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(image courtesy of I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project)
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 14 July 2020

Albina Vision Trust has decided to walk away from the table with the Oregon Department of Transportation, effectively stalling the Rose Quarter I-5 Corridor project⁠—and the city has followed.

Albina Vision fullRetired Urban League CEO Michael Alexander, left, and Rukaiyah Adams unveiled drawings in September 2017 by Hennebery Eddy Architects, Inc. that were the result of two years of conversations with a 20-person work group on a new vision for inner Northeast Portland. Read 'A New Vision for Albina'. (Photo/The Skanner Archives)
The community nonprofit has spent the past two years in what was supposed to be a collaboration to ensure the $795 million Rose Quarter Improvement Project to expand a stretch of Interstate-5 would take into account the history of the neighborhood it passed through⁠—and redress some of the damage and displacement done to Portland’s Black community with the initial construction of the I-5 nearly six decades ago. It has not been satisfied with ODOT’s response. 

winta yohannesWinta Yohannes is the managing director of Albina Vision Trust, a community nonprofit that has pulled its support for the I-5 expansion project after two years of working with ODOT.“One important component of our work is the idea that lower Albina was physically dissected from the rest of the city through the construction of that freeway, which benefitted basically everyone except for the Black folks who lived in the district,” Albina Vision Trust Managing Director Winta Yohannes told The Skanner. “If you look at it on a map now, it created a sort of island of the area we consider lower Albina. Having buildable highway covers where we can have infill development, and restitch that part of the city back, is important.”

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 project was to also improve connectivity within the community by reconnecting neighborhood streets and creating highway covers that would provide space for affordable housing. 

In a March 29, 2019 letter to ODOT, Albina Vision Trust Board Chair Rukaiyah Adams outlined how that simply wasn’t happening. 

Painful History 

“As currently conceived, the covers are an engineering and structural solution that ignores the connective urban streetscape and modern, open space principles,” Adams wrote. “The resulting public spaces consist of odd remnants that are surrounded by swirling traffic and infrastructure. Without a role in the urban fabric that is clearly defined, these spaces are likely to be under-utilized.”

When ODOT broke ground on the project in 1962, it demolished more than 300 homes in what was then the state's largest Black community. Adams emphasized the lasting destruction to lower Albina.

“Nearly 90 acres of land remain under-developed in the central city,” Adams wrote. “The original homes in lower Albina were never replaced. The impact on the Albina community, its neighborhood centers, its churches and schools, was never mitigated. Buildable highway covers are a critical environmental remediation for the proposed RQIP of today and the original l-5 construction of the 1950s.”

rose quarter rendering highway(image courtesy of I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project)
ODOT’s plan, however, 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 to provide affordable residential and commercial spaces. 

“We wanted ODOT to consider the project in the context of the history, and to see this as a community-building opportunity, instead of a freeway project,” Yohannes told The Skanner.

“But what became clear to us over time is that there’s a predefined project on the table, and that was defined in 2017. And despite our engagement, the project itself was not changing.” 

Addressing Air Quality 

Although ODOT had submitted an environmental assessment for the project in February of 2019, Albina Vision had called for a full environmental impact statement, and expressed concern for the air quality impact to nearby Harriet Tubman Middle School. 

Yohannes emphasized that Albina Vision became concerned about what appeared to be a clash of philosophies, rather than a couple of concerns that ODOT was not addressing. 

“Given all that we know about the neighborhood, this is sacred ground,” Yohannes said.

“What we were advocating for in partnership with the city of Portland, Multnomah County, and Metro, was to recognize that we needed to reevaluate the scope of the project in light of the opportunity for community-building and for community-healing, for generating wealth, for considering the needs of children.

"We know that there’s a moral imperative and a practical imperative to reconsider what this project should be.”

She added, “We want the short-term opportunity for jobs that come with public investment projects, but we want the long-term wealth generation opportunities that benefit the entire community.”

Faltering Support 

Albina Vision pulled its support, which Yohannes said was the right decision “in the context of this global reckoning for racial justice, and in the context of two years of engagement.” 

Local officials quickly followed. On June 30, the same day Albina Vision formally withdrew support, Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who serves as commissioner-in-charge of the city's Bureau of Transportation, issued a statement that she would step down from the project's steering committee. She said that ODOT "did not seem to grasp the concept of restorative justice," and that the project did not fit the city's priorities or values.

cupid alexanderDirector of Strategic Initiatives in Mayor Wheeler's office, Cupid Alexander said city officials decided to pull support from the I-5 expansion project after getting vague answers from ODOT, and after Albina Vision left the table. On July 6, the Portland City Council signed 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.”

Cupid Alexander, director of strategic initiatives in Mayor Wheeler's office, said that the city council and members of the Metro Council, Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, and the Portland Public School Board had been frustrated with vague responses to their questions about equity, safety and environmental issues related to the project. 

“We felt that until ODOT could come up with a strong advocacy plan in regard to the issues we had been discussing over the past year, and very strongly over the past six months, it would be best for us to utilize the time and resources on COVID (response),” Alexander told The Skanner. “None of our concerns were really being met, and once Albina Vision left the table, our strong community partner ⁠— that was respected in the community and had done some due diligence ⁠— were no longer at the table, so there was nothing keeping us there at this time.”

A Call to the Governor 

The project’s success will likely hinge on the involvement of higher offices, Alexander and Yohannes agreed. 

“At this point, we imagine that the governor and the state legislature will need to get involved to help frame again what the opportunity at hand is, and how we can work as a community to deliver that,” Yohannes told The Skanner. 

“I think that there have been many people at the table who have said we’re going to need the governor’s leadership,” Alexander said. “(Oregon House Speaker) Tina Kotek (D-N Portland), Sen. Lew Frederick (D-Portland) ⁠— it’s going to take their strong leadership to create a path forward. So that's what we’re looking for. We're just a partner in this.”

Brown had indicated during a July 1 press conference that she would not support the project if it lacked the support of the local Black community. 

“We’re not going to proceed with this particular project ⁠— with the Rose Quarter project ⁠— without community support and engagement from the Black and African American community,” Brown said. “It’s my hope that this particular project can be part of righting historic wrongs, and I’m committed to bringing people back to the table for that discussion.” 

“The governor hopes that this project can be a part of righting historic wrongs,” Charles Boyle, deputy communications director for Gov. Kate Brown, told The Skanner via email this week. “She expects the Oregon Department of Transportation to continue to engage in conversations to address the needs of the Black and African American community throughout this process.”

ODOT Moving Forward

ODOT, meanwhile, has indicated that it will push ahead with the project. On Monday afternoon, the department announced it would award a construction management and general contractor contract as a joint venture to Hamilton Construction and Sundt Construction, in association with Black-owned construction firm Raimore.

“In its Request for Proposals, ODOT also included a provision that the proposers meet a goal range of 18-22% use of Disadvantaged Business Enterprises,” the department said in its press release. “Workforce goals include a 20% goal for apprenticeships, 25% minority male and 14% female workers.”

Yohannes took exception to ODOT’s statement that the project would include “a focus on restorative justice for communities harmed by previous government actions.”

“Albina Vision is asking ODOT to lead with transformative investments that provide healing and opportunities for building long-term community wealth,” Yohannes told The Skanner in response. “Instead, ODOT is attempting to bulldoze ahead while continuing to build on their legacy of dividing and exploiting the Black community. This is shameful and should be stopped immediately by the governor.”

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