When the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) adopts a new design for the Foster Road Transportation and Streetscape Plan, it will come more than 10 years after the city and neighborhood adopted its original version. The 2003 plan called for improved transportation measures and streetscape beautification, but, unfortunately, well before biking and the concept of a “20 minute neighborhood” caught hold of the planning process…thus the plan’s refresh 10 years later.
If/when shovels hit dirt (we’ve heard 2014), it will mark the end of more than a decade of leaning on the city to improve our beloved thoroughfare.
In that time, though, the neighborhood has seen dramatic changes that are not the result of city money or planning—though they do get credit for storefront improvements, initial biking and ped improvements, etc.—rather the efforts and energy of local residents and community groups. Neighborhood garden tours; pub crawls; community engagement; fresh paint jobs and new gardens; supporting local businesses; pride of place. These are all reasons why Foster has emerged as an “up and coming” neighborhood (though that title was applied several years ago—will we move beyond?).
To be sure, infrastructure (see Foster Streetscape Plan) and catalytic projects (theater? grocery store?) will ultimately take us to the next level. However, it’s evident that the neighborhood’s trajectory is fueled from within. And in that vein, one has to wonder how much responsibility our local property owners have to the neighborhood. I mean, it’s no coincidence that the neighborhood’s appeal and rising property values (save for a recent housing crash and subsequently slow recovery) have coincided with an increase in renovated homes, spruced up gardens, and new business owners investing in the commercial corridor. But just because it makes the neighborhood nicer, is it one’s responsibility?
However, there are some cases where a property owner’s neglect to improve on their holding has a detrimental effect. Overgrown weeds; dilapidated structures; squatters; garbage; boarded up and/or broken windows; graffiti. All are signs that a property owner has given up taking care of their property. So should they be held accountable?
Some examples in our neighborhood range from yards that are simply unkept, to vacant homes with overgrown weeds, and then progressing to the downright nasty: boarded up homes with trash littered about and condemned buildings that pose safety concerns. Sometimes it’s tough to know who owns the property. Sometimes it’s a bank, or sometimes the owner has passed away. But what if that’s not the case?
The city is taking some steps to address this issue on a smaller scale, for example, by holding property owners responsible for the cost of boarding up unsafe and vacant homes or maintaining overgrown weeds. On a larger scale, though, how do we combat the glut of rundown buildings on Foster if not by leaning on the property owners to do something? Take the Phoenix Pharmacy building, for example. Many see the potential of the site with it’s historic structure, brick facade, and prominence at the corner of Foster and SE 67th. But that potential is wrapped in plywood, broken windows, and graffiti…oh, and a large poster with the city’s signature “U” marking it as unsafe.
I can’t rehab the building and unveil its promise, though. Nor can you. And if the owner could afford to, perhaps they would have already. And if they were inclined to sell the building, I suppose that would have happened already, too. In the meantime, water drips onto the sidewalk from a faulty gutter drain; broken windows create safety issues; and its decay possibly acts as a deterrent to potential investors or business owners interested in Foster.
So who’s responsible, if anyone?
Does the city condemn it or use its power of eminent domain? Does the owner have a responsibility to better integrate the property into the surrounding neighborhood? Do we, as volunteers, offer to fix it up?
The concept of private property is a tricky one when considering the impact on environmental and social surroundings. And perhaps it’s a debate not fit for this site, and rather should be taken on by a neighborhood or business association. In the end, though, it’s clear that Foster’s ability to prosper cannot be solely tied to the city (after all, Urban Renewal money is drying up). Yes, they can facilitate the process. And yes, they can support us the same way they’d support the Central Eastside or Alberta Arts District. But some of the onus falls on property owners, too. To what extent is the question.