PORTLAND, Ore. — Business owners, community organizations and residents unveiled a 90-day plan to "repair, rebuild and reopen the Old Town corridor" during a press conference Tuesday morning at Lan Su Chinese Garden. The groups outlined goals for the community, the city of Portland and Multnomah County to reach to help with recovery efforts in the neighborhood.
Jessie Burke is the board chair of the OTCA and the owner of The Society Hotel. She called the past two years of the pandemic a tipping point that has exacerbated existing issues of chronic homelessness, the mental health crisis, violence and organized crime in Old Town.
"The crushing weight of watching our most vulnerable roam the streets is always hard, but coupled with empty offices and empty storefronts, trash buildup and city infrastructure falling into disrepair, visitors too scared to approach our neighborhood and drastic cuts and resignations in public safety — a new crowd started making their way to the streets of old town. A dangerous crowd," Burke said.
The plan calls for the following measures: reducing property crime by 40%, removing graffiti within three days, removing untagged or illegally parked vehicles within 24 hours, making sure all sidewalks have 60 inches of walkway clearance and increasing street light lumens by 100%.
The OTCA said its members and local organizations like Downtown Portland Clean & Safe have worked with the city's Office of Community & Civic Life to remove trash and graffiti in the area.
The 90-day plan has "clear steps and measurable outcomes needed to reopen Old Town" but OTCA said for it to succeed, the community needs more help from the city of Portland and Multnomah County.
"As Portland's oldest neighborhood, home to immigrants who overcame decades of discrimination and indignity, and today, home to so many who are fighting just to stay alive, we must to whatever we can to respond to the crisis of humanity unfolding around us. And we must do it today," said Elizabeth Nye, the executive director of Lan Su Chinese Garden.
Nye said the local government's inability to safeguard Old Town disrespects its history. "It is particularly devastating to our houseless neighbors who deserve more from their government," Nye said.
Portland Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who spoke with Old Town business and community leaders in October 2021 about the challenges facing the community, released a statement Tuesday afternoon reacting to OTCA's 90-day plan.
"I support the Old Town Community Association’s 90-day plan, especially the goals of reducing 911 call answering times, improving lighting in the area, and reducing tent camping by one-third," Mapps said. "To reduce tent camping in Old Town and other parts of Portland, we need our local shelter providers to lift their 50% capacity cap so that we have humane places for campers to go. The city of Portland and Multnomah County must work with our community partners to address these issues in our core and every other neighborhood."
WATCH NEWS CONFERENCE: Community groups discuss Old Town improvement plan
In October 2021, spurred by the rise in crime, violence and public camping in the Old Town neighborhood, the leaders of four cultural institutions — Lan Su Chinese Garden, the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and Portland Chinatown Museum — wrote a joint open letter asking each city and county commissioner for immediate help.
In response, Mapps sat down with leaders from the institutions to discuss the issues at hand. He told them the city had asked police to increase patrols in Old Town and he said he was planning to ask for public safety reforms, including hiring more police officers, during upcoming talks about the city's fall budget adjustment. He said he'd also push to expand the Portland Police Bureau's (PPB) Behavioral Health Unit and said he supported expanding Portland Street Response.
Nye, after the meeting with Mapps, said the initiatives laid out by Mapps lacked urgency.
"I think what is potentially concerning for us is one, that these are initiatives that have to be approved by all the city councilors and two, the timing of these initiatives lend themselves anywhere from fourth months up to a year," Nye said.
In November, the Portland City Council passed a fall budget adjustment that emphasized police and homeless support. The updated budget incorporated $62 million in unexpected one-time revenue to fund a joint initiative with Multnomah County to boost homeless services and a package of investments to reform and re-staff the Portland Police Bureau.
At the time, Mapps said the budget adjustment wasn't perfect but represented "some progress on some important goals."
"The investments we make today will make Portland safer, the investments we make today will help house the homeless, the investments we make today will help clean up the trash and graffiti that's accumulated on Portland streets during the COVID era, and the investments we make today will provide direct aid to Portlanders struggling to pay their bills," Mapps said.
Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell said he was pleased that the city council approved more funding for PPB. He said he wanted to start adding officers as soon as possible but cautioned it would take time.