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The changing face of St. Johns

Can St. Johns hold onto its neighborhood feel amid the rapid influx of new buildings and residents?

KGW Staff

The first drops of redevelopment in Portland - building booms, flipped houses and rising rents – fell in inner Southeast. From there, they spread Northeast and south. They flowed into Irvington, Alberta, Mississippi. North Tabor, Sellwood and Woodstock, too.

Now, that ripple effect has filtered into the outermost regions of the city. At the very northern tip of Portland, the neighborhood of St. Johns is inundated with rapid growth.

One of Portland's most diverse and historically poor neighborhoods is seeing housing prices spike and gleaming apartment complexes erected where run-down warehouses and century-old cottages once stood.  

Along with that, new restaurants, shops and customers are flooding the historic downtown corridor, which still feels like a small town where people greet each other on the street by name.  

 "That's why people are attracted to St. Johns," said Lindsay Jensen, executive director for the nonprofit development group St. Johns Main Street. "They move here because they want to be a part of that community feel."

Unlike some other Portland neighborhoods, many residents in St. Johns welcome growth. But can St. Johns hold onto its character, or will the influx of new residents push out the very thing people love most about it?

In many ways, Portland is less of a cohesive city and more a collection of distinct neighborhoods. In St. Johns, which has historically been lower income and ethnically diverse, the blue-collar feel permeates the area.

Physically, it's the largest neighborhood in Portland, flanked on the north by industrial activity and train tracks to the south. It's also bordered by water and parks – the Willamette to the west, and the sprawling, wildlife-filled Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area to the east. In between, skinny streets with little homes butt up against newer apartment complexes and condos.

"The growth is incredible. It really is," said Mary Lewis, who grew up in St. Johns. "It used to be a pretty poor population and a pretty forgotten part of Portland."

While neighbors are now used to seeing new buildings pop up, the development reached a fever pitch this summer.

A LEED Platinum 165-unit apartment complex, the Marvel 29, recently opened near the St. Johns Bridge. Rents start at $1,000 a month for a studio.  A 105-unit building, the Union at St. Johns, will soon take up an entire block on Lombard Street. Construction on that building will start in early 2016.

Both buildings have or plan to include multiple retail spaces on their ground floors.

"We see this as an opportunity to do something great for St. Johns and set a high bar for future development," said Alan Jones, former St. Johns resident and principal architect for the Union project.

Other smaller developments such as the Two-thirds Project, which includes a handful of residential lofts and business spaces, are recent additions to the downtown core. According to Jensen, these developments are a boon for both new and established businesses.

"We already have an incredible business corridor," she said. "With new mixed-use developments going in where there's commercial space at the bottom, there will be even more business growth in this neighborhood."

Adding to classic St. Johns outlets such as Pattie's Home Plate Café and The Man's Shop, a fleet of new businesses that would fit in on any trendy Portland street are now in the mix. The Asian fusion restaurant Mama San just started serving the neighborhood. Nearby, the do-it-yourself canning and soapmaking store St. Johns Living Well opened its doors a few months ago. A New Seasons will open on Lombard early next year.

The owners of Therapy, an upscale San Francisco-based lifestyle chain, decided to open a location in St. Johns after visiting the neighborhood. 

"We came here and instantly felt at home in St. Johns," said Therapy employee Brittney Nicolulis.

Along with the business growth, more people are moving to St. Johns. It's one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in Portland.

Many worry the downtown area, with mostly street parking and no close access to a MAX line, will become a crush of cars.

"Because public transportation is not that accessible into and out of St. Johns, the reality is people do drive here. They need parking," Jensen said. "Businesses are concerned that they want their customers to be able to park in the neighborhood."

Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesman Dylan Rivera said the city is considering solutions for parking problems in St. Johns, including paid or permitted on-street parking and working with Trimet to improve bus service.  

For St. Johns Main Street, the biggest challenge right now is being prepared for all of the growth that's yet to come.

"Trying to be strategic and thoughtful and knowing that this stuff is coming fast and furious is a huge challenge," said Jensen.  

But as more people move in, the inevitable changes are making it nearly impossible for St. Johns to hold on to some of the residents whose families have lived there for generations.

As more people move into the city, housing prices are increasing, which is unsurprising to anyone living in Portland. But in St. Johns, the jump has been especially extreme.  

The average home sale was nearly $250,000 in July, according to real estate website Zillow, up from $165,000 in 2012. In that time, rents have risen by an average of $300 a month, to $1,500.  

According to the State of Housing report from the Portland Housing Bureau, that means the average black, Latino or Native American household couldn't buy a home in St. Johns or even afford to rent a studio in the neighborhood.

The report shows Latino people could only afford homes around 122nd and Division, the Centennial neighborhood and Hayden Island. Black people and Native Americans, on average, could not afford to buy a home anywhere in Portland city limits.

The U.S. Census Bureau shows that St. Johns is becoming less racially diverse, following a trend that's already happened in the neighborhoods of Mississippi and Alberta.

"Of course people have been pushed out," said Mary Lewis, who grew up in Portland but now lives in Lake Oswego because it's more affordable. "The rents have really increased in North and Northeast Portland."

Jensen said the gentrification of St. Johns is inevitable as rents rise.

"The supply and demand, particularly in St. Johns, is completely out of whack right now," she said. "There's a lot of risk for longtime residents, particularly for low-income families or people of color, to be displaced from this neighborhood." 

Residents aren't the only ones leaving St. Johns. As property values rise, it's harder for underperforming businesses, even neighborhood favorites, to make ends meet.

The Baowry, which was one of the first new restaurants to signal in the revitalization of St. Johns when it opened in 2011, will soon be razed to make way for townhouse-style apartments.

The owners of the Baowry helped turn the former drug den on Ivanhoe Street into an Asian fusion restaurant. It's been popular ever since but, according to the landlord Todd Deneffe, the restaurant owners haven't been able to bring in enough money to sustain it and he's had to make up for the difference.

"Their rent is about half of what market is," Deneffe said. "Alan [Torres, co-owner of the Baowry] might not be able to survive because he needs cheap rent and a spot that might not exist."

Deneffe plans to build the apartments when the restaurant's lease is up next year. Torres doesn't know where he'll move the business when that happens.

"We're trying to be like San Francisco and Seattle," Torres lamented of the city's growth. "It's changing in a positive and a negative way, but it's just too fast."  

The Baowry isn't the only now-iconic St. Johns spot slated for removal. Driving east from the St. Johns Bridge, visitors and residents are greeted at the entrance to the neighborhood by a large blue sign that says, "Welcome to historic St. Johns." The sign now stands on a traffic island, surrounded by flowers and grasses that neighbors planted themselves.

Next year, that island spur, known by residents as "Ivy Island," will be taken out so a traffic signal can be put in instead. It's a safety improvement the city has wanted to implement for more than a decade as part of the St. Johns/Lombard Plan. Farid Bolouri, the developer of the Union apartments, is going to pay for the improvements as part of his agreement with the city.

But some neighbors argue the plan never called for four-story apartment buildings and adding fewer parking spaces than residents.

"This is just too big," said John Teply, owner of Atelier Gallery. "If you're going to quote the Lombard plan then quote the Lombard plan. The plan says we should also have parking. From what I can tell, this is sort of a bait-and-switch."

Teply said taking out the island will take out a meaningful landmark for St. Johns residents.

"For those of us who live here, when we come to Ivy Island, you know that you're home," he said. "What you're going to have instead of this beautiful little island, instead of trees and grass, would be a four-story wall of apartments." 

Even though the change has sparked heated conversations among neighbors, architect Alan Jones said it's been mostly well-received. He estimates it will cost Bolouri a few hundred thousand dollars to implement, but it's needed in an area where traffic is building up.

"Cars are currently speeding off [Highway 30] for a number of blocks into town before they hit a traffic signal," said Jones.  "We are taking out that spur and putting in a right-hand turn lane, a turn light and a pedestrian crossing."

Jones said the team hopes to install the iconic sign somewhere else in the neighborhood.

Even with these changes, residents are hopeful St. Johns can hold on to its small-town charm. And although some people are getting pushed out, other longtime residents are holding on.

"It'll be good for St. Johns," said 64-year-old Tim Tyrell, a lifelong St. Johns resident. "It brings more money out here and they can improve a lot of stuff."

But Tyrell admitted he'd rather see the neighborhood stay the same.

"I kind of like the old style," he said. "But that's because I am old."