Huge news from the Portland Mercury and Willamette Week: The nonprofit Albina Vision Trust has decided it will no longer support the Oregon Department of Transportation’s I-5 Rose Quarter project and they will no longer participate in an advisory role.
In a tweet posted today, reporter Blair Stevnick wrote, “Albina Vision Trust is withdrawing from all planning on ODOT’s Rose Quarter 1-5 project, saying that ‘Despite our good faith efforts, we do not see our engagement resulting in meaningful changes to the project or its anticipated outcomes.'”
And here’s more from Willamette Week who reported on the email sent today from Albina Vision Trust Managing Director Winta Yohannes to ODOT and Governor Kate Brown:
“Real change is demanded of all of us,” says Yohannes, who said the “red flag” was the failure by Oregon Department of Transportation to delineate how the project timeline and decision-making would change with input from the renewed discussions that began in January…We cannot accept their position that they’ll change without changing.”
The Willamette Week also reports that PBOT Commissioner Chloe Eudaly no longer supports the project.
This is a monumental blow for ODOT. It also has huge ramifications for other top regional elected officials who’ve tied their own support of this controversial freeway expansion project to its alleged ability to realize the goals of Albina Vision Trust.
Since it was launched in 2017, backers of the vision have made it clear their priority is to re-invest in a neighborhood that was decimated by racism-fueled “urban renewal efforts” like the construction of Memorial Coliseum and Interstate 5. As we reported in 2017, Albina Vision leaders said they wanted to restore the area and make it a vibrant residential and commercial core where people could afford to live and enjoy safe, bike-friendly streets.
Key to their plans was reclaiming the space where I-5 currently passes through. From Day One Albina Vision leaders made it clear if the freeway continued to exist it must be capped with lids capable of carrying multi-story buildings and a dense road network. In February of last year we shared how it was increasingly unlikely this vision was compatible with ODOT’s plans. (ODOT’s proposal includes only open space on top of lids that would be too weak to hold major buildings.)
The lids seem to be only one sticking point for this decision. Albina Vision Trust has expressed unease about the project for a long time.
Albina Vision Board Chair Rukaiyah Adams has never been a huge fan of the project and has been one of its most influential skeptics. Asked at a panel discussion in March 2019 if she could imagine a future of Albina Vision without the freeway widening project, Adams said, “Yes. I can,” and then turned to the ODOT Project Manager Megan Channell and said, “Megan, I’m sorry.”
“We have thousands of people needing affordable housing and this is 94 acres in the central city,” Adams continued. “I think we should design our processes and outcomes for the people who live here. I want the city to work for the people. And we’re not backing down.”
Adams then formalized her opinions in a letter about ODOT’s environmental review process later that month. “It is not enough to listen to community concerns and document them,” Adams wrote to project managers. “You need to take action that responds to what you heard. We understand that ODOT cannot completely undo the environmental impacts of the original l-5 construction; however, AVT [Albina Vision Trust] believes the current [project] is an opportunity to take a different approach.”
It’s clear to Albina Vision Trust that ODOT has no plans to do anything different.
What’s especially notable about this news is that politicians like Metro Council President Lynn Peterson and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler saw Albina Vision Trust as a lifeline that could be used to justify their ongoing support of the project.
In an interview with KATU last spring, Peterson said, “The more important aspect of the project though [beyond addressing congestion], is that it will allow for the Albina Vision to be realized.” There was never any promise that the vision would be realized, but Peterson needed to say that in order to justify her support of a project that many of her constituents vehemently oppose.
Asked by Oregon Public Broadcasting about his support of the project in 2017, Wheeler said, “Reconnecting the street grid for the historic Albina community” was one of the top reasons for his support. “… [The project] actually restores the very neighborhood that was the most impacted by the development of I-5 and that’s the historic African American Albina community. And that’s why people who have testified on this — who have testified overwhelmingly in favor of this — tend to be people from communities of color who understand that history.”
Mayor Wheeler was so hitched to Albina Vision he devoted $75,000 of his proposed budget to help further its development.
But one week ago Wheeler sounded much more skeptical.
“Can this project deliver on all of the values that we have established?,” Wheeler said at a meeting of the project’s Executive Steering Committee that was live-tweeted by No More Freeways. “We are establishing an expectation to the community that we will deliver on those values… at some point we’re going to have to do the hard work beyond just listening and actually have to start answering questions.”
Reflecting on the tone at that meeting, No More Freeways wrote, “It’s clear that national protests over last month has (rightly) turbocharged the primacy with which this project’s viability will come down to whether or not ODOT can credibly claim this is a transformative investment for Black Portland.”
With Albina Vision’s criticisms of ODOT and decision to no longer be at the table, it’s unlikely Wheeler, Peterson or any other regional elected will be able to justify their continued support of the project.
And with the PBOT Commissioner no longer supportive, how can ODOT even move forward with the project? Just like Albina Vision’s support was crucial for support from top elected officials, PBOT’s support and partnership has been crucial to ODOT’s game plan. Will they just press forward and rely on their unelected rubber-stamping friends at the Oregon Transportation Commission to have their backs?
UPDATE, 1:30 pm: Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has just withdrawn his support for the project:
“With the history of transportation infrastructure dividing communities, it is critical that entities like Albina Vision, which champions restorative justice, equity, and forward-thinking – are at the table for this process. At every step, I have asked ODOT for specific goals to be met around climate, community, and economic development. Those goals have not been met. Therefore, I am withdrawing my support for the I-5 Rose Quarter Project.”
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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