A Mixed Record on Urban Renewal

Franklin Roosevelt inspired the policy of urban renewal, which launched after World War II with the passage of the Housing Act to revitalize “blighted” neighborhoods. In many cases, the program targeted minority neighborhoods for redevelopment and forced out residents.

When federal dollars for urban renewal dried up in the 1970s, states adopted a mechanism called tax increment financing or TIF. In a TIF district, a community’s property values are frozen as the city invests public dollars, encouraging business and housing development and leading property values – and property taxes – to rise. That tax increase, or increment, is then used to pay off the bonds sold to finance the revitalization efforts.

In Portland, urban renewal has funded 17 major redevelopment areas since 1958. Here are the most noteworthy projects:

South Auditorium: The city’s first urban renewal project, it encompassed 110 acres on the southern fringe of downtown. The project displaced a neighborhood of older Jewish and Italian immigrants, as well as Chinese, Greek, Italian and Irish residents. More than 50 blocks were bulldozed, destroying homes, businesses, churches and synagogues. They were replaced with high-rises, offices, parks and fountains.

Portland State: Launched in the 1960s, it involved the demolition of most buildings, except for structures belonging to the then-college, including multiple apartment buildings, many occupied by elderly residents. It led to the relocation of hundreds of families and more than 50 businesses. The project helped the university emerge and expand its campus and made significant improvements to the park blocks.

Emanuel Hospital: Launched in 1970, it included 55 acres in the Albina area, a predominantly Black neighborhood and the heart of the Black commercial district. The city demolished several hundred properties – homes, businesses and churches – to expand the hospital and build related facilities, parking and employee housing. Most of the demolished properties were owned or rented by Black families. Albina citizens, supported by the American Friends Service Committee, created the Emanuel Displaced Persons Association in 1970 to express anger about the forced relocation.

Downtown Waterfront: Launched in 1974, it aimed to revitalize downtown and covered about 300 acres of the city center, from Union Station to the Marquam Bridge. Funding supported new public open spaces, such as construction of Pioneer Courthouse Square and Tom McCall Waterfront Park, the new RiverPlace development in the South Waterfront, new parking garages and expansion of the transit mall and improvements to Union Station.

Central Eastside: The project, adopted in 1986, focused on maintaining and creating jobs in a 681-acre area of warehouses, distribution centers and manufacturing near the Willamette River. The project invested in public street and access improvements to ease travel to businesses and the new OMSI campus. It supported industrial and commercial redevelopment of vacant or underused land and created the Eastbank Esplanade.

Lents Town Center: Adopted in 1998 for 2,846 acres, the district aims to improve the economy, housing and infrastructure in the distressed outer Southeast Portland neighborhood. Funding has helped build light rail and affordable housing, turn an abandoned auto wholesaler into the Latino food cart court Portland Mercado and create other spaces for retail and local nonprofits.

Gateway: Created in 2001 for 650 acres, the district has partially funded the MAX Green Line and major street improvements. It also paid for the development of the award-winning Nick Fish building, which provides affordable housing and commercial space, and the adjacent 3-acre Gateway Discovery Park.

Interstate Corridor: Approved in 2000 for nearly 4,000 acres, the city’s largest urban renewal district encompasses some of Portland’s most racially diverse neighborhoods and has one of the highest concentrations of low-income residents. While the initial plan promised anti-displacement measures and money for affordable housing and small business development, the city initially spent much of the funding on building the MAX Yellow Line. After resident protests, the second phase dedicated 70% of the remaining district money for affordable housing.


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