Emerging Gem: Land Use Leadership Initiative Tours Portland's Jade District

Our Land Use Leadership Initiative recently took its final tour, a visit to the Jade District of East Portland, centered on SE Division and 82nd Avenue. LULI fellow Aaron Brown reflects on the experience and what it teaches him about neighborhood-led urban renewal.

In the past few months, the 1000 Friends of Oregon Land Use Leadership Initiative group has taken some excellent tours to explore how issues facing communities throughout the metropolitan area are interrelated to 1000 Friends’ mission of prudent, thoughtful land use.  However, I couldn’t help but notice how many of our tours were focused on Washington County. This was one reason I was tremendously excited for our June visit out to the Jade District, a neighborhood centered on the bustling intersection of 82nd Avenue and SE Division Street.

While the impact of Senate Bill 100 is most frequently invoked in the stark contrasts of Oregon’s subdivisions and farms, I’d argue it’s equally important to understand the ways in which Oregon’s unique land-use policy can either be an asset or liability to underinvested first-ring suburbs within the urban growth boundary.

Originally built as a state highway on the outskirts of town, 82nd Avenue and its surrounding neighborhoods have undergone dramatic changes in recent decades. The potent combination of chronic underinvestment in East Portland’s infrastructure, waves of international immigration, and localized suburbanization of poverty from more central neighborhoods has produced what many consider Portland’s twenty-first century answer to historic Chinatown. Now called the “Jade District” by the local community, the neighborhood is one of several focus areas for the Portland Development Commission’s new Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative.  

It was only fitting that on my way to our tour I picked up a flat tire while riding my bicycle on a stretch of Portland’s 55 miles of unpaved streets. A legacy of East Portland’s history of development before annexation, the lack of investment in sidewalks and road maintenance combines with a strongly automobile-oriented land use pattern that makes a task as simple as crossing the street unsafe and unpleasant.

This isn’t because everybody drives in East Portland, though, nor does it mean that driving there is safe. I was reminded of studies from TriMet, which noted that roughly 20,000 transit trips (the capacity of the Rose Garden) originated at the intersection of 82nd and Division, and Portland’s High Crash Corridor program, which lists 82nd Avenue as a street with “exceptional concentrations of crash activity.” 

Finding funding and political will to retrofit these streets to make their surrounding neighborhoods safer, their transit options more plentiful, and local businesses more accessible will be a crucial task for the neighborhood’s boosters in the years ahead. I was happy to see that LULI fellow Brian Momberg, a Metro planner who will soon be working on a potential transit improvement to nearby Powell Boulevard, was with us on this tour. He emphasized the importance of engaging the Jade District stakeholders—businesses and residents— as this project progresses.

Our Jade District tour took us first to the Portland Community College’s Southeast Center Campus, in which we listened to a presentation from Campus Dean Craig Kolins on the considerable expansion currently under construction. This expansion represents a tremendous opportunity to provide new educational resources, job trainings, and other offerings for the whole East Portland community. An intentional effort to cultivate partnerships between the college campus and local businesses could someday result in student apprenticeships, educational programs supporting new entrepreneurs, and classes in necessary skills like raising capital, all of which could empower a significant wave of locally-owned business development .

It was reminiscent of our trip to Aloha-Reedville, where we learned of the great work the Center for Intercultural Organizing is doing to engage and inspire new citizen activists, and our visit to northeast Portland, where we learned how Cully residents were organizing to be part of the planning process. The Land Use Leadership Initiative tours have made it clear to me that land use advocacy needs to focus as much on the “who” we are investing in as much as the “where.”

Our tour ended with a dynamic conversation about the opportunity for planning professionals to intersect with finance and community development initiatives to better coordinate investments in housing, transportation, and infrastructure. We reflected on our conversation with Michael Liu, co-owner of the Asian-American shopping center and grocery Fubonn, who lamented that the lack of available capital is limiting the opportunity for local economic development.  I particularly appreciated the experiences shared by LULI fellow Tony DeFalco of Verde, who has worked to support innovative new public outreach and engagement initiatives for Portland’s investments in Cully, and by PDC representatives Amy Fleck-Rosete and John Jackley, who discussed their ongoing efforts to restructure who and what the agency funds in neighborhood districts.

These conversations demonstrated that the days of heavy-handed urban renewal are over. Today, citizen advocates are leading the way, developing new neighborhood investment initiatives that invest in people just as strongly as they invest in places. 

That this conversation was taking place inside of King’s Bakery, a local business run by the family of LULI fellow and Jade District/APANO community organizer Stanley Moy, was only fitting. It epitomized what I hope is the future of collaborative community planning: fully incorporating a local community’s economic and cultural needs into master plans, especially those in neighborhoods that have been historically underinvested or that have larger immigrant populations.

As a cohort of land use advocates looking to find ways to develop equitable communities within our urban growth boundaries to protect us from building sprawling communities outside of them, our group concluded the Jade District tour with a lot of opportunities to consider the importance of not only “how” land is used in Oregon’s land-use policy but “who” is using it.

This may entail changes to both the physical environment (a safer, more human-scale transportation system) and changes to access (new opportunities for immigrants to access capital and education), but I think that as land-use advocates we are obligated to pursue both lines of activism if we’re sincere about our intent to produce equitable communities, and keep land use advocacy inclusive, engaging, and relevant to 21st century Oregonians.