The moment things changed forever in the June Key Delta House project didn't come when the remodeling of an old gas station in North Portland began in mid-January.
PORTLAND — The moment things changed forever in the June Key Delta House project didn't come when the remodeling of an old gas station in North Portland began in mid-January. The moment things changed forever for the small group of African American women in the Delta Sigma Theta sorority came more than two decades ago, when the idea for a home and community center took root at a monthly meeting.
A dozen of the sorority sisters donated $100 each to start a fund and search for a permanent community home. Then June Key, who worked for Portland Public Schools at the time, bought an old ARCO gas station at the corner of Albina Avenue and Ainsworth Street in 1992 with the understanding the sorority would pay her back.
The site across from Peninsula Park had been declared a brownfield — a property possibly polluted by the gas station's underground tanks — though an Environmental Protection Agency review found no contamination. Because of its status, the property was going cheap.
But why would a service group embark on such a huge undertaking?
Chris Poole-Jones, who is project coordinator, faced discrimination trying to buy a house in Portland in 1975.
Yvonne Williams sued a Eugene landlord for not allowing her to rent in the early 1980s.
Aletha Chavis received a master's degree in the 1950s from the school that would become Western Oregon University. In those days, a black woman wasn't allowed to room on campus unless her roommate was another black woman.
Like many of the 50 or so current active members, these women endured the same kind of discrimination that led to the founding of their national sorority at Howard University in 1913. They wanted a home to locate their community outreach projects, such as health and education programs, to fulfill the sorority's mission. They wanted to stop schlepping their meetings to whatever union hall or church basement would have them. They had outgrown each other's homes.
The sorority sisters, who marched for the right to vote and saw careers sputter because of their race, wanted to inspire others by proving that a group of African American women could own property. "We did not want a building to have a building," current president Marian Gilmore says. "We wanted a place to represent something."
The sorority sisters had no idea it would take this long to get the dream this far. They had no idea the project would become a model for extreme green building practices, no idea a diverse group of people would line up to support them, no idea two decades of work would still leave them $455,000 short of the $700,000 or more total to buy and rehabilitate the property.
For nearly two decades the sorority sisters have been sure of only one thing; No matter what happens, they won't stop up until they have a home.
A lot has happened to the sorority sisters since 1992. The children they raised moved out. The careers they pursued ended at retirement parties. Some, including June Key, one visionary behind the project, died.
Old members moved to other states while young women joined. Amassing the thousands to begin the renovation took years of garage sales and fundraisers. When longtime member Jean Jackson died in 2001, her estate willed the project $60,000, enough to push the project into the design phase.
But as the gentrification of North Portland spread, developers repeatedly offered a generous sum for the corner lot where the gas station stands. Some sorority members argued to sell. Others lobbied to stay the course. One of the sorority's five areas of service is economic development. It was important, president Gilmore SAYS, to walk the talk.
"If we were to sell it, then what?" says Chavis, a past president and sorority sister for more than 60 years. "When you're committed to something, you just don't stop because there's an obstacle in the way. You find a way around it."
The Neil Kelly construction company, which has a showroom a few blocks away, donated survey work and created a blueprint in 1992. Through the years the sorority sisters cleaned the station and held "honey-do" days when their husbands worked. Members donated furniture, an old office desk here, an old floor lamp there, and the women broke into committees. Eleven years after the sorority bought the property, graduate students at the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts submitted five green designs.
The sorority formed a nonprofit corporation in 2005. An auction the next year pushed fundraising into high gear. Benson Industries LLC donated $57,000 worth of glass in 2007. Corporate and public grants started rolling in, and Sienna Architecture Co. presented a preliminary construction plan.
"They are a great group of women representing a community of color that is generally underrepresented in the green building industry, so we were really exciting to have this opportunity to showcase green building in their community," says Kyle Diesner, grant manager for the Green Investment Fund at Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.
His agency gave the project its first big grant, more than $119,000 for using boxcar-sized salvaged cargo containers in its design.
Eighteen years after the sorority sisters bought the station, green has become a mantra. Though they set out to use sustainable building practices, they have realized they could get more grant money by pushing the project to extreme green.
They are taking part in the Living Building Challenge, an initiative by the Cascadia Region Green Building Council to encourage projects to serve as models. Challenge buildings must generate their own renewable energy and capture and treat their own water. The community center will use rainwater for toilets and divert storm water to bioswales.
Extreme green funding has been a double-edged sword, says architect Mark Nye, who worked for Sienna when it closed and now works on the project through his own firm. The funding has brought hurdles as well as support.
Professionals from the construction world who have heard the story through the years have stepped in to contribute — hydrologists, consultants, engineers. Some offered pro bono services, others worked for a minimal fee.
"A lot of people have found their story to be compelling," Nye says. "They have inspired a lot of professionals."
Nye said the sorority sisters and their project have "social capital." But can social capital raise enough money to keep the project moving forward?
Construction will take six to eight months once it begins. First must come the demolition, which started last month, when volunteers from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers tore down old ceiling tiles and fiberglass insulation as a Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday service project.
Chris Poole-Jones, one of the sorority sisters active from the start and now a coordinator, dropped by to check on progress. As she walked around the interior, signs of days gone by surrounded her — old white-painted stones from the 1963 construction, a scuffed linoleum floor, fluorescent lights from when the gas station was a convenience store. Outside, two steel cargo containers sit ready to have their walls cut open. They will be attached to the station and turned into bathrooms and a kitchen.
The sorority wants to plant a community garden on an adjoining lot and one day build transitional housing for women and children in need out of cargo containers. But first, they must raise more money.
The sorority sisters spent $131,000 on the property, brownfield work, design and engineering pieces. With grants and savings, they have another $300,000 to devote to the estimated $755,000 needed for the project going forward. That leaves them roughly $455,000 to raise.
Architect Nye hopes the Portland Development Commission will OK a loan application now in the works. The sorority sisters held a December fundraiser among its 250 members and raised nearly $10,000. They are selling etchings on the renovated building's glass doors and considering asking the 200,000 members of the national sorority for help. They also are trying to figure out how to make money on the site. Maybe a farmers' garden? Maybe leasing space to Zipcar?
"It's been a struggle and it's still going to be a struggle, but we are going on faith," Poole-Jones says. "Because theoretically it doesn't make sense."