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The unrealized potential of East Portland

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Linda Baker
Thursday, February 23, 2012


I sat in on an East Multnomah County Chamber of Commerce meeting this week, and received a brief update on the East Portland Action Plan, which was adopted in 2009 to identify and address gaps in policies, services and infrastructure improvements in East Portland neighborhoods, among the fastest growing in the city.

Specifically, presenters distributed a summary of a recent economic development report outlining some of the area’s competitive advantages—and weaknesses.

From 2005-2009, employment in East Portland actually grew by 7,440 jobs —from 42,483 to 49,923 —an average annual growth rate of 4.4 percent.

Housing and population growth are some of the drivers for employment growth, said Nick Sauvie, executive director of the Rose Community Development Corp, whom I talked to after the meeting.  Since 1996, nearly half of the residential units permitted in the entire city of Portland were in East Portland, a total of 8,770 units. 

The health care industry is also a strong driver of employment in East Portland.  Twenty one percent of the workforce in East Portland is employed in the health care sector, compared to 13 percent in the Metro area.

Job growth, housing and industry strengths are all reasons to be optimistic about the area’s economic potential, Sauvie said.  The big problem is lack of investment in urban infrastructure. “If you walk around the Pearl District and then walk around East 122nd, you see a different level of investment in sidewalks, street crossings and other amenities,” Sauvie said, in something of an understatement.

Now city budget mapping data supports that anecdotal impression.

Although 50 percent of housing growth has taken place in East Portland, the city has not spent a commensurate amount on infrastructure.  Sauvie said the city spends only 36 percent of the city average on transportation in East Portland and 38 percent of the city average on East Portland parks.

Despite employment growth, nine out of ten East Portland residents also have to commute out of the area to work—a figure that flies in the face of city efforts to create 20-minute neighborhoods, in which residents live, work and recreate within a short distance of home.

Here is one of the takeaways.  East Portland seems to have plenty of human capital, but is sorely lacking in physical capital, specifically the mixed-use live/work environments that have put Portland on the map as an urban planning and design mecca—and spurred small business growth in close-in neighborhoods.

That human capital assessment is born out by the area's tremendous ethnic diversity. More than 12.5 percent of the East Portland population is foreign born, compared to less than 10 percent in much of the inner city. “We universally see diversity as a strength and are seeing lot of entrepreneurship in our immigrant communities,” said Sauvie.  In a survey conducted by Rose Community Development, first-time home buyers also cited diversity as one of the top three factors that influenced where they bought a house.

In a city that is suffering increasing angst over its increasing whiteness, East Portland leaders may want to brand the area as a beacon of 21st century global culture —and watch as the seeds of the next great Portland neighborhood grow.

Linda Baker is managing editor of Oregon Business.



Edward Wolf
0 #1 East Portland seismic retrofit sets exampleEdward Wolf 2012-02-25 22:19:34
One unsung recent step in East Portland -- an investment in infrastructure that the rest of the city would do well to emulate -- was the state-funded seismic retrofit of Floyd Light Middle School off SE Washington. The $1.5 million project employed a crew of 15 throughout summer 2011, engaged six subcontractors, and accomplished the protection of more than 800 students. This project, which should be replicated at dozens of aging schools across Portland, deserves to be a focus of community pride. This project, with less cachet than the amenities of the Pearl District, is one of those seeds of a city neighborhood that intends to last. Without expecting or intending to do so, the David Douglas School District has set an example for the rest of Portland about investing in resilience.
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