Friday, September 30, 2011

A new perspective on Hillsdale

When our neighborhood, with its commercial center, was awarded a Main Street designation last year, those who chose us for the program did so, in part, because we had a problem. A major commuter thoroughfare, Capitol Highway, cuts through the shopping district. It is both an asset and a liability to our neighborhood. It brings commuter business to the area, but it floods the Town Center with disruptive and, at times, dangerous automobile traffic.

No single event underscores the problem better than JPMorgan Chase Bank's interest in building a new branch here.
This week, in an editorial in the Hillsdale News, I shared my perspective on the problem. Here's what I wrote:

Even though we say we live in a place called Hillsdale, it really is two places.

One I'll call a wide place in the road - at the top of the hill.

This Hillsdale is a dynamic, traffic-rich place defined by 32,000 work-day commuters passing through it. From the standpoint of merchants, large retailers (including banks) and commercial property owners, it is a strategically significant commercial strip.

Significantly, the patrons of the wide place pass through and don't identify with Hillsdale as a community because they don't live here.

Which brings us to the second Hillsdale, the place where you and I live. To us it is a community with a commercial center at its civic core. It has our three schools, our library, our Farmers Market, several locally owned shops, a few places to worship and a few to imbibe.

Most importantly, it is where we - 7,400 of us - reside nurtured by friends and neighbors.

It is home.

For easy reference let's refer to the two Hillsdales as the "wide place" and the "community."

Until quite recently these two Hillsdales got along fairly well. For 20 years, a couple dozen of us made plans for the "community" Hillsdale. We actually redrew the map and created a Hillsdale neighborhood. That status gave us some official standing with various governments including the City, the County, Metro, the School District and Tri-Met.

Meanwhile, some with commercial interests were also figuring out how to take advantage of the "wide place" Hillsdale.

Since its founding last year, the new Hillsdale Main Street, to its credit, has tried to balance the interests of both Hillsdales.

It hasn't been easy, particularly in light of JPMorgan Chase's interest in and single-minded motives for building a branch here.

Chase's first proposal, designed for commuters, predictably ran afoul of the desires of the neighborhood association and the Hillsdale Town Center Plan, which is aimed at promoting commercial in-fill and pedestrian, bike and bus transit.

After that setback, Chase has returned to the drawing board.

Let's hope the big bank will confer first with the community before it puts pencil to paper. To be successful, it should please BOTH Hillsdales and so unite them.

It can be done.

For the record, I'm not in favor of building another bank here. We have two plus an ATM for a third in the Town Center. Several other banks have branches nearby. Chase's presence is as near as the Burlingame Fred Meyer.

Despite my opposition, I'll offer Chase some advice about how to succeed in getting approval to build in the Town Center. It starts by treating our two Hillsdale's as one.

Zoning calls for a building more than twice as large as the one Chase originally proposed. Chase wanted a smaller building to make way for more parking. It actually reserved nine of 21 spaces for its nine employees, assuming they would ALL drive to work. Does that sound like Portland or Hillsdale to you?

For Chase's proposal to pass muster, it should adhere to existing zoning and then use just part of the big, possibly two- or three-story building for a small Chase branch.

But what about the leftover space? you ask.

Now here comes the challenging part, particularly for Chase, which seems innovation-averse. Rent the rest to a diversity of businesses. Or simply lease it to a developer to sub-lease.

I already know the criticism of my proposal. An earlier effort to lease space in a multi-use commercial building failed to attract tenants.

Here's where the creative part comes in. Until the economy improves and tenant interest resumes, Chase should donate - or make available at a nominal fee - the space to the community. We could use a community art gallery. The Hillsdale Main Street program could use a prominent location with space for its numerous meetings. The Hillsdale Community Foundation could open a small book store and stock it with donated books. The Hillsdale Bicycle Coalition might open a bike repair cooperative. SW Trails could open an information center for hikers. Hey, how about a little competition for the banks by renting to a credit union?

The list is only limited by our imaginations.

So how about it Chase? Can you get out of your Wall Street mind set and "think local."

By serving two Hillsdales you could help create one.

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