12-04-2021  1:13 pm   •   PDX and SEA Weather
Retired Urban League CEO and current Albina Vision Trust board member Michael Alexander, left, and Rukaiyah Adams
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 16 June 2021

A controversial plan to expand a major freeway through a historically Black neighborhood has not changed in the year since the city and community leaders walked away from the discussion table in protest. But with advisory committees slated to make recommendations about the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project’s highway caps to the Oregon Transportation Commission at the end of the month, some minority contractors and members of the Black community are criticizing any additional delay.

“For us the opportunity we have to change the plight of our community now is through living-wage employment and small business and entrepreneurship,” Jeff Moreland, president of Raimore Construction in Portland, told The Skanner.

“Our people can’t afford this.

"They keep selling this as a 6- to 18-month delay. That’s a 6- to 18-month delay just for them to figure out what they want to do.”

Raimore Construction is contracted for a joint venture with Hamilton Construction and Sundt Construction for construction management and general contracting of the project. Moreland is part of a coalition that includes For the People PDX and the Coalition of Black Men, which recently sent a letter appealing to Gov. Kate Brown to mediate in what has become a heated process.

"We are writing today to request that your office insert its leadership into a conversation that has grown fractious, counterproductive, and ambiguous," the June 3 letter reads. "The community has tried to come together to plot a best path forward, but the conversation has been hijacked and polarized to paint proponents of the project moving forward on its current timeline as disconnected from the desires of the community."

winta yohannes introAlbina Vision Trust managing director Winta YohannesThe letter emphasized urgency in bringing the construction project and resulting jobs to the Black community, often criticizing Albina Vision Trust (AVT) by name for its role in pushing for a delay in planning.

But Winta Yohannes, AVT’s managing director, took issue with what she characterized as a false binary pushed by the project’s lead, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT).

“ODOT has set up a scenario in which it has said to our contracting community, ‘Here’s $100 million in jobs,’” Yohannes said during a virtual discussion with Moreland hosted by the NAACP-Portland. “But it will come only if you can convince people to forfeit the land that is ours. We reject that.” She later added, “It’s being framed as an either/or so that ODOT can get away with doing the bare minimum.”

A Divisive History

The proposed I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project would add auxiliary lanes and shoulders on a nearly two-mile stretch of I-5, reducing congestion between I-84 and I-405, where the intersection of the three interstates creates the biggest traffic bottleneck in Oregon. But the estimated nearly $800 million project was to also improve the community by reconnecting neighborhood streets and creating highway covers that would provide space for affordable housing. These covers were seen by many community leaders as an essential component to restoring segments of a neighborhood that had been divided when ODOT first broke ground on the project in 1962, which led to the demolition of more than 300 homes in what was then the state’s largest Black community.

In July 2020, many then-members of the project’s steering committee argued that ODOT’s latest plan failed to include sufficient highway covers that could accommodate affordable housing and commercial structures: ODOT’s plan would install caps with a 300-pound-per-square-foot live load capacity, which would only accommodate two-story buildings. AVT had suggested caps that would support six-story buildings.

rose quarter rendering full(Image courtesy of I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project)

Last July, both Albina Vision Trust and the City of Portland withdrew support for the plan and participation on the steering committee, with the Portland City Council signing a letter informing city bureau directors they were not to engage in any operations or communications related to the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project, as it was not “currently aligned with the values of the City as articulated in Central CIty 2035, the Racial Equity Plan and the Climate Emergency Resolution.”

“I think the city, Metro, AVT have all sort of taken a position that is asking for a greater degree of transparency and the ability to look at some of the analysis that’s been done around the scope and capacity of caps, and just provide for unvarnished feedback from all of the stakeholders,” retired Urban League CEO and current member of the AVT board of directors Michael Alexander told The Skanner this week. “I think the position ODOT has taken is, ‘We’re willing to talk about anything as long as nothing changes.’

"Certainly it’s not dialogue, and obviously it’s not compromise.”

Albina Vision Trust is not the only group prominent in its objections. In April, the groups No More Freeways, Neighbors for Clean Air, and the Eliot Neighborhood Association filed a lawsuit against the federal Department of Transportation and the federal Highway Administration to stop the project. The plaintiffs allege ODOT violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to issue a full environmental impact statement on the project, completing only an environmental assessment instead.

The lawsuit notes the close proximity of Harriet Tubman Middle School to the project area, and points out that other locations of significance to the Black community, like the Billy Webb Elks Lodge and the Urban League of Portland, lie within the project area.

Alexander said the city, Metro, state and many community groups have been pushing to coalesce locally and find federal partners to help mitigate the historic damage done in Albina with the original construction of the I-5.

“There’s consensus across all of these players and stakeholders, with the exception of ODOT,” he said.

“I think what we’ve experienced from ODOT has been a posture that is looking to find lines of division as opposed to lines of consensus or alignment. It’s going to be a tremendous missed opportunity for us to bring together a way of thinking that I think is more reflective of what we want to be versus what we’ve been in the past.”

No Time to Lose?

But distrust within the Black community is also spurring a sense of urgency to break ground on the I-5 expansion.

“It’s just so exasperating, to watch how we go through these things where we wind up shooting ourselves in the foot,” James Posey, a local advocate for minority contractors, told The Skannner. “We’ve been decimated for the last 40 years, and we’ve finally got a foothold in an industry where you can exponentially make some money… On the backend of this whole experience is folk who can’t wait five years for a project like this to even begin. From our experience, when a project like this is delayed, it might be as much as 10 years.”

He added, “The whole issue of racism and discrimination hasn’t gone away...

"When you get a crack in the wall, so to speak, you better go ahead and dash on through it.”

Countering the objections to the current I-5 improvement plan, the coalition’s letter took issue with the focus on highway caps.

"The small sect of the community this has been socialized with has been misled to believe this conversation is about ownership, but Black Oregonians will never fully reclaim ownership of the land stolen from us because the best option they can come up with are long term leases -- and that's for the people who can actually qualify for a mortgage and afford mortgage payments and taxes to move back to N/NE Portland,” the letter stated.

Moreland agreed.

“The cornerstone of wealth creation in this country, for any individual, is home ownership,” he said. “You don’t go in and build towers with low-income housing. Low-income housing keeps the Black community impoverished, because low-income housing for the most part is rental.”

He added, “The real question we have at hand here is how do you build healthy community? How do you restore the Albina community? I submit that you restore the Albina community by focusing on the people. And you figure out how to empower the people, how to get the people careers where they can earn a living wage.”

Finding Federal Partnership

The practice of developing freeways to bisect marginalized communities became widespread starting in the 1950s as the federal government expanded its interstate system. Pres. Joe Biden has proposed $20 billion to reconnect divided and decimated Black neighborhoods--an item in his proposed infrastructure plan that would benefit projects exactly like the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project.

Moreland pointed to Biden’s emphasis on infrastructure when discussing how central construction was to the livelihoods and lives of the average American. Alexander viewed the proposal as yet another reason for ODOT project leaders to integrate community feedback.

“There is the additional opportunity for revenues from beyond our borders if we can support that.

"If we can come up with a strategy that says all of us within the borders of the state are on the same page,” Alexander said. “We need to make sure that the leading transportation authority within the state is within the inside of that process, as opposed to continuing to serve as a kind of a barrier. We need to make sure that we are all in agreement as to the opportunities for creating new history that this project will allow us to do.”

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