Sunday, February 25, 2024

Hard Times Come Again

Montgomery Park (nee Ward) circa 1927

Portland’s urban core clearly isn’t what it used to be.  A recent consultant’s report suggested that office vacancies will hit 40 percent this year, and it might be higher already with unexpired leases going unused.  Fewer workers downtown mean fewer business opportunities for others.

 A dramatic example is the nine-story Montgomery Park building in Norwest Portland, which sold for $255 million in 2019..It was flipped recently back to the lender for $37.7 million.  “The bargain price points to the woeful state of Portland’s commercial real estate market,” wrote Jeff Manning, an outstanding “Oregonian” business reporter.

Montgomery Park joins Jackson Tower, the J.K. Gill Building and the Loyalty Building as prominent office sites that have been turned back to their lenders without winning any alternative bids.  Clearly, big-money investors currently are keeping their wallets in their pockets..

The new entry won't happen

Swept way with the pandemic was a plan approved by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission to revitalize the old Montgomery Ward building by adding a glassy new western entrance and several new retail and restaurant spaces.  Plans once approved by the commission for renovating four other historic sites in or near downtown also appear to be dead or on hold. (Notable examples include re-use proposals for the former Multnomah County Courthouse and First Church of Christ Scientist.)

For the most part, central cities evolve organically.  Offices bring workers downtown who eat lunch, drink coffee, go to bars and restaurants after work, and frequent nearby retail shops.  All those ancillary enterprises suffer and close when workers and shoppers disappear.

What also is lost is the communal experience Portlanders used to feel by shopping downtown at the major department stores, going to movie theaters and concerts.  As people become more entrenched and isolated on their cell phones and computers what Portland – and other cities – lose is a “sense of place” that makes a city feel different and special.   

What does the future hold?  The “pandemic-induced deterioration” described by one analyst does not appear to have speedy solutions.  Substantial numbers of workers have found it preferable to work from home, and internet-based shopping shows no signs of ebbing.   Downtown and its important historic buildings could take on much more of a “ghost town” feel unless smart minds can conceive of new ways to make the urban core vibrant again.

 Faced with the glut of new shopping opportunities in the suburbs, Portland more than 50 years ago launched a wide-ranging “Downtown Plan” aimed at retaining its urban importance.  Its major conclusions at the time led to the creation of Waterfront Park, the downtown transit malls and development regulations that sought to place taller buildings in the heart of the core – all good ideas at the time.

 Now it might be time to gather concerned citizens and smart minds from many specialties to undertake a new long-range plan, taking into consideration the unavoidable consequences of the current trends.

 What’s at stake is the loss of urban reputation that could lead someone speaking of Portland to borrow the famous line from Gertrude Stein:  “There is no there there.”  It would be a communal loss ranging beyond our pocketbooks. .    

 ---Fred Leeson

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  1. There has been talk of conversions to housing. Is that not catching on?Seems like classy buildings, extensive access to bus and rail lines, and places to eat and shop at small local businesses would make downtown a popular place to live.

    There could be more parking and less need for it than in the neighborhoods that have been burdened with the no-parking, new development.

    Plus, of course, this would be reuse rather than the destruction of the truly affordable existing housing in the neighborhoods which happens with new construction.

    Downtown could be a mix of SROs on the lower floors with middle to higher end apartments with views as you go up.
    Seems like apartments/condos downtown would be the best of both worlds for those who work from home but want to conveniently "rub elbows" with other professionals in coffee shops or other face-to-face meeting places.

    Also, if times change, it would not be that hard to convert back to offices and other commercial uses.

    Fred, thanks for bringing up this issue. We have a lot to lose if it is not addressed appropriately.

    Barbara Kerr

  2. "Downtown and its important historic buildings could take on much more of a “ghost town” feel unless smart minds can conceive of new ways to make the urban core vibrant again."

    - Since those buildings have now been greatly devalued, it makes a lot of sense to re-imagine them into mixed-use for condos, apartments, artist lofts, restaurants and retail.
    What better way to revitalize the core than to have people living in it?

    The county should also expend those whopping dollars it's been holding onto to convert some of that into low/no income housing.

    Since the 80s, Portland has been a city of neighborhoods, with the exception of the core, despite its 80s revitalization that worked until recent years. People want to explore the unique offerings of each neighborhood, and they would be more interested in doing that downtown if the whole corporate vibe were to be replaced with locally owned and operated commerce, such as predominate the surrounding neighborhoods.

    Travelers who come to visit want to see the big sights - Waterfront Park, Washington Park, Powell's, etc., but they also want to enjoy the neighborhoods. Especially if they work at home, as I do, they want to walk and bike out the door and enjoy what's around them.
    The suburbs are essentially dead not only because of car culture but because of all the ersatz copy and paste corporate culture, the corporate alleys, the gimcrack human storage unit compounds, the brain-deadening sameness, the supposed efficiencies of the flow of capital from the pockets of the many to the coffers of the few.

    Our city, county and Metro leaders have been doing their best to lead our downtown and also our neighborhoods down that path, and now we can see that it isn't working.

    Perhaps we can start looking at and learning from what Detroit, which Jim Kunstler in his 1993 book The Geography of Nowhere compared to Portland, has been doing in recent years that is working and isn't working to bring its derelict downtown back to life.