Sunday, December 21, 2014

Dekum Court Triangle

Today's mystery spot comes to us via a reader suggestion. Back in December 2012, Gentle Reader av3ed left a comment about a strange bit of open space in NE Portland, in the triangle formed by NE Saratoga, Dekum St. & 27th Avenue. The triangle is ringed by regular 1970s suburban houses, and then in the center there's a parcel of empty land (the comment called it a "triangular park-like green space"), with a pair of narrow access corridors between the houses. I'd never heard of the place before, so I looked up its PortlandMaps entry and noticed something very peculiar. It doesn't list an owner, and doesn't list any taxes being paid on the place. I've never seen that before. So I had a mystery on my hands.

So I drove by and took a photo of the "main entrance" corridor on Saratoga, which looks like a narrow weedy vacant lot between two houses, with a gap in the sidewalk where the corridor meets the street. I didn't stop and go in, since a.) I had no idea who owned the place, and b.) going in would have involved bushwhacking through tall grass and blackberries and mud and probably random garbage and whatnot. It didn't look promising. And really, the mystery is the interesting part here anyway, not the place itself in its current form.

Thanks to the library's Oregonian database, I was able to tease out the unusual backstory behind the place. Just north of here is the Portland Housing Authority's Dekum Court project, which began as WWII emergency housing, as part of the same effort that build other public housing projects around the city, notably the large project at Vanport City. Dekum Court was originally built as housing for NCOs stationed at the nearby Portland Air Base, which is today's Air National Guard base at the Portland Airport. The project was also significantly larger at the time, and included the area now built up with 1970s houses. This detail will become important shortly. After the war, residents of the surrounding neighborhood feared the complex would be turned into low-income housing and fought against it for years. The project was declared surplus after the Korean War and, as expected, was handed over to the Portland Housing Authority. Neighbors were angry, but could do nothing to stop it.

The buildings at Dekum Court had only been designed with a five year lifetime in mind, so by 1970 the complex was showing its age and the housing authority began a project to demolish and rebuild it in several phases. The housing authority director labeled the project a "slum" in 1971, while lobbying for funding for the second and third reconstruction phases. The authority then accelerated the process of boarding up and demolishing up to 75 existing units, with a pledge to build new units once funding became available.

But just then the Nixon administration placed an 18 month moratorium on construction of new public housing, leaving the site as vacant land for an extended period of time. The surrounding neighborhood had never come to terms with low-income housing in their midst, and the delay gave neighbors time to organize against the proposed replacement. By 1976, the rebuilding proposal was stalemated, as the housing authority fought with the Concordia neighborhood association about the future of the land. The association wanted either a park or low-density, single-family private homes, basically anything but new public housing. Neighbors worried about crime, noise, traffic, and most of all they feared upsetting the "racial balance" of the neighborhood, which was a semi-respectable way of saying they didn't want any more black neighbors. The authority insisted its hands were tied, as the 1955 purchase deal with the federal government bound them to use the area as public housing for at least 40 years. The director hinted darkly that if they did get permission to use the land for something else, they'd choose the biggest revenue-generating option, which would be high-density apartments. And then there would be over three times as many people here as there would under the public housing proposal. Nevertheless, the article suggested the association would likely win the battle eventually.

Despite its previous warning about the deed, the authority quickly got approval to sell the land, and started courting apartment developers. This triggered a second fight with the neighborhood association, as neighbors lobbied to rezone the land for single-family homes instead. The association prevailed in December 1977, and the land was officially "downzoned" by the city planning commission. The land was sold to J.W. Brayson, a homebuilding firm, in April 1978.

After yet another neighborhood battle, the homebuilder sold five lots back to the housing authority for use as a playground, but other than that the area was developed as a typical 1970s subdivision. Which looks a bit strange here in the middle of inner NE Portland, surrounded by century-old bungalow homes. The developers did a couple of odd things here. First, the subdivision was just called "Dekum Court", same as the controversial housing project that had been all over the news the past few years. If they'd talked to anyone who'd passed Marketing 101, they would have been told to choose a different name, any name other than Dekum Court.

Second, the subdivision's street layout formed a large triangle bordered by 27th, Dekum, and Saratoga. The developers built houses around the perimeter of the triangle and left a big unbuildable "donut hole" in the middle, i.e. the mystery spot this post is all about. Through all of the years of discussion and handwringing, this unused chunk of land never came up once in the discussion, at least not in the newspaper. I do know it isn't the isn't the playground space that the neighborhood argued over; the playground lots are on the north side of Saratoga, next to the present-day Head Start center. Although at present there is no playground there.

As for who owns this remnant land, a clue comes from a March 2012 meeting of the Concordia neighborhood association, with a brief item that appears to concern the mystery triangle here:

Further discussion Dekum Court/Housing Authority request: Who does the land belong to in that area? The housing authority owns 5 lots in 54 subdivision lot. It is a “planned unit development” and includes a 54 unit subdivision. Each of the owners of the subdivision own a divided interest in this parcel of land that was intended as common open space in the original plan. Dekum Court HOA (to be reconstituted) and housing authority are going to take look at property and come back and look into ideas on what to do with the land. In future could come to us and CU to help with area.

So this tells us the Dekum Court subdivision was supposed to have its own HOA, complete with a private community park (albeit one the city owns a ~9% stake in via the housing authority). The subdivision I grew up in out in Aloha had a similar HOA-and-parks arrangement, on a larger scale, and it seemed to work out pretty well. But here, the HOA fell apart at some point long ago, and the park never happened at all. And now, four decades later, today's residents aren't sure what to do with the place. I couldn't find a follow-up item indicating they'd come up with a plan, so I suppose it just stays a weedy lot for now.

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