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Nancy Mccarthy of The Skanner
Published: 24 May 2006

After several years of behind-the-scenes planning, negotiating and stalling, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is about to burst with new development.

But as new projects — valued at between $80 and $100 million — begin to change the boulevard's look, opportunities for existing businesses also are emerging. Staffers for the Portland Development Commission say they are developing "tools" that will stimulate "wealth creation," add more jobs in the area and transform the rag-tag thoroughfare into a "livable and functional main street."

At least seven retail, office and housing projects — including a headquarters hotel near the Oregon Convention Center — are slated for the boulevard, and another five projects are planned nearby. Renovation of the Heritage Building on Northeast Failing Street into commercial and office space should be done by the end of October. Groundbreaking at the old King Food Mart at Northeast Fremont Street occurred earlier this month, and construction will begin on the long-awaited Vanport Square project on North Alberta Street in September.

Developers are submitting ideas to the Portland Development Commission in response to a request for proposals on Piedmont Place at North Portland Boulevard, and another request for proposal is in the writing stage for the Grant warehouse site on Northeast Fremont and negotiations are still under way for the last project at Northeast Beech Street.

Portland Mayor Tom Potter sparked renewed interest in the boulevard's future last fall when he requested a neighborhood tour shortly after his election. He asked the development commission to step up its efforts to revitalize the community.
"The new mayor has focused on it, and the PDC has new leadership," said Byron Estes, senior development manager for the commission. "Our job is to keep our focus on it, too."

Since the mayor's visit, staff members have dusted off the old Albina Community Plan, re-examined the Oregon Convention Center Urban Renewal Plan and drafted a "Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard Strategy Update and Action Plan." They have met with local business leaders and have attended a dozen community meetings.

With the information collected from that research, the commission's development department will seek approval of its drafted strategy plan, which outlines the action necessary to kick-start development and maintain contact with local residents and businesses, at the June 28 commission meeting.

"We are coming up with a series of tools for businesses," Estes said. "A big share of our strategies is working with businesses. There are a lot of privately owned vacant lots, and we want to give them tools to get going on developing them."

Among the strategies contained in the draft plan are:

• Create and support an MLK Business Ambassador Network of existing business owners and developers. Acting much like a chamber of commerce, the "ambassadors" would promote the boulevard as a good place to locate new businesses.

• Recruit new businesses to MLK Boulevard. An internal team within the Portland Development Commission will coordinate real estate brokers and lenders to target and recruit businesses for key sites on the street. A list of available properties will be maintained.

• Strengthen relationships with organizations and colleges that do workforce training to help connect residents with jobs on MLK.

• Expand funding for technical assistance for small businessdevelopment through Portland Community College's Small Business Development Center and other organizations.

• Explore the feasibility of establishingabusiness resource center on MLK. Local businesses could take advantage of the commission's "storefront loan" and developmental opportunities programs, which help owners to redesign their buildings and finance improvements.

• Create a "gateway" into inner Northeast Portland neighborhoods north of Broadway on MLK that pays tribute to civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

• Sponsor events that celebrate and market the boulevard, such as the MLK Day Run and the Good in the 'Hood festival.

• Find a private sponsor to be an advocate or "Main Street Manager" for the boulevard who would network with businesses, build an organization and market the street to incoming companies.

•Make demographic, employment data on inner Northeast available to businesses, tenants and brokers to help develop the area.

• Create a "Development Opportunity Fund" to pay for some construction costs for private commercial, mixed-use projects. The projects would have to meet urban renewal goals.

• Organize a team to focus on development of a 12-block section of the boulevard between Fremont and Alberta streets. The team could offer technical assistance to property owners and businesses.

• Produce a housing study focusing on the MLK corridor and surrounding neighborhoods. The study would include information about the potential for development of public, private and not-for-profit housing.

• Resolve development difficulties related to site planning, building design and financial concerns.

• Develop better on-street parking and identify possible locations for off-street parking and for improved public transit stops.

Although several smaller projects have been completed in the Oregon Convention Center urban renewal area since 1993, some of the major developments have stalled, either due to difficulty finding developers, opposition by local neighborhood associations or unworkable financial strategies.

But, said Estee Segal, senior project coordinator, the sound of bulldozers on the corner of Northeast MLK and Fremont Street and the soon-to-start Vanport Project are the "fruits of a lot of labors."

"It takes a long time to do community visioning," Segal said.

The Grant Warehouse site, at 3368 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. between Cook and Ivy streets, is expected to have a combination of high density housing with ground-floor retail shops. The commission is preparing a request for proposals to submit to developers this year.

Phase One of the retail-commercial development on the old King Market site, 3510 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. at Northeast Fremont, is scheduled to be completed next January. The site will contain 3,500 square feet of retail space and 5,600 square feet of office space. Phase Two will include seven units of for-sale housing on Grand Avenue.

Negotiations are under way for a potential medical facility at Beech Street, according to development commission planners. The property is at 3701 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. between Beech and Failing streets.

Renovation on the Heritage Building (formerly known as the Weimer Warehouse) will create 30,000 square feet of commercial and office uses at 3934 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., between Failing and Shaver streets, when the project is completed in October.

Vanport Square will combine 10 commercial condominiums, 3,000 to 8,000 square feet in size, two restaurants, townhomes and retail space in a three-phase development. Construction on the property, at 5211 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., between Alberta and Emerson streets, will begin in September.

Housing and commercial uses are expected to be developed at Piedmont Place, 6431-6445 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. between Highland Street and Portland Boulevard. Developers have until June 2 to turn in their ideas in response to the commission's request for proposals.

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