City Commissioner Erik Sten defied expectations last week by appearing to win over the majority of 150 hostile Old Town neighbors, crammed into the basement of Central City Concern's office on NW 6th to discuss Sten's proposed homeless center in the district.
Weathering his fair share of grief and apologizing for not including neighbors in choosing a site, Sten ultimately drew a round of applause for challenging neighborhood stakeholders. "I implore you not to let your dislike of various aspects of the process kill this opportunity [for a homeless center]," he said.
For the first time, Sten explicitly linked the development of a new $30 million access center on "Block 25"—between NW 3rd and 4th at Glisan and Flanders—to the future demolition of the city's recently acquired Grove Hotel on Burnside, and ultimately, to the regeneration of the entire neighborhood with up to $400 million in urban renewal money. That money is contingent on whether the city agrees, as planned, to expand the Pearl District's River District urban renewal zone in March.
"I think the Old Town you guys know and love won't be here in 10 years," Sten told the neighbors. "To me, Old Town feels like inner Northeast Portland felt in '94—I think it's going to move. And we're not about to put three to four million into this neighborhood without shoring up [its homeless services]."
Some Old Town investors arrived at the meeting concerned that the new access center didn't fit in with the 1999 Visions Committee document for development in Old Town, which specifies no net gain or loss in social service housing in the neighborhood ["Hold It!" News, Dec 20].
But Sten refused pointblank to restart a search for a site, even when asked by Anne Naito-Campbell of the Bill Naito Company, citing the Visions document. Others at the meeting were less than optimistic about prospects for the center.
"What you're talking about relies on the cooperation of the homeless, and the homeless don't cooperate," said property owner John Beardsley. "This is a sociological problem that I don't think is solvable. Are we so welcoming here that we're a magnet?"
Richard Harris, executive director of Central City Concern (CCC) answered Beardsley's question, citing CCC's successful building at 8 NW 8th, which provides sober housing for 180 people with chronic alcohol and drug problems, and has received praise for blending into the neighborhood so well that it's easily mistaken for high-end condos.
"I just don't agree with your assessment that people don't want to change their lives," Harris said. "They do."
According to Harris, research shows that those undergoing alcohol and drug treatment are four times as likely to succeed in rehabilitating if they are in sober, supported housing.
Sten also faced a question from Paul Verhoeven of the Saturday Market, asking whether "building a city out of homelessness" is similar to building more freeways to end a city's congestion.
"It's not like congestion because you can't end homelessness without building housing," Sten responded. "The magnet theory—that if you actually try to help people—they're more likely to come to your city, has been disproved over and over again."
The meeting concluded with a statement from Lou Elliot—who works for Bill Naito Company. "The manner in which these decisions have been imposed upon this neighborhood is going to divide this community," he said.
Sten hit back: "I think it's unfortunate but brave that you decided to end it this way," he said. "The argument that it's solely the process that's causing this problem, I don't buy. It just isn't true, Lou.
"Let's say the process is entirely wrong, I'm challenging you to figure out how to bring this neighborhood together," Sten continued. "If this thing implodes, I've seen stalemate over and over. We have an opportunity to do something right here. But if your position is that it's the process that's causing this problem, then you're creating that reality, not me."
The reaction to Sten's performance was positive. As he left, Mike Kuykendall of the Portland Business Alliance smiled, shook Sten's hand, and said: "You just give me a call."
"Honestly, I thought that was possibly the best political performance I've ever seen," says Patrick Nolen, community organizer for Sisters of the Road. "And that might sound like a negative statement but I mean it positively. At no point did I think Sten lost control of the room."
"The folks with the most vocal opposition seem to have quieted down," says Visions Committee Co-Chair and 2008 city council candidate Howard Weiner. "Erik has offered us a path to support the development of Old Town and to support the existing social services, and I think we should support it."
The Old Town Visions/Neighborhood Association Land Use Committee was due to meet on Wednesday, January 16, to discuss the next steps in the process.