Portland’s City Council unanimously approved changes to an urban renewal zone encompassing large swaths of North and Northeast Portland Wednesday, allowing the city to tap into $67 million that officials say will be used to build new affordable housing and reverse the area’s long legacy of displacing people of color.
The vote came amid heated objections by Emanuel Displaced Persons Association 2, or EDPA2, a group comprised of descendants of the mostly Black families that had their homes condemned by Portland’s urban development agency in the ’70s through eminent domain. The urban renewal zone encompasses plots of land where the homes and businesses of the families were located before they were forced out to make room for a hospital expansion. The group’s leaders wanted the city to hold off on the vote until the families received restitution.
On Wednesday, all five council members voiced a similar stance: the city needed to address these historic wrongs, but the council vote was not the proper forum.
“It’s important to note the Interstate plan amendments and the concerns we heard by the community groups ... like EDPA2 are two distinct issues,” said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler at the council meeting Wednesday.
“But it doesn’t mean there are not currents running through both conversations,” he continued. “... And I will say this again: our vote today is not restorative justice.”
Wednesday’s vote was a technical one. The city voted to increase the “maximum indebtedness” of a 4,000-acre urban renewal zone spread out over 17 neighborhoods in North and Northeast Portland. This allows the city to increase the amount of money generated for projects in the region.
According to Housing Bureau Director Shannon Callahan and Prosper Portland Executive Director Kimberly Branam, the money will go toward creating 350 homes in the area and developing a block along North Williams Avenue and Russell Street.
Like many of the parcels of land condemned during the 70s, the block, formerly the heart of the neighborhood, was bulldozed to make way for the expansion of the Emanuel Hospital, now called Legacy Emanuel Medical Center. The expansion never happened, and the block has sat empty ever since.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said she agreed with EDPA2 that conversations around reparations were “long, long overdue,” adding she wanted that conversation to include homeowners, Emanuel Hospital, and realtors. She also noted that the city’s federal legislative agenda, under discussion later that afternoon, directed the city’s Office of Government Relations to push for federal reparations for Black and Indigenous communities.
“I will continue to talk with congressional delegations about what reparations look like at the federal level,” she said.
For Commissioners Carmen Rubio and Mingus Mapps, this marked their first significant vote on the new council. Both began their terms January 1. At the opening of their first council meeting, Wheeler called the occasion “historic” as the city would now be governed by “the most diverse city council in the history of Portland, Oregon.”
Both new commissioners said they saw the proposal as a critical step toward reversing the city’s legacy of displacement of people of color by creating more affordable housing and bolstering support for businesses owned by people of color.
“I believe this proposal is our best strategy to begin healing wounds caused by eminent domain,” said Mapps.
Byrd, a founding member of EDPA2 who goes only by one name, said she’d heard these points made before during past discussions around changing the urban renewal zone, known as the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area or ICURA. She has yet to see the wounds healed.
“If you look at every amendment to that ICURA the same statements are made,” she said.
“This has played out over and over and over again in the city of Portland — none of this stuff is new.”