Old Town backers fight image problem

$50 million in development in motion

The Lan Su Chinese Garden in Old Town in Portland, Dec. 3, 2014 (KOIN 6 News)
The Lan Su Chinese Garden in Old Town in Portland, Dec. 3, 2014 (KOIN 6 News)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN 6) — One of the most beautiful and peaceful places in Portland is the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Old Town. About 134,000 visitors a year go there, but the executive director of the garden is worried.

“We are so lucky to have this Garden in our city, and our reputation has traveled far and wide, and people are eager to come see it,” said Jane DeMarco.

Along a street in Old Town in Portland, Dec. 3, 2014 (KOIN 6 News)
Along a street in Old Town in Portland, Dec. 3, 2014 (KOIN 6 News)

But visitors to the garden walk through a gauntlet of homeless and mentally ill people, run-down and abandoned storefronts and a concentration of social services.

DeMarco hears about it from visitors on social media and from the local hotels.

“The feedback they’ve gotten is that they love the garden but the neighborhood is really frightening,” she said.

DeMarco said she’s not looking to change the character of Old Town.

“But in fact, we’ve got almost too many social services and not enough people living here and enjoying this great neighborhood,” she said, “so we’ve got to mix it up a little bit.”

The Portland City Council recently approved a 5-year plan for Old Town development. Several major projects are sprouting up, including the Society Hotel and 3rd and Davis, the Grove and Harlow hotels and the Old Town lofts.

The Lan Su Chinese Garden in Old Town in Portland, Dec. 3, 2014 (KOIN 6 News)
The Lan Su Chinese Garden in Old Town in Portland, Dec. 3, 2014 (KOIN 6 News)

“We’re talking more than $50 million in investment that we’re looking at in this area,” said Shawn Uhlman with the Portland Development Commission. “When you look at the private sector investment that that leverages, that’s several hundred million dollars.”

DeMarco hopes that means more visitors and more residents.

“I think,” she said, “we all should be invested in making this better.”

In terms of crime, Old Town is no more dangerous than other parts of town. But perception often trumps reality.

Marziah Karch, who moved to Portland from Kansas City, said she’s not scared off.

“I think if you’re not used to seeing visible homeless, then it’s shocking I suppose, because there are a lot of visible homeless around here, but I feel perfectly safe,” she said.

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