By Gabriel Frayne Jr.
SE Portland has a new street of dreams. The entire Belmont St. corridor from Grand Ave. to the foot of Mt. Tabor is presently in the throes of a residential and commercial building boom that is changing the face of the Central Eastside Industrial District and, to a lesser extent, the Buckman and Sunnyside neighborhoods.
For apartment hunters, there can be little doubt which demographic the boom is targeting. The Modera Belmont, a block-long brick building at SE 6th that opened earlier this year, informs its website visitors “The Buckman neighborhood in Central Eastside is every bit the hip Portland neighborhood…There’s a distinct indie-spirit in the air, shouldered by the Portland creative class.”
Available apartments at Modera range from $1,520 for a studio up to $3,155 dollars for a two-bedroom.
At the corner of SE 11th, a spanking new complex of four apartment and retail buildings appropriately named the Goat Blocks offers a total of 347 apartments and townhomes.
The website advertises the complex as “a sprawling, creative vision designed to bring people together, share stories and make connections.”
The cost of sharing stories and making connections at the Goat Blocks is $1,243 for a studio and up to $4,000+ for a two-bedroom.
The boom is epitomized by SunnysideBelmont, a sixty-five unit four-story opus with two buildings connected by a pedestrian bridge located between SE 43rd and 45th where three funky wooden rentals once stood.
“More than just a stylish new apartment community located on Portland’s bustling Belmont Street,” the home page croons, “Sunnyside is in the epicenter of good vibes and inspired design in SE Portland.”
These apartments are moving fast and there remains one studio available for $1,495.
The Belmont boom brings to the fore many of the complex issues that have roiled Portland’s neighborhood politics over the past two decades: will all (or at least most) of Portland’s neighborhoods be accessible to all socioeconomic classes?
Can the city create housing for the workforce of the 21st Century without displacing long-time residents, younger creatives who are not as well-known as Jean-Michael Basquiat, and persons on fixed incomes? Will the urban forest of the future include neighborhood trees?
“Belmont has become healthy again…[it] will once again be a streetcar commercial property,” says Peter Finley Fry, local land use planner who is the current CEID land use chair. He claims it is “just going back to the future,” e.g., emerging as a re-energized commercial corridor, but serving 21st Century industries rather than the blue-collar industries of the past.
Finley Fry’s optimism might find a sympathetic ear among new residents of Belmont, but for others there are a few sobering facts.
To start with, according to the real estate data base provided by Trulia.com, the Median Household Income (MHI) for Buckman is $33,288. For Sunnyside it’s $45,395. That means for a $1,500 one-bedroom apartment at, say, the Goat Blocks, the percentage of MHI paid for rent would be 54% and 40% respectively. The U.S. Department of Housing defines “affordable housing” as 30 percent of gross income.
Secondly, though Portland has seen a “flattening out” of rents at the top end in the past year or two, the trend does not seem to hold much promise for lower-income tenants.
“Those who can least afford rent increases, they’re still seeing rent increases,” Mike Wilkerson, economist at ECONorthwest, recently told Willamette Week. Meanwhile, many of the older, no-frills apartment buildings along the Belmont corridor are showing few or no vacancies.
The new Comprehensive Plan has most of Belmont now zoned as “commercial mixed use” in order to implement the city’s “Centers and Corridors” strategies, according to the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability website.
However, this zoning in itself creates no requirement for affordable housing. The only mandate currently in effect is the inclusionary zoning ordinance that took effect in February of 2017. Perhaps, coincidentally, all of the new large residential projects on Belmont submitted their permit applications before that date.
The Belmont boom also raises issues of livability for both residents and visitors to the area. There are presently three sidewalk closures between Grand and SE 12th Ave as well as two street closures: Yamhill at the corner of Grand and the section of Belmont between Grand and MLK.
Farther up Belmont, the street was closed down to one lane for almost a year and a half during the construction of the upscale Urbanaire apartments. While all this may not rise to the level of Louis Napoleon’s makeover of Paris, it has clearly become more than a temporary inconvenience.
Still, many residents and workers in Buckman and Sunnyside do not hesitate to express a more sanguine appraisal of the redevelopment taking place around them.
Mike Clark, the former owner of the legendary Movie Madness at Belmont and 44th, says, “I do know that business has increased” at the store since the SunnysideBelmont building opened in April.
Peter Finley Fry has a broader view. “Gentrification in itself is not a bad thing,” he says, because it is the opposite of “ghettoization.” (In 1965 the federal government designated Buckman a “pocket of poverty.”)
He also cautions that when planners “go out there and create urban renewal and make it a better place for everyone,” but fail to pay attention to real estate market forces, “the people who live in the area being gentrified are often the losers.”
The boom goes on. At the corner of SE 28th and Belmont a derelict laundromat, empty and tagged-up for years, will soon give way to a multi-story, forty-six unit apartment building.
The down side? The permit application was submitted in May of 2016.