Miracles take time

From the Oregonian, July 24 2008

King neighborhood’s residents and the Miracles Club walk a tightrope toward change

This spring, Charles Boardman walked into his first meeting of the King Neighborhood Association confused and angry.

He emerged as the neighborhood association’s new chairman.

That’s the way things go these days in King, a collection of fast-changing residential streets divided by Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Urban renewal has started hitting the boulevard, following close on the heels of younger, whiter residents who are finding some of the city’s last true real estate deals in an area that was once almost entirely black. Today, MLK is poised between what it had been — a thriving street that catered to African American residents; what it has become — a prime example of urban blight; and something new. Residents differ on just what that something new will turn out to be.

The result is an increasing sense of conflict between new neighbors, such as Boardman, and old institutions, such as the Miracles Club.

Boardman moved in two years ago, about the same time members of the nonprofit club for recovering addicts learned that they might need to find another space.

In a cramped, poorly lit former warehouse at Northeast MLK and Mason, the 200-person club hosts 12-step meetings, poetry readings, weekly family nights and fundraising dances. Despite the lack of air-conditioning, it’s a safe, sober environment where addicts can socialize without temptation.

In the fall of 2006, however, the club’s landlord announced that he was selling. Club members worried they might have to leave Northeast Portland, abandoning the inner city for cheaper real estate farther out — and farther from the people they serve.

City Council members read about the club’s plight and opted to intervene. They donated $500,000 to help find land and pushed the Portland Development Commission to do more.

City planners helped find the perfect piece of real estate — four vacant lots essentially right across MLK. And they maneuvered to help the Miracles Club, which relies on government grants and members’ donations to support a shoestring budget, pay for a new home.

They’re thinking big: Club leaders envision a $14 million, five-story building that includes ample meeting space and a coffee shop downstairs, plus 38 apartments for newly sober addicts above.

The PDC has redrawn the urban renewal district that stretches up MLK to include the property so the club can qualify for millions in tax breaks. Bureaucrats also are helping the club apply for state and federal grants aimed at curbing drug and alcohol addiction.

“We want to be more than just a social club,” says Herman Bryant, chairman of the club’s governing board and a recovering addict clean for nine years. “We want to do more to save people’s lives.”

To his thinking, the new location is perfect: Miracles will still be in the neighborhood where so many of its members used drugs in the first place.

But the property backs up to Grand Avenue, and neighbors would have clear sight- and sound-lines of the new apartments. Residents on Grand aren’t quite as excited.

Neighborly relations

In the early years, the 14-year-old Miracles Club had shaky relations with its old neighbors. Nearby residents complained about loud music and boisterous crowds outside the club at all hours.

Some still do, although club leaders have been more successful — and diligent — about fighting the problems in the past two or three years. They’re constantly reminding members not to play their car stereos too loudly when they show up for sunrise Narcotics Anonymous meetings, for example.

When they got ready to plan a new home, they tried to continue to smooth things over.

Last October, several Miracles Club board members went to the monthly meeting of the King Neighborhood Association to talk about their proposed building and the expanded urban renewal district.

They left thinking the neighborhood board supported their work. Maybe the dozen or so people at the meeting did. But nobody — not neighborhood leaders, not club officials, not city bureaucrats — bothered to tell those most directly affected, the ones whose property was closest to the new club.

“It was like they were trying to pull something over on us,” says Boardman, the new neighborhood association chairman.

Grand Avenue runs north-south down most of east Portland, turning quiet and residential farther north. Prices are rising here, and problems — speeding cars, the occasional drug deal, houses that need a paint job or a serious garden overhaul — are slowly disappearing.

For the young families and first-time homebuyers who are remaking the street, it’s an opportunity to buy a house in an up-and-coming neighborhood that’s a quick bike or bus ride from downtown and within easy walking distance of a growing number of shops and services.

Which is why they started to panic this past spring when they heard the first rumors about some kind of “drug treatment center” going in next to their homes.

In a series of increasingly angry e-mails to Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s office this summer — Saltzman was the one who first proposed giving the Miracles Club city money — neighbors told poignant stories of how they came to Grand. They wondered what city leaders were doing to their blossoming community and why no one had bothered to tell them.

“Would this gross procedural oversight have happened in Alameda? Would it have happened in Hillside? In the Pearl?” Boardman wrote. “I think you know the shameful answer to that question. . . . One cannot help but have the feeling that because it’s only lowly old King, it’s ‘only MLK,’ it’s quite acceptable to brush off those pesky processes and get down to the business of breaking ground.”

In other e-mails, residents wondered whether pedophiles and violent criminals would be allowed in the apartments. They also made not-quite-veiled threats about potential legal action.

Finally, developer Ross Cornelius stepped in and suggested that representatives from the neighborhood and the club get together. A funny thing happened when everybody sat down: They started talking.

Partial meetings of minds

Neighbors saw that most of the members of the Miracles Club were reasonable people trying to rebuild their lives and help others do the same. Miracles Club members saw that neighbors had legitimate concerns — the possibility for more crime and more traffic — and legitimate reasons to feel ignored.

This summer, there have been more meetings. The conversation is not always pleasant. At one meeting, a resident admitted that she worried the new apartments would bring down her property values.

But there are positives for both sides. Miracles Club members got to practice some of that patience they preach in Narcotics Anonymous meetings. They also received some helpful input about steps they can take now to avoid problems later: for example, making sure that younger, potentially noisier residents are placed in apartments along MLK rather than in the back.

The King association has been reinvigorated. Soon after taking over, for example, Boardman and his fellow board members discovered that King has $10,000 in the bank, the accumulation of several years’ worth of annual city support. They decided to start helping pay for block party barricades, one more step toward creating a more active, influential association.

“I think what has happened here shows serious, serious problems with the way the city’s neighborhood system works, at least in a neighborhood like ours,” says Scott Lanier, who has lived in King for 12 years and seen the place transformed. “Unless you go to every meeting, you have no idea what is going on. Unless you know somebody in city government, nobody there feels any need to keep you informed.”

City officials at the PDC and City Hall object to the notion that they didn’t keep people informed or that Miracles Club leaders didn’t do their job. Getting urban renewal district lines redrawn is a time-consuming process, they point out, that meant several public votes and ample contact with the neighborhood association, the local business district and other community groups. The problem, they say, must be at the neighborhood association level or lower.

Even though everyone is finally talking, success isn’t guaranteed. The Miracles Club is still working, with the PDC’s help, to find the money it needs for construction. Even if they get it, Bryant and his colleagues know there are risks. After all, they’ve never run an apartment complex before.

“The success of this project is up to the Miracles Club (participants) themselves and how they interact with the people living above them,” says Cornelius, whose Guardian Management is developing the building with the club.

Neighbors say they’re pleased that the debate has re-energized their association. But they won’t know whether their efforts have worked until the new Miracles Club actually opens. They worry, despite the club’s efforts, about potential problems with loiterers, noise and traffic.

For now, at least, everybody is getting along. Club leaders have promised to sign a Good Neighbor Agreement, which will set down parameters for when the club can be open, who neighbors call to complain and other basics. They’re trying to figure out where to put a smoking area — cigarettes are one of the last vices many recovering addicts have — so smokers won’t bother neighbors. And they’ve already agreed to nix a driveway that would have dumped cars from the new complex’s parking lot onto Grand.

In the wake of that decision, the club has asked neighbors for comments on another decision: If not a driveway, what do you want at the back of the parking lot? Bryant suggested some kind of walkway that would allow Miracles Club members and Grand Avenue neighbors to interact, a path connecting the club and the community.

Just last week, 22 neighbors, including Boardman, responded in a letter. In cordial terms, they made it clear: They don’t want a walkway. They want a fence, or a wall.