Chock-full of shopping centers, office parks and chain stores, Allen’s Corner has all the feel of a neighborhood made for people driving cars. A four-way intersection of Washington and Allen Avenues in the North Deering neighborhood on Portland’s outskirts, Allen’s Corner has long served as a connector between the city and neighboring towns.
But lately, the resulting sprawl of drive-throughs, parking lots and shuttered buildings brought on by decades of car-centric development is bumming some locals out. It has prompted some to make pointed calls to city officials, calling for more community and culture on the corner. They see tons of untapped potential and are pressing neighbors to consider the same: Could Allen’s Corner become more than just a traffic stop?
Anton Ascanio, 43, grew up near Allen’s Corner on Washington Avenue. He returned to his childhood home in recent years to settle down after spending time as a travel nurse. Now, he says his lifelong neighborhood has received “the short end of the stick.”
Since returning, Ascanio has watched Allen’s Corner slide into increasingly dilapidated states over the last three or four years. Last summer, it led him to approach neighbors about making a change.
At the time, Allen’s Corner had two abandoned properties — an unused gas station and an empty Walgreens, in addition to chains like Dunkin’ Donuts, Amato’s and Taco Bell. The area also sports seven banks and credit unions within a square mile. Since the summer, the Walgreens has been converted into a Dollar General — even though there’s already a Dollar Tree across the intersection.
The North Deering Neighborhood Association, a citizen group that once convened regularly, has been inactive since April 2021. So Ascanio had little choice but to take his concerns online. Last summer, he rallied neighbors on Nextdoor, a social media app, sharing a letter he wrote to District 4 Councilor Andrew Zarro. (Allen Avenue marks the boundary line between Portland districts 4 and 5, making Allen’s Corner the purview of councilors Zarro and Mark Dion.)
In the letter, Ascanio argued that residents and families deserve better.
“This is an intersection with abundant traffic and abuts a large area of walkable family-friendly neighborhoods,” he wrote. adding that the abandoned Mobil station is a “complete eyesore.”
“Frankly, we don’t need another Taco Bell or chain (store). We need innovation,” he wrote.
In the letter and a subsequent interview, Ascanio cited the growth of Westbrook’s downtown and the draw of Lib’s Dairy Treats, an ice cream shop that serves as one of the area’s few locally owned businesses, as models that could guide the kind of walkable, socially minded neighborhood the region could evolve into.
“We have these duplicates of everything — none of which bring any cultural [or] anything uplifting to the area,” Ascanio told the Phoenix.
Tim Pawloski, who owns Lib’s Dairy Treats, has seen traffic steadily increasing over the years as Portland’s population has continued to grow.
“You can’t fit any more houses on the peninsula, so people that work down there have to buy further away,” Pawloski said. “Plus the whole North and East Deering area — it’s a great area.”
But it would be nice to see more small businesses pop up on the corner, Pawloski said, like at the Walgreens building, for example, which was vacant for months before Dollar General set up shop, and the abandoned gas station at 1397 Washington Ave., inactive since 2019.
Robert Derrey, who owns the property, told the Phoenix that he had plans to turn the gas station into a retail location when he purchased it in 2020, but a number of delays and setbacks have left it untouched. A cannabis retailer, Local Leaf Retail One, LLC, has submitted three applications for a permit there, according to the city’s permitting department, but none has been issued.
While still “a ways away,” Derrey said putting in a store at 1397 Washington is still in the works. When the time comes, he’s open to being flexible with how he uses the property — even renting it out for other uses, like office space, for example.
GETTING IN THE ZONE
City officials have shared similar hopes for the corner, but they can only do so much.
Allen’s Corner was rezoned as a B-2 as part of a new land use code adopted in December 2020. According to the zoning ordinance, a B-2 allows for a wide variety of mixed-use development, including residential, retail, manufacturing, and art or office space — in other words, much more than just chains and drive-throughs. In fact, a B-2 zoning designation prohibits the addition of more drive-throughs in the area, unless under specific circumstances for a bank or pharmacy.
B-2 zones should theoretically cater to more than just automotive travel. “Such establishments should be readily accessible by automobile, by pedestrians and by bicycle. Development in the B2 zone should relate to the surrounding neighborhoods by design, orientation and circulation patterns. The zone should provide locations for moderate to high-density housing in urban neighborhoods along arterials,” according to the zoning ordinance.
But as anyone familiar with the area can attest, the design of Allen’s Corner does not welcome pedestrians or bicycles. The chaotic, heavily trafficked intersection is a stressful one for cyclists, and residents are rarely drawn to stroll the sprawling asphalt parking lots en route to area businesses, located inside drab, flat-topped buildings with fluorescent lighting.
Christine Grimando, the director of the city’s planning and urban development department, said that the city was “trying to get away from that kind of vehicular-only activity” that Allen’s Corner promotes.
But the city’s hands appear to be tied. Grimando and other city officials hope that property owners in Allen’s Corner can steer development to favor foot traffic and cyclists, making it more neighborly. From there, the planning department could advocate for a different approach to some of those properties, particularly the drive-throughs and how cars move around the area, Grimando said.
But that kind of neighborhood change would require that property owners want to do something different than what’s already set up.
“Ideally, we’d have someone interested in doing more than one thing on a site like that to kind of activate a corner,” Grimando said. “We can not allow the drive-thru, [but] we can’t make someone build a mixed-use building.”
Drive-throughs in Allen’s Corner that would not be permitted under the new zoning ordinance are able to stay since they were established under past code, Grimando said.
BRIGHTEN THE CORNERS
Like Allen’s Corner, other Portland neighborhoods off-peninsula have been historically prioritized for travel in and out of the city. But some have taken steps to transition to more community-based hubs.
Zarro, the District 4 city councilor, told the Phoenix that there’s been a push from communities in the last decade to get more from the corners. Woodfords Corner is the “poster child” for such placemaking activity, according to Zarro, who was a member of the neighborhood group’s board and owned a coffee shop in the area.
Formed in 2015, Friends of Woodfords Corner is now a Main Street America Affiliate. They’ve made efforts over the years to turn the corner into more of a neighborhood than a traffic stop with the growth of unique restaurants, markets and shops all within walking distance.
Teresa Valliere, founder of Friends of Woodfords Corner, said the “recipe” to get neighbors together is identifying a tangible goal.
Members of the community who want to see a change need to “pick something small and get started,” Valliere said. “Talking about it alone isn’t functional.”
A neighborhood meeting helped Friends of Woodfords corner identify that goal in 2015, when residents identified a need to clean up the nearby railroad tracks, which had grown overgrown and unsightly. Once that goal was in place, neighbors showed up to clean up and weed in spots around the railroad from Woodfords Corner to Lincoln. Friends of Woodfords Corner is now set for its eighth annual railroad cleanup in 2023.
District 5 Councilor Mark Dion highlighted Portland’s corners as “gateways to the city,” with huge potential for residency and building walkable neighborhoods. As a new member of the city’s Housing Committee, he said he plans to look at corners this year when considering spaces for new housing development.
The next step for Allen’s Corner residents, as Councilor Zarro put it, is to organize and act.
“My ask is — let’s start this,” Zarro said. “Let’s have this community conversation, let’s start the meetings. It’s time to move it from ‘this would be cool’ to ‘how do we move it from a priority to an accomplishment?’”