Speirs, who edits and writes history for the St. Johns Review, perhaps rightly describes the relationship between Portland and St. Johns as “contentious.” And while nobody is using the phrase “making amends,” it’s not hard to view the Portland Development Commission’s recent announcements as an effort in karmic correction. The agency is considering redrawing the borders of the Interstate Corridor urban renewal area to include St. Johns (which would make it eligible for some of the projected $21 million in development funds). A final decision is expected early next year. The neighborhood is also on the short list for Portland’s inaugural Main Street program. Developed in partnership with the National Trust for Historical Preservation, which has implemented it successfully in places like Orlando, Boston, and Baltimore, the program is designed to preserve old buildings by making historic commercial districts more economically viable. The PDC was set to announce up to four selectees in June.
But this sort of thing has been dangled in front of the community before. In the early 1980s, the city formed a 120-acre urban renewal area in St. Johns with the promise of $14.9 million in development funds. But the deal collapsed. And in the aftermath of the 1990 property-tax cap, Measure 5, the city pulled the plug on urban renewal in the neighborhood.
Robin Plance, a former neighborhood association chairman, is hopeful, but history still hangs heavy in the air. “Like most of North Portland,” he says, “we’ve always distrusted what a government employee is really wanting from the community or wanting to do to the community.”
In the meantime, the most glaring, immediate, and long-lasting artifact of St. Johns’ lurch forward has been met with a collective sigh. The site of the former Rose City Chevrolet dealership that once dominated an entire block at the town center’s gateway, right next to the welcome sign, has been scraped and readied for the groundbreaking of a new development: a three-story mini-storage facility camouflaged at street level by some retail storefronts.
“Is a storage place the greatest business for the gateway to St. Johns?” asks Shamus Lynsky, who was part of a neighborhood coalition to keep a Walgreens from occupying the same lot. “Probably not. Is it better than a big box store with a drive-thru? Probably. Is it better than a payday loan place, though? Definitely.”
As St. Johns heads tentatively into the future, it’s all about baby steps.