NEIGHBORS IN SOUTHEAST Portland did not mean to spy on City Commissioner Randy Leonard. But apparently the Lents neighborhood has only one good Mexican restaurant—El Pato Feliz—in its bar- and gas station-heavy town center. So when three groups with a stake in Lents' $49 million Triple-A baseball stadium deal decided to meet up on the night of Wednesday, June 10, they all independently chose to meet at "The Happy Duck."
"[Leonard's] face was a combination of 'What the fuck?' and 'Are you going to run me over?'" recalls anti-stadium group Friends of Lents Park leader Nick Christensen, who almost backed over stadium booster Commissioner Leonard when they arrived at the tiny taqueria at the same time.
An hour later, the two men shook hands on the sidewalk. Around them a friendly, impromptu debate had started between some of the people most influential in the plan to spend $42.3 million of Lents Urban Renewal Area money to build a new ballpark in the blighted neighborhood.
"What I'm afraid would happen is people would just park at the ballpark, eat a hot dog, and not ever come down to the town center at all," said state politico Steve Novick, leaning against a sign emblazoned with an enthusiastic yellow duck after wrapping up a chimichanga dinner with Leonard and Lents Town Center Urban Renewal Advisory Committee (URAC) Chair Cora Potter. Leonard responded with talk of a day when a stadium would make Lents so popular it will have more than one decent central restaurant.
As the accidental mass rendezvous at El Pato Feliz reveals, political debates about the fate of $42.3 million of public money have spilled from city hall onto the taqueria sidewalk. And in a rare turn of public process, regular neighbors and elected officials supposedly wield equal power—Commissioner Leonard and Mayor Sam Adams promise they will follow the lead of the neighbors.
This Thursday, June 18, the 15-person Lents URAC will vote on whether to delay planned urban renewal projects like funding small businesses and affordable housing and instead invest the money in a new stadium. The city promises that, if approved, stadium "quality-of-life issues" like noise and parking will be worked out at a later date.
Critics of the stadium deal gained substantial steam this week on both local and state levels. A study requested by Commissioner Dan Saltzman's office showed that an average Beavers game in Lents would have an attendance of 3,222 people—about half the national average for Triple-A stadiums and substantially less than the projected ticket-buyers that the stadium would have seen if located on the Memorial Coliseum site.
Meanwhile, a bill that skims income tax money off Major League Soccer (MLS) employees' salaries to fund the MLS renovation of PGE Park, the current home of the Portland Beavers, passed the Oregon House by only three votes. If funding for the MLS stadium falls through, the Beavers may not need to be booted from their current home and there will be no need for the Lents stadium.
Eight out of nine East Portland representatives, whose constituents will possibly be affected by the Lents stadium, voted against the bill and the governor plans to veto it, believing the state should not prioritize soccer funding during the worst economic crisis in decades.
"We cannot continue on with urban renewal being about funding wealthy projects," says East Portland Representative Nick Kahl, who voted against the bill and views the stadium deal as city-funded gentrification.
Locally, next-door neighborhood Foster-Powell formally voted against the use of urban renewal funds for the project. Lents itself, on the other hand, seems too divided to take an actual vote on the deal.
With the URAC decision looming, 40 Lents residents crammed into the mirrored banquet hall at the New Copper Penny on the night of Thursday, June 11, for a Lents Neighborhood Association (LNA) board meeting.
The mood was tense. Just one day before, LNA member Jeffrey Rose had launched a recall campaign against pro-stadium Board Chair Damien Chakwin, who some neighbors say has purposely avoided a direct vote on the stadium deal.
"We promised them we could have a vote and we're essentially going back on our promise," says Rose. In the absence of a neighborhood vote, Christensen and the Friends of Lents Park have gone door to door to gauge opinion. As of Tuesday, the anti-stadium allies had gathered 750 signatures against using urban renewal funds for the stadium.