When NE Portland resident Dennis Adams and a small group of acquaintances formed Alberta Abbey Foundation early in 2015, they envisioned turning the former Mallory Avenue Baptist Church into a performance and event center that would enliven the arts in a rapidly changing and gentrifying inner NE Portland neighborhood.
Looking ahead to 2018, thanks to Alberta Alive!, a landmark 143-unit affordable housing partnership focused on Alberta Street, the vision for the Abbey will be retained and advanced, while strengthening the ties between the facility and its history as a cultural cornerstone of a key African-American community.
Charles McGee, Black Parent Initiative President and CEO, is an ardent supporter of the Alberta Alive! proposal. “Right now, more than ever before, the community needs spaces where we can gather and build relationships,” he says. “Alberta Abbey, as the connective tissue of the proposal, can be that place.”
Alberta Alive! is a partnership between the Black Parent Initiative (BPI), EngAGE, JOIN, and Community Development Partners (CDP). The new owner of the Abbey, CDP, is a mission-driven organization focused on meeting the housing needs of local citizens through the thoughtful planning and development of life-enhancing affordable communities. As a venue for local organizations, Alberta Abbey will be a central hub for the services provided by EngAGE, available to residents of the new affordable housing and the residents of inner N/NE Portland.
CDP has retained EngAGE to manage Alberta Abbey. EngAGE is an internationally-renowned social venture that has created major change in the world of all-ages arts housing, community programming, and design. EngAGE expanded into Portland in the past year, with many new partnerships in development. It has recruited an experienced venue manager, Cressandra Thibodeaux, to head up the efforts to enhance Alberta Abbey’s offerings and engagement with the N/NE neighborhoods. In addition to her experience with venue management, Cressandra is an arts administrator, a photographer, photojournalist, and documentary film maker.
A new strategic plan for Alberta Abbey was prepared for CDP by Prentice Onayemi, the former Director of Partnerships and Communications for ArtPlace America (ArtPlace) which advances the field of creative placemaking, in which art and culture play an explicit and central role in shaping communities’ social, physical, and economic futures. He holds an MBA from Columbia University and a BFA from New York University. As a resident of NE Portland, he will continue to be available to consult with EngAGE during the ownership transition and implementation of the new strategic plan.
The first step on the path to achieving the Alberta Alive! goals occurred earlier this year with the purchase of a site at NE 8th and Alberta by CDP from Coast Industries Incorporated. A funding request for development of that site is pending with Oregon Housing and Community Services to finance the construction of highly affordable housing for veterans. A master lease with JOIN will make at least half of the new apartments available to individuals who are currently homeless or who have recently experienced homelessness. JOIN supports the efforts of homeless individuals and families to transition out of homelessness into permanent housing, focusing on helping individuals sleeping outside or in their car in the Portland Metro area.
CDP has secured two other sites on Alberta for affordable housing development to round out the 143-unit proposal.
In an application for funding submitted to the City of Portland earlier this year, the Alberta Alive! collaborators, including Black Parent Initiative (BPI) and JOIN, established that “our goal is to help the Alberta Arts District achieve the widely shared but elusive vision of a healthy, vibrant, and diverse mixed-income neighborhood, where social equity is a living practice and not just a good idea or an aspiration.” Pursuant to the application, all housing created through the Alberta Alive! initiative will be aligned with the City of Portland’s N/NE Neighborhood Housing Preference Policy, giving preference to households that have been or are at risk of being displaced by gentrification. The collaboration is built upon a strong social equity commitment in both construction activities and on-going operations, engaging NAMCO—the National Association of Minority Contractors of Oregon—to help deliver on the commitment.
In addition to its work with the Alberta Abbey and Alberta Alive!, CDP is partnering with Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) and Native American Rehabilitation Association (NARA) to construct a 59-unit affordable housing project at NE 42nd Avenue and Holman Street. Currently with a working project name of Holman 42, the community will be structured to provide housing and a robust program of resident services culturally specific to Native Americans. Also, CDP has just completed a full renovation of an 87-unit project in Salem serving very low-income families and farmworkers; is beginning the renovation of three properties in Albany and Corvallis serving 120 households; and is under contract to purchase Mile Post 5 in the Montavilla Neighborhood of East Portland.
During 2018, CDP will undertake the full renovation of Cascadian Terrace in North Portland, engaging the very low-income residents in the design elements of the renovation, under contract with Portland State University’s Center for Public Interest Design and Salazar Architects. EngAGE currently provides residents of Cascadian Terrace with programs delivered on site through Friendly House. Upon closing the MP5 acquisition in late Q1 of 2018, the property will undergo a full renovation as well, with the housing remaining affordable to residents. Current plans call for EngAGE to play an integral role in the operation of MP5 upon completion of the acquisition by CDP.
EngAGE has a long track record of creating lasting collaborations with community and youth centers, food banks, childcare providers, transportation organizations, mental health, alcohol and drug addiction counseling and treatment programs, clothing closets, financial support and assistance agencies, healthcare and healthy living service providers, schools, and artists, educational, and business professionals who help deliver the unique enriched programming at individual project sites.
Unique to the Alberta Alive! project, EngAGE and BPI will also work with the NE STEAM Coalition, the Intel Encore Fellows Program, and other local educational institutions like Portland State University and Concordia University to develop a partnership that emphasizes programming onsite for children and families, such as maker activities, entrepreneur education, design and arts classes, and activities that develop residents’ creativity and problem-solving skills.
CDP and EngAGE are in discussions with a displaced African-American church congregation, exploring the potential for a secure, long-term home for the congregation in Inner NE Portland. In addition, CDP and EngAGE have begun discussions with Ethos Music Center, located just blocks away from the Abbey, about the potential to collaborate in offering music lessons to children and adults, and to provide performance and recital space in the 400-seat Abbey auditorium as well as the ballroom.
Cressandra Thibodeaux, Executive Director, The Alberta Abbey (operated by EngAGE)
EngAGE is delighted to welcome Cressandra to the team. She has a very personal connection to us and our work: “In 2008, I realized my mother was becoming more and more isolated, so I moved her from Rhinebeck, NY, to the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, which I had heard about on This American Life. Within months of her moving in, I saw a wonderful transformation of my mother’s spirit. Since then, I have become a loyal supporter of EngAGE and now, ten years later, I am honored to work with this amazing organization.”
Cressandra has eight years experience as Executive Director of 14 Pews, a multidisciplinary, artist-run nonprofit which is committed to engaging and challenging audiences through the arts, and promoting community engagement. Cressandra is passionate about the arts and community engagement, and looks forward to bringing her experience to The Alberta Abbey. She received her MFA from Columbia University’s Film program and her undergrad degree in English at U.T. at Austin. In 2012, she received a Professional Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Rice University’s Center for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership. She also has produced, written, directed, shot, and edited numerous documentaries, short films, and commercials. Recently, her full-length play, “Dialogues on Grace,” received great reviews and was called one of the six most important Houston theatrical productions of 2016. In addition, she has won numerous awards for her writing and directing, including several Addy Awards and fourth place at the Slamdance Film Festival. Cressandra has also received a residency at the distinguished MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, NH.