This Article originally ran in the Oregonian:

Mississippi rising -- fast

The North Portland street is ablaze with gentrification, and more projects are in the works
Thursday, April 14, 2005

Not many years ago, the area around Portland's North Mississippi Avenue and Shaver Street was known for drug dealing, panhandling and prostitution. The few legitimate businesses that dotted that stretch of Mississippi tended to board up their windows against vandalism and break-ins.

Today, the street's transformation into a haven for eateries and creative small shops is nothing short of stunning. And the pace of development is hitting warp speed.

Five new housing and commercial projects in various planning stages in the Boise neighborhood signal an intensification and expansion of entrepreneurial energy. The activity is creating a range of emotions among residents and businesses in what has long been a low-income, heavily minority neighborhood.

Among the projects: a Grand Central Baking cafe and food production facility in a development that will include housing; Kurisu International, a garden-design company planning its headquarters and a therapeutic garden on Mississippi; a residential and a commercial development at North Fremont and Williams, and a potentially 80-plus unit, high-end, residential or mixed-use project at Mississippi and Fremont by the developer that turned North Portland's former Bess Kaiser Hospital into Adidas Village.

"It's pretty exciting," said Ben Kaiser, president of the Kaiser Group, a small development firm handling the Grand Central Baking and the Williams and Fremont projects. "It seems to be like wildfire over here on Mississippi and on Fremont."

Development on North Mississippi and the Boise neighborhood, as in other gentrifying neighborhoods, has been jump-started in part by urban-renewal dollars. North Mississippi has developed with a grass-roots flair. The ReBuilding Center sells inexpensive recycled house parts. The new Mississippi Commons is filling with unique locally owned businesses. And the Fresh Pot coffee shop and neighboring eateries serve a mostly young, bohemian crowd.

Going forward, business owners such as Grand Central Baking's Ben Davis, Kurisu International's Kuniko Kurisu and developers such as Kaiser see themselves as contributing to the improvement of a once-ailing neighborhood.

"It's more about the vibrancy and energy over here," said Kaiser. "I hope it doesn't come across that it's about the money."

Yet there is no mistaking the ramping up of projects and the gradual, greater emphasis on a higher-end market.

Jim Winkler, president of Winkler Development Corp., which did the Adidas Village project, bought 30,000, mostly vacant square feet on the west side of Mississippi, in sight of interstates 5 and 405, the river and downtown.

Winkler said he is focusing on a privately financed, market-rate project with residential units and possibly some retail or work space.

"We are exploring the feasibility of doing a significant development on our property -- something that would be architecturally iconic and would be very green," said Winkler, including such details as advanced storm-water management, high energy efficiency and high indoor air quality.

Dramatic impact

In a neighborhood where the median household income in 2000 was $25,484 a year, the impact of such change is dramatic.

The Native American Youth and Family Center helped reclaim North Mississippi from its recent decay, said Nichole Maher, the organization's executive director. The social-service organization leased space in 2000 in the old red-brick Mississippi Ballroom on the northeast corner of Mississippi and Shaver and worked with the landlord to clean up the building and the needle- and glass-strewn vacant lot next door.

When the first new businesses popped up on the street -- Mississippi Pizza and the Fresh Pot coffee house -- Maher said her staff formed good relationships with them. But as the business district has filled out, she said the vibe has changed. She said her staff and clients have felt snubbed in some restaurants and she's heard remarks that their building would be so much better if it had retail shops.

"I think there is this attitude of why are you here?" Maher said. "It just kind of adds up to feeling like you're not part of the community any more."

Kurisu International bought the Mississippi Ballroom and five surrounding lots last summer, four of which are vacant. The business was founded 30 years ago by Hoichi Kurisu, one of the first designers of the Japanese Garden in Washington Park.

Kurisu is considering building over the next two years a three- or four-story building on some of the vacant land and a therapeutic garden, open to the public, said Kuniko Kurisu, the project coordinator and daughter of the owner. The Mississippi Ballroom would remain.

The company has worked with the Native American organization to help them stay put. But Maher said her organization is looking to buy a county surplus property in the area for their home.

Many praise change

Many residents and business people are pleased with the changes.

Cliff Belt, who owns R.C. Belt Construction and is acting president of the recently formed Historic Mississippi Business Association, said the heightened foot traffic and investment on the street has improved it. He said he is sensitive to the gentrification moniker, noting that many businesses, like his own, bought property with little idea of what was about to happen.

"There's just a lot of entrepreneurs on a real small budget," said Belt, who bought a 2,000-square-foot shop on Mississippi five years ago. "Most of them just lucked in."

Push for affordable housing

Nicole Williams, chairperson of the Boise Neighborhood Association, said the association is pushing developers to offer some affordable housing and is favoring projects that bring jobs, such as the Grand Central Baking project scheduled to open in the fall.

Grand Central Baking's Davis said that in addition to opening a cafe, the company plans to consolidate its pastry and other food production and storage in a renovated version of the old concrete tilt-up Chappell Trucking warehouse. Davis said roughly 30 to 35 people, mostly existing employees, will work at the new location and that with the jobs turning over roughly every three years, there should be job opportunities soon.

"We hope to hire local people," Davis said. "We're all about that. We want to be a part of revitalizing neighborhoods."

Erin Hoover Barnett: 503-294-5011;