By Midge Pierce
A project that will likely be the largest affordable complex in SE Portland is slated to replace an aging strip club at 30th and Powell.
Portland Housing Bureau (PHB) may have scored a win-win in its plans to purchase the Safari show club property across from Cleveland High School in order to provide rentals for those below 60% of median family incomes and possibly, temporary shelter for families without housing.
The site of the long-standing strip club in the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood is big enough to provide a mix of housing types that may include homes for purchase.
At 40,000 square feet, the lot is bigger than a typical City block and is zoned for up to 300 housing units. PHB Chief Kurt Creager said the number may be reduced to something closer to 200 in order to include affordable single family homes along with apartments.
Creager expressed optimism that neighbors won’t complain about the removal of the strip club and its replacement with a complex in which the community can take pride.
“The site offers the highest and best use as mixed use urban development,” he said in a recent interview. He added that the project, being built through a 20-year bond, has to last a long time.
“It’s not unreasonable for residents to expect a project to add value to their neighborhood with open spaces and amenities.”
Facing Powell, the project could rise five stories. Closer to residential areas, scale may be reduced for neighborhood compatibility.
Community engagement officer Michelle DePass indicated notifications to the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood and SE Uplift are beginning. She plans to notify all segments of the population from homeowners to the homeless. “I have not heard one negative comment so far,” she said.
Bureau staff understand it is not easy to satisfy unmet housing needs. In its efforts to provide housing for all, some City goals of providing affordability have misfired. Private developers are driven by profit and sometimes find work-arounds to rules like Inclusionary Housing.
Currently, the City boasts a glut of expensive apartments beyond the reach of many Portlanders. With average rents at $1970 across all apartment types, including studios, Creager admitted that new builds, for the most part, have been what he called “the wrong kind of apartment, not serving the mainstream.”
To adjust the imbalance, PHB delivers programs to “increase the supply of affordable housing, preventing and ending homelessness, and promoting stable home ownership.” A draft plan is currently in the works for $258 million bond package passed in 2016.
Responding to criticism that the cost of subsidized housing is unnecessarily high, Creager said his department is bound by prevailing wage agreements and a state bidding process that can push costs beyond public expectations – up to $108 K per unit.
The high cost of subsidized housing can impact the design and quality of materials which must be weighed against the demands of affordability. He challenged development partners to step forward with innovative ideas for the Powell Blvd. project.
Adjustments could be made to the existing building that would provide critically needed temporary housing. Since the former strip club is licensed for commercial use, it could be converted into a winter shelter for women and children – a way to keep families together, out of the cold and out of harm’s way or domestic violence.
Creager said the housing bureau looked at approximately a dozen other large sites such as bowling alleys, but settled on the Powell site because of its proximity to services and transportation.
No site was perfect. The rapid transit projects’ reconfiguration from Powell Blvd. to Division St. is a setback. Environmental remediation is needed to remove dirt fill. Creager called the fill a low level hazard that enabled the City to negotiate a below market purchase price of $3.7 million and excavation may leave room for underground parking on the property.
Closing is set for the end of September. Permits could begin to get pulled in early 2018 with possible construction starting in 2019.
Some 32 affordable housing projects are in the Bureau’s pipeline to chip into the need for 24,000 housing units under 80% MFI. Homeowners’ willingness to add attached dwelling units can also help meet housing needs. The City posited that about 3000 new ADUs would emerge over the next 30 years. The current rapid pace of conversions may increase that number.
Creager called ADUs a good utilization of property to meet projected housing needs. To encourage long-term rather than short-term rentals, ADU pilot projects are currently planned for North and NE Portland in connection with Prosper Portland (formerly the Portland Development Commission).
Other projects on the drawing board include the YMCA site at 60th and Powell formerly owned by the Parks Department. That redevelopment will likely move forward in 2020 with promises to retain a daycare center. While the existing building will be torn down to make way for a three or four story structure, Creager said the charming exterior could be emulated in the new build, perhaps by reconstructing the existing frontage.
The Clinton Triangle area that includes the Portland fire and rescue property will also be subject to redevelopment at some point, according to Creager. The bulk of new development will be in Lents and in “good geographic areas” East of I-205.
Creager is particularly proud of inroads the bureau has made to help mitigate exorbitant costs of flood insurance that threaten to push families in the Johnson Creek area out of their homes.
A somewhat dubious sign of housing success is the recent point-in-time homeless counts that show an “only” 10% rise in houselessness in Portland, compared to a 30% rise in Seattle.