ON SATURDAY, January 30, a moderator asked how many people in a packed church hall in Southeast Portland were concerned about Right 2 Dream Too's (R2DToo) possible relocation from Chinatown to the Central Eastside.
Roughly half the hands in the room shot up.
Then the moderator asked how many people were excited about the self-managed homeless rest area's potential move, and even more arms emerged.
Among the people who raised their hand both times? City Commissioner Amanda Fritz. As R2DToo's fate comes up for consideration yet again, even the rest area's most stalwart advocate on city council has conflicting feelings.
On Thursday, February 4, the council will take up several items that will have an enormous impact on R2DToo's future as a resource for homeless Portlanders in need of a place to bed down.
First, commissioners will consider whether to modify a plot of land at SE 3rd and Harrison—near OMSI, and the east end of Tilikum Crossing—that the city bought last year with an eye toward hosting the encampment. Then they could vote on whether to accept a city opinion that states the plot is appropriately zoned for a homeless rest stop, and consider a 10-year agreement that would solidify R2DToo's move.
The relocation proposal's got a lot going for it—including vibrant renderings that promise fences wreathed in flowers and raised garden beds.
But the city has been here before.
In October 2013, Fritz had another home in mind for R2DToo, which has used its perch beneath the Chinatown gate to help hundreds of homeless Portlanders since it popped up in 2011. She proposed putting the rest area on a city-owned lot known as "Lot 7," located under the Broadway Bridge—and that plan, for a time, looked unstoppable.
But it was stopped.
During a council hearing similar to the one planned for this week, Pearl District developers railed against the move, which would have put R2DToo very close to a new hotel. The outcry prompted Mayor Charlie Hales to slow things down, and those same developers, Homer Williams and Dike Dame, eventually paid more than $1 million—both to purchase the lot where R2DToo would have moved, and to pitch in more than $840,000 toward finding it a new home.
A little more than two years later, the city paid $254,000 for the Central Eastside site where Hales and Fritz now want to put the homeless camp. Officials have conducted environmental studies that suggest air quality is satisfactory, and that existing contamination can be capped. And now the city's in largely the same situation it faced in 2013—complete with business interests who really, really don't like the proposal.
Asked recently if she felt there was support on city council to formalize the move, Fritz said only, "I thought we had the votes for Lot 7."
This time, it's Central Eastside business owners who are the most upset.
"We feel like it's not the right location," says Debbie Kitchin, co-owner of contracting firm InterWorks, who until recently served as chair of the Central Eastside Industrial Council (CEIC). Since Fritz and Hales showed CEIC leadership the site last April, the group has repeatedly challenged the notion of sanctioned outdoor camping nearby, and has asked officials to look for a building that could house R2DToo.
Kitchin says the CEIC will consider legal action if commissioners approve the relocation. That could involve a case before the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals. In a move that resembles the Pearl District developers' strategy in 2013, the CEIC's repeatedly complained about the city's rationale for allowing a homeless rest area on land designated for industrial use.
About that rationale: In a document released last week, the city suggests R2DToo qualifies as a "community service" under zoning code. But, conveniently, the Portland Bureau of Development Services (BDS) says the rest area is neither a "mass shelter" nor "short-term housing." Those would be prohibited on the Central Eastside site. Instead, BDS Land Use Services Manager Rebecca Esau determined that the rest area is another, ambiguous community service, and therefore permitted.
If many factors are similar to the failed 2013 move, one is not. In the last several months, city hall—led by Hales—has radically changed the way it addresses the city's homeless crisis. What Hales' chief of staff, Josh Alpert, describes as "blanket sweeps" have given way to more selective, case-by-case enforcement of the city's camping ban.
As first reported by the Mercury, Hales' office is also in the process of formally permitting two organized homeless camps under terms similar to those proposed for Right 2 Dream Too (see In Other News on page 9 for more details).
"A lot of it's similar," Alpert says. "It should be similar. We should have consistency."
The site plans drawn up for R2DToo pop with color. They show clusters of tents—some for two people, some for eight—arranged around a series of structures that'll house toilets, showers, a kitchen, a laundry room, and more. Local architect Mark Lakeman, who's designing the site, told Saturday's crowd about a "sculptural wall" laced with passionflower that will surround the camp, and called it "a shiny and lovely addition to the urban environment."
Hales, who's working with Fritz on the proposal, downplayed that characterization, telling the Mercury, "It's not a Shangri-la. It's not a barracks with a chain-link fence around it, either."
Whatever it ends up being, Fritz isn't the only person both excited and concerned about R2DToo's possible move. Since learning about the proposed site last year, the rest area's leadership has repeatedly expressed reservations about the site being too far from downtown and the social services its residents rely on. R2DToo voted to accept the Central Eastside land only a couple of weeks ago, according to co-founder Ibrahim Mubarak.
"We made the decision we would try the site out," Mubarak says. "Even though it's back in a dark corner, in a place where we've got some irate owners. R2DToo is not going to be a happenchance place to come past anymore, like we are now."
There's also the issue of how anyone staying at R2DToo would get downtown from the site. Mubarak and other camp leaders say they'll work toward an agreement with the Portland Streetcar, which trundles by just east of the site. But so far, no such agreement has been hammered out, according to Portland Streetcar Executive Director Dan Bower.
Assuming something can be worked out, Mubarak says he's most worried that people won't come back to R2DToo once they've left.
"Being far away," he asks, "will people still utilize that spot?"