When is a bus more than a bus? When it's a major investment in an entirely new type of bus infrastructure – one with the potential to spark development across a broad swath of the region.
The Powell-Division Transit and Development Project aims to build the region's first bus rapid transit line between Portland and Gresham, passing through some of the region's most diverse neighborhoods, including the Jade District, Division-Midway and Rockwood.
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The line could serve major commercial and job centers and educational institutions like Portland Community College . For residents, it will mean a faster, more reliable connection to jobs, class and medical appointments. It could bring more customers in the door of local businesses and present opportunities to enliven underinvested areas.
But this gleaming prospect has a sharp edge of concern. How can a transit project help a community prosper without pricing out the people who live there today?
That was the topic of discussion Wednesday evening at David Douglas High School in East Portland. Staff for the Powell-Division Transit and Development Project sat down with equity advocates, neighborhood and elected leaders and residents to discuss the opportunities and risks the region's first bus rapid transit project could present to communities in Gresham, Southeast and East Portland.
Planners from Metro, Portland and Gresham have been carefully considering these risks from the Powell-Division project's beginning, said Metro Councilor Bob Stacey, who co-chairs the project's steering committee.
"From the earliest meetings there was an often-expressed desire…that this is going to be a great opportunity to set an example for how we're going to make an investment that's going to improve a community without pushing out folks of limited means – businesses and households," Stacey said.
"We have a big opportunity and a big crisis in affordability," Stacey added. "We don't want to make it worse. We want to make it better."
Building understanding, seeking strategies
On Wednesday, planners from the two cities in the Powell-Division corridor shared how they're trying to make it better, while a group of community groups presented a "conversation starter" list of ideas they would like to see explored.
Gresham is focusing first on trying to identify which neighborhoods are most vulnerable to displacement. "Even though Gresham is currently affordable relative to the rest of the region, for the people who live there now affordability is increasingly challenging" and will likely continue to worsen, said Lorelei Juntenen, an ECONorthwest planner who has been consulting with the city.
Past research has shown a high risk of displacement in many of the Portland neighborhoods along the route, said Alex Howard, a planner in the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. Portland is working with a consultant to look at existing policies to fight displacement and provide recommendations for how to strengthen them. In addition, the city is doing field studies to get an on-the-ground assessment of housing stock and quality near potential bus rapid transit stations.
"That's going to help us develop more tailored, targeted programs" for each area, Howard said.
What would those programs need to look like to actually work? An ad hoc group of representatives from several equity- and community-focused organizations – most of them also members of the Powell-Division project steering committee – presented some possibilities Wednesday evening.
The group presented "11 Goals to Community Stability" with 28 potential policy actions. The list of goals and actions are intended to protect housing affordability and quality in the corridor, increase access to homeownership and jobs, improve health and ensure that existing residents benefit from new development in their neighborhoods that comes with the Powell-Division project, members of the group said.
The potential actions range from zoning strategies, job training and rental policies, to appointing a permanent neighborhood-led steering committee to oversee development in the corridor. Members of the group selected them based on lessons learned in the Portland region as well as in other regions across the country grappling with displacement.
"We have to dream big"
Several proposed actions, like ending a statewide ban on inclusionary zoning and instituting rent control along the corridor, could require statewide legislation to be possible. Many others could be a heavy political lift.
But Vivian Satterfield, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon associate director and Powell-Division steering committee member, said she and other advocates were undeterred by the challenge.
"Our community members are dreaming big," Satterfield said. "We have to dream big, because this is a massive investment, and it will affect every aspect of our lives and communities."
Lori Boisen, Division-Midway Alliance district manager and another Powell-Division steering committee member, said her hope is that the policies the group has proposed will help protect the level of diversity her neighborhood enjoys today, even as improvements come to make it more livable.
"My vision is to have safer streets and still have people from every continent of the world walking down them," Boisen said. "We have a chance and an opportunity to get transit right in East Portland."
The actions proposed by the group – as well as other equity findings and strategies -- will be discussed by the full Powell-Division steering committee at its March 16 meeting. Project staff will consider the actions and what it would take to implement them as they develop strategies for eight potential station areas and for the corridor generally.
Some of the proposed actions, or commitments to explore them, could find their way into the action plan the committee will consider in June.
Grappling with the equity challenge will continue well into the future, Metro project manager Brian Monberg said as the meeting concluded. "We see this as the beginning of a conversation and a vision that we will work on beyond June," Monberg said.
Following the meeting, Coalition for a Livable Future equity program manager Scotty Ellis – another member of the ad hoc group – said he was pleased by the evening's discussion. "We’re very happy with how the discussion went," he said via email. "We’re excited to see these community stability strategies continue to be discussed as the project moves forward, and hopefully build enough support to put many of these critical tools in place.”
Learn more about the Powell-Division Transit and Development Project