ON MONDAY, April 27, Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Amanda Fritz walked a group of Central Eastside businesspeople to a grassy, gravelly patch by the east end of Tilikum Crossing.
It's a gritty plot, like much of the Central Eastside, with a decrepit portion of SE Harrison elbowing through its center, and rundown RVs taking up portions of the right of way. But it is lovely, too, with sweeping nighttime views of the new bridge and Oregon Health and Science University across the river.
Hales and Fritz hadn't come to show their guests the view, though. They'd come to show them the future home of Right 2 Dream Too (R2DToo).
After a year and a half of casting about in vain, Portland officials say they've finally found a place to move the well-regarded, self-policed homeless rest area that's ruffled feathers—and given vital help to hundreds—beneath the Chinatown Gate since 2011.
City staffers have been in talks for months with the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), which currently owns a plot of land they call ideal. It's anonymous enough that it has no formal address, but sits just east of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, where SE 3rd transforms with a swoop into SE Division.
The city's had close calls in its 18 months of scouting for sites, but the guided tour by two of Portland's elected officials is a serious sign. It's for real this time.
"This really is a perfect site," says Josh Alpert, director of strategic initiatives in the mayor's office. "It's not like land pops up every day."
Alpert should know. He's worked perhaps harder than any other city staffer to find a new home for R2DToo since September 2013, when Commissioner Fritz announced she'd hammered out a deal to clean up legal bickering surrounding the rest area, and move it to a parking lot beneath the Broadway Bridge.
That parking lot, of course, abutted the ritz of the Pearl District. Mortified developers pushed back, eventually buying the lot in question and tacking on an additional $846,000 to find R2DToo a new home.
So far, the money's just sat there, as Alpert, Fritz, and city staff scrutinized plot after insufficient plot where the rest area might move. Among the criteria they've been keeping an eye out for: an affordable price, appropriate zoning, accessibility to transit, proximity to social services, and limited neighborhood disruption.
The ODOT land, they say, features most of those things. It's not situated near many services, but has a paved walkway leading up to the streetcar line that will soon trundle over Tilikum Crossing and into downtown. It's near a handful of industrial businesses, but no homes. And Alpert says the city will have money to spare, after its purchase, to hook the land up with plumbing and power.
An ordinance to purchase the land should be before city council by late May, Alpert says (details are still being worked out). The city would lease the lot for a nominal fee. And by fall? R2DToo may have a new home—and showers. Alpert and Fritz are also talking about transit subsidies that could help houseless people get downtown, and setting up day storage for personal belongings.
We're talking about moving a homeless encampment, of course, so it's not going to be quite this simple.
While city officials' conversations with members of the Central Eastside Industrial Council (CEIC) have so far been more productive than the pearl clutching of the Pearl, businesses owners have concerns.
CEIC Chair Debbie Kitchin tells me her group has been talking with the city and others about the Central Eastside's increasing homeless population for years, but was caught unaware when officials showed them the land.
"This was the first time that we were asked about this site," Kitchin says. "We were told that we don't have a choice because it's allowed by zoning."
The business group has long opposed an increase in outdoor camping in the neighborhood, Kitchin says, and that will likely remain. And even though she's heard nothing but positive things about R2DToo, Kitchin says she needs to speak with its leadership.
"We want to make sure there are protections in place, so if things do not work well in the camp there's some ability to say that it's not allowed there," she says.
The closest business to the new site, East Side Plating, hadn't heard about the proposed move when I contacted President Gary Rehnberg.
"I'm a little surprised and frustrated for not being aware," he said.
For its part, R2DToo's amenable to the move, says co-founder Ibrahim Mubarak. It's also got its share of concerns—like keeping a presence downtown.
"Because R2Dtoo moves, that doesn't mean that all the houseless people downtown are going to go to that location," he says. "As long as there are social services downtown, that's where people are going to be. We've got to learn to meet people where they're at."
In fact, there are homeless people at the new site. When I stopped by on Tuesday, April 28, the plot had two run-down RVs and a tent situated among East Side Plating employees' parked cars.
A woman named Shuri Vollmert answered the door of one of the RVs, and explained she and her boyfriend had been staying on the property for the past five months, with the blessing of nearby East Side Plating (which doesn't own the land). They're trying to move on, she said, but the vehicle needs work.
In the meantime, they take their trash to the curb on Mondays, when the city stops to clean it up, and dispose of human waste in a nearby sewer. It's quiet in the lot, Vollmert said, and more comfortable than R2DToo, where she's stayed on occasion.
"You get a little bit of a view—especially at night," she said. "If only the city could do something about the rats."