On summer days, Portland’s Keller Fountain is alive with children splashing, students playing with smartphones while dangling feet in the water, and workers from nearby offices enjoying lunch. Formerly named Forecourt, the Ira Keller Fountain sits across the street from the Ira Keller Auditorium, host of much big-name entertainment that comes to town.
Ira Keller was the first chairman of the Portland Development Commission (PDC). He served fourteen years ending in 1972. He is most remembered for the South Auditorium Urban Renewal project.
In 1955 Portland’s mayor appointed a committee to identify blighted sections of the city and develop a plan for revitalization. The committee recommended “clearance of six blighted areas of the city.”
The first project, completed in early sixties, was the Memorial Coliseum – now the Moda Center, home of the NBA Trailblazers. Thirty acres of a mostly African-American neighborhood was razed for its construction.
The PDC’s assignment was regeneration of Portland’s urban center.
Chairman Keller pushed through a renewal plan for the South Auditorium area of downtown. The project brought in jobs and increased the tax base. The formerly run-down neighborhood now boasts high-rise condominiums and apartments, a Marriott Hotel, a Mercedes Benz dealership, parks and fountains, and a refurbished auditorium.
Keller’s autocratic style precluded neighborhood input into commission plans that called for the razing of mostly immigrant housing in the South Auditorium area. The project destroyed small businesses – future mayor Bud Clark’s Spatenhaus tavern was razed and replaced with the Forecourt Fountain – pushed out long-time residents and demolished hundreds of homes. The neighborhood was home to clusters of Jewish and Italian residents and older, single men living in cheap walk-up apartments.
Federal money flowed for urban-renewal developments across the country. Similar stories of low-income, ethnic neighborhoods razed and replaced with shiny new buildings or highways came from Memphis, The Bronx, Mobile, Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles to mention but a few.
Construction of the I-405 freeway finished off the old South Auditorium neighborhood. Across the river, Interstate 5 ripped through a blue-collar neighborhood in northeast Portland. Locally known as the Minnesota Freeway, it tore a gash between Maryland and Montana Avenues and Missouri, Michigan and Mississippi Avenues. The next project, the Mt. Hood Freeway, was to head east from downtown Portland through the working-class Lents neighborhood. Public opposition was
strong enough to stop its construction. The I-5 Marquam Bridge leaving downtown still features the stubs that were to connect to the new highway.
It’s difficult to picture Seattle without its venerable Pike Place Public Market. In 1963, the mayor and city council supported a proposal to demolish the Market and replace it with “Pike Plaza,” an apartment building, four office buildings, a hotel, a hockey arena and a parking garage. Citizens responded with “Friends of the Market” and passed an initiative creating an historic preservation zone and the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority. During the 1970s, all the Market’s historic buildings were restored and renovated using the original plans and blueprints.
These days, neighborhood makeovers are more organic but in the long term, no less dramatic. Gentrification renovates building by building and over time changes completely the character of a community.