Pictured in the summer of 1975, N Philadelphia near N Ivanhoe presents a vista of unyielding harshness. Save for a couple of trees in a dry and dusty patch of barkdust, nothing of this space is conducive to human joy. Soon, the city would initiate an ambitious redesign to stimulate reinvestment in the commercial district and serve as a model for neighborhood revitalization throughout Portland.
Jo Mancuso of the Oregonian sounded some timeless themes in her August 1976 writeup of St. Johns Redevelopment Plan:
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A favorite target in some business circles is the collection of faceless governmental officials who stifle progress and bury private enterprise in forms, hearings and plans. Another persistent image is that of the downtown greedily sucking up all city resources, leaving neighborhood commercial centers to struggle along without help.
The five-year action plan for upgrading the St. John’s business district – a joint effort of business people and citizens, the City Bureau of Planning and the Portland Development Commission, with help of private consultants – may put some rather large holes in those theories, however.
The [$800,000 ($3.4M 2016 USD] plan, who’s implementation already has begun with street closures in anticipation of traffic rerouting, calls for spending Federal Housing and Community Development money to encourage private improvements. The authors hope St. Johns’ ambitious renovation will be a model for other districts.Visible highlights would include renovation of the old St. Johns Garage for use as a transit station and public/commercial center, a clock plaza at N. Lombard St. and Philadelphia Ave, art painted on exterior walls, and establishment of the first “branch” Saturday Market.
“This is the first time the city has been involved in a neighborhood commercial area, but it is part of an overall strategy to stabilize inner-city neighborhoods,” (Mike Lyons, PDC)
St. Johns was picked because of it’s relative isolation on the North Portland Peninsula bounded by the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, with heavy industrialization along the river which gives it a small-town sense of place and rapport between the business community and the rest of the neighborhood.
The Oregonian. August, 1976
Forty years later, we see generous, tree studded plazas and narrow (almost European!) streets. It is hard to remember that downtown St. Johns was once the scene of some pretty radical urban re-engineering. Despite the best efforts of recent owners to bring a hotel back to the corner of N Philadelphia and N Lombard, the now shuttered Dad’s Lounge never did take full advantage of that plaza – the architecture was just too inflexible. They did manage to pop in a couple of windows, a modest concession to humanity. I am guardedly optimistic that whoever takes over this property will be enlightened enough to celebrate the corner but all signs point to more of the same mediocrity now taking over much of St. Johns.