history revolves around the lumber mills that used to sit east of the town and the farms in the same area. Foster Road, one of Lents' main arteries today, served as the road for bringing produce to Portland's markets.

  1. 1847 Lents’ first settler, William Cason, claims 320 acres in what is now the neighborhood’s southeastern corner.
  2. 1855 The Clackamas Indians, who frequented the area along what later became Johnson Creek in Lents, are forcibly relocated to the Grand Ronde Indian reservation.
  3. 1860s Oliver P. Lent buys 190 acres in Lents from Cason’s family.
  4. 1892 The town of Lents is platted and the first trolley arrives.
  5. 1913 Portland annexes Lents.
  6. 1918 Residents begin development of Lents Park, then only about 5 acres.
  7. 1941 The Bonneville Power Administration rents Woody Guthrie and his family an apartment at 6111 SE 92nd St. in Lents to use as his home base as he writes numerous songs for the administration, including the classic “Roll On Columbia.” The apartment complex still stands today, behind the Tidee Didee Diaper Service.
  8. 1945 The Portland Beavers buy several acres near the current intersection of 82nd Avenue and Holgate with the intention of building a stadium, according to the Oct. 26, 1960, Oregon Journal.
  9. 1953 Fred Peterson, born in Minnesota but raised in Lents, becomes Portland’s mayor, the only one ever to come from the neighborhood.
  10. 1955 The Beavers’ plans for Lents fail. The team sells the land and moves to what is now PGE Park.
  11. 1956 Walker Stadium, the site of the proposed new Triple-A baseball stadium in Lents Park, is built and named for Charles B. Walker, the city’s first sports director in 1935. (Walker Stadium is used for 1,200 hours of community baseball a year, according to 2007 figures.)
  12. 1960 Eastport Plaza, a 28-acre shopping center originally built as a covered mall, opens on the Beavers’ old land between Holgate and Powell. The new shopping center hastens the decline of Lents’ “downtown” at 92nd Avenue and Foster.
  13. 1960 John Marshall High School opens adjacent to Eastport Plaza.
  14. 1974 Plans for the Mount Hood Freeway, which would have stretched across the Willamette River from Johns Landing to I-205, are scrapped. The freeway would have required the displacement of hundreds of additional homes, including some in Lents.
  15. 1981 The section of I-205 from Foster Road to Powell Boulevard is completed. The project displaces hundreds of homes.
  16. 1994 Shawn Eckhardt, who lives with his parents in Lents, helps Tonya Harding by conspiring to injure figure-skating champion Nancy Kerrigan before the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer.
  17. 1996 The Springwater Corridor, which connects Lents to Sellwood and the Eastbank Esplanade, is completed.
  18. 1990s Eastern European immigrants begin moving to Lents.
  19. 1998 The Portland Development Commission creates an urban renewal area in Lents.
  20. 2007 The Lents International Farmers Market opens with about 10 vendors.
  21. 2009 MAX light rail’s Green Line is scheduled to open in September.

Sources: Ray Hites, Lents resident; the Oregon Journal; Portland: People, Politics and Power, by Jewel Lansing

Lents By The Numbers

Population in 2000: 15,576

Projected population in 2011: 17,236

Size: 1,943 acres, or 3.15 square miles

Home ownership in Lents in 2000: 56%

Home ownership citywide in 2000: 56%

Average sales price of homes in the Lents Town Center Urban Renewal Area in 2008: 190,981

Average sales price of homes citywide in 2008: 334,526

Median household income in Lents in 2000: 35,332

Median household income citywide in 2000: 40,150

Residents in poverty in Lents in 2000: 16%

Residents in poverty citywide in 2000: 13%

Residents with bachelor's degree or higher in Lents: 11%

Residents with bachelor's degree or higher citywide: 32%

White residents in Lents: 73%

White residents citywide: 78%

White elementary-school students in Lents in 2000: 67%

White elementary-school students in Lents in 2008: 43%

Hispanic elementary-school students in Lents in 2000: 17%

Hispanic elementary-school students in Lents in 2008: 25%

Substandard neighborhood streets in Lents: 10.1%

Substandard neighborhood streets citywide: 17.4%

Lents' rank in a breakdown of the number of parolees in Multnomah County by ZIP code*: 2

Lents' rank in a breakdown of the number of medical marijuana cardholders in Multnomah County by ZIP code*: 2

Number of neighborhood libraries: 0

Number of full-service grocery stores: 0

Number of Starbucks: 1

* Lents' ZIP code includes portions of adjacent neighborhoods.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Portland State University Population Research Center, Coalition for a Livable Future's Regional Equity Atlas, East Portland Review, Portland Bureau of Transportation, Multnomah County, Oregon Department of Human Services

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