The first part of the meeting concentrated on the purpose it was billed for: to learn more about how to present your concerns at a city land use hearing. Experienced community members shared their knowledge. Basically, such meetings boil down like this: |
First, there's an introduction, when the business of the meeting is announced. Next, the city staff makes a presentation based on its recommendations. (Those recommendations were released yesterday. More on that later.) Next, the applicant (in this case, New Seasons) makes its case. Then comes the comment period, which is broken down into two parts: testimony from those who support, then testimony from those who oppose. These people may speak for up to three minutes. Finally, the applicant is allowed a rebuttal. At many hearings, the City staff then makes its decision. However, if anyone asks for a seven day extension for comments, it is usually granted, and a community activist who will be attending is planning to request that extension. So in the case of New Seasons, the decisions about the zoning changes will likely not be made that day.
The community member trainers at the Red and Black meeting stressed that the land use hearing will not be like a City Council hearing; that is, such events are legal in nature, not political. Any comments must address the technical merits or demerits of the application, and must be backed up with evidence. Any comments that fall outside these bounds will be immaterial to the City staff. Clearly, this arrangement stacks the deck in favor of developers who have the money to put together fancy presentations or hire experts, and against regular people who are concerned about quality-of-life but who might not be legally astute. Examples of relevant topics are traffic, environmental impact, and neighborhood "character".
I was hoping that this meeting would turn into a brainstorming session where concerned residents could go through the New Seasons application with the more experienced people and come up with some specific things to say at the hearing. However, the presence of New Seasons president Brian Rohter made such work impossible. Why did he show up at the meeting if its stated purpose was to recieve training on how to present one's concerns at a City hearing? Surely, he already knows how to do that, or has staff who will be doing that for him. His own claim was that he was there as "a member of the community" who wants to hear from people about his plans. I believe he was there in the hopes of meeting the people behind the elusive No New Seasons campaign. He would've been stupid not to come for that reason anyway, and I don't think he's stupid.
Whether or not any NoNewSeasonsers were there, Rohter heard some of the concerns that people in the community have. He evaded most difficult topics skillfully. "He didn't answer any questions," one activist remarked afterwards. "He's a politician." Rohter's body language, though, gave him away. Once people asked him hard stuff, he crossed his arms and legs, frowned, and sipped from his beer glass nervously, even after it was empty. He didn't always keep his cool (perhaps in part due to the lack of air conditioning at the Red and Black) but those moments were rare.
Rohter said that claims on indymedia and elsewhere that dumpsters would be put in the lot where the duplex on Division currentl sits are false. He said they would be around on the 20th Ave. side, where they are currently. When asked for indymedia readers whether the dumpsters would be compacters or be locked, he said that none of the dumpsters at his other stores are compacters or have locks, though that could change at the new store.
In response to the suggestion that he instead open a store out on 82nd Avenue, which is bereft of whole foods stores, and build a new market there, Rohter said that New Seasons cannot afford to have an unprofitable store there. In asking this question, activists were trying to highlight the fact that Rohter is concerned more about profit than about providing healthy food to people who want it, and his answer confirmed that fact. He said their market studies showed that a Southeast Portland store would be profitable but declined to share projections about how many customers they were expecting, saying that this informtion was "proprietary". So when it came down to it, he was unwilling to share a piece of information that is essential for people in the neighborhood to know in order to make up their minds about the store.
Audience reaction to Rohter was mixed. Some people in attendance were in favor of the New Seasons store and some weren't. Some people could see through his superficiality and some preferred to be seduced. Some wanted to take Rohter on and make him defend his plans and some wanted to avoid "confrontation".
For me, the meeting highlighted yet again the deeper nature of our problems here in industrial society. Here we are, living unsustainable lifestyles, warming up the globe with our cars and factories, destroying the biology of other living things with genetic modification, and killing people by the thousands in other countries to keep it going, and who wants to do anything about it? I mean really do anything about it? Are you, in Camus' words, on the side of the victim or the exucutioner? When the earth is on the chopping block and your species is holding the axe, you have a responsibility to try to stop that blade. Concerning yourself primarily with personal profit (as Rohter is) or with how many shopping "choices" you have (as some SE Portland residents are) is to support the executioner. New Seasons is a large store that will increase traffic, decrease housing in the immediate area, and very possibly put the People's Co-op out of business. Now, I have no illusions that the People's Co-op is going to save the world. Of course not. However, a culture based on the values espoused by People's just might. Their motto is "Food for People, not for Profit", and their model is about sustainability, not capitalism. Additionally, People's has helped create a community of people whose work and lives are focused on bringing sustainability to many aspects of life, whether with green building, biodiesel cars, community gardening, or many other things. This is the type of community that sides with the victim, not the executioner, and it is the type of community that will never be built by a profit-driven institution like New Seasons.
The battle to save the world from the capitalist machines is being fought on many fronts, and at many scales, all over the world. One small piece of the struggle is happening in Southeast Portland right now; on one side are people trying their best to build and protect sustainable alternatives; on the other is a wealthy slick man who wants to make more money, and some well-off white people who want more "choices". I know some readers of this site don't take this struggle seriously, and perhaps that's because they haven't experienced the best of People's, or because they are in denial about how big fish vs. little fish battles usually end up, or because they think SE is already gentrified and not worth saving. To all of these people, I say: please think about it more. There aren't many cool places in the U.S., and we're going to lose one of the best unless we come to its defense.
BTW, Rohter drove away from the meeting in a hefty pick-up truck.
Say NO to New Seasons!
The City hearing about New Seasons zoning requests is on Monday, August 18, at 9:00 a.m., in the third floor hearing room of the Bureau of Development Services, at 1900 SW Fourth Ave, in downtown Portland. Watch portland indymedia for more details...