COMMISSIONER AMANDA FRITZ has offered Right 2 Dream Too, Old Town's controversial homeless rest area, a new home beneath a Broadway Bridge off-ramp—a potential breakthrough meant to end a sticky legal fight that erupted after Portland declared the current rest area an illegal recreational camp and then piled on thousands in code fines.
But a last-minute disagreement over the group's current home, on NW 4th and Burnside, is threatening to unravel the complicated arrangement, now several weeks in the making.
And several other potentially deal-killing details were still being worked out as of press time on Tuesday, August 27, including the cost of providing electricity and water to the proposed site—a portion of an odd-shaped parking lot at NW Lovejoy Court and Station Way—and the timing for any move.
Moving would require the group and its landlords to drop a lawsuit filed last December, presumably in exchange for having the city waive what are now more than $20,000 in fines and interest payments. The fines have been on hold during the negotiations.
Since taking over the city's code enforcement and building bureau in June, Fritz has made solving the impasse one of her top priorities ["Home Free?" News, June 12]. That effort intensified in recent weeks. Fritz’s recent calendars show various meetings on Right 2 Dream Too, including sessions with Mayor Charlie Hales, Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen, and housing activists.
Fritz said she was hopeful an agreemant could be reached, but acknowledged it was possible the negotiations could halt by Wednesday, August 28.
"It's recognizing that this has been a place where people can safely rest," Fritz says of her offer.
The rough proposal calls for the Portland Development Commission (PDC) to lease the land to the city, for a still-undetermined sum, from September to next August. The city council, at the urging of Fritz, would then grant a permit to Right 2 Dream Too. That potential permit would require, among other conditions, a commitment to start discussing, by next June, whether the new site is working well or if another site should be found.
Fritz also needs buy-in from Hales, who oversees the PDC. Hales has been out of town since last week.Hales’ spokesman, Dana Haynes, says Fritz been leading the negotiations and that Hales or his staffers have yet to have a full briefing. Haynes did say the office was aware of the broad strokes.
“We have not been briefed on the plan. We think that might happen tomorrow,” Haynes said on Tuesday.
A major holdup, however, came during negotiations with 4th and Burnside property owner Michael Wright, one of the people legally on the hook for the city's fines. Wright says he insisted on being able to host another group of homeless campers. He also told the Mercury he was hoping to develop his lot, which once held a notorious adult bookstore, Cindy's, since demolished.
Wright once tried to turn the lot into a food cart pod and wanted to try again. But Fritz wouldn't waive rules banning wheeled carts—as opposed to the pushcarts the city is allowing outside city hall—on land that's not zoned as a parking lot.
“I don’t care to waive any right to help the homeless at this point,” Wright told the Mercury on Tuesday, August 27. “They have not agreed to any alterations or variances that would help the property owners. I don’t want to give a way the only tool that’s ever gotten a call from them, which is helping the homeless.”
Fritz was willing to update the city's offer by taking out language specifically banning homeless camping. Instead, she says, it would allow "any legal use."
That language still doesn't appear to allow camping or a full-fledged cart pod. Wright's attorney, Mark Kramer, said that was a major setback, in fact. Kramer would have preferred the agreement be "silent" on what Wright can do with the property, presumably so Wright could, if he chooses, host more homeless people on the land—starting another code and court fight, if the city also chose to crack down again.
“I thought we had a breakthrough, but it turns out I was mistaken,” he said.
Right 2 Dream Too quietly sprung up in October 2011, amid the glare of Occupy Portland, safely housing dozens of people nightly who might not qualify for or want shelter space (assuming there's even room).
The group has been mulling over a move for weeks, hashing out concerns that the NW Lovejoy site would be far less visible—key for protesting and raising awareness about homelessness issues—and more difficult to manage. Spokesman Ibrahim Mubarak did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
“A few of us went to view this site. It has great potential, however it takes away from our visibility,” he wrote to board members on August 12, in an email obtained by the Mercury.
The group and its landlords filed suit in December 2012, claiming the city was incorrectly interpreting its code. The two sides appeared in court this summer. The city asked a judge to toss the suit, arguing Right 2 Dream Too had failed to exhaust the city's bureaucratic appeals process.
The current site has been criticized by the Portland Business Alliance and other business interests (developer David Gold blamed it for the demise of a PDC-backed deal for a new hostel across 4th, on Burnside). Chinatown dignitaries, who find the group quite neighborly but nonetheless hate its location beneath the Chinatown gate, have tolerated it.
The discussions come as the Lee Family Association, which represents Chinese Lee families in America and around the world, plans its national convention in Portland. The convention will be held in the Lloyd Center's Doubletree Hotel starting this Sunday. Gloria Lee Luebke, an Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood activist, says the group normally holds its opening parade in its host city's Chinatown. Not this year.
"In part that's because of Right 2 Dream Too," she says, taking pains to say the organization “maintains a pretty decent place” is “very responsible,” and has “participated in the community,” including in a recent cleanup effort. But that, in her personal opinion, “the location is inappropriate” given the cultural importance of the gate.
Asked if the the Lee Family Association or any other group put pressure on Fritz’s office to broker a deal based on the convention’s arrival, she said “I don’t think so. That’s part of the problem of the culture, being Chinese. There’s a tendency to not stand up and speak out.”
The city and R2DToo have discussed various other sites this summer. R2DToo at one point looked into moving into a building vacated by Transition Projects.
The Lovejoy site has its own issues. It abuts the north end of the US Postal Service yard. Noise booms from trains heading past and through nearby Union Station, as well as from streetcars passing overhead.
Mubarak wrote earlier this month he’s also worried about the portion of the lot R2DToo wouldn’t control (Fritz says they’ve been offered a portion of the lot away from the train tracks). The issue being whether the group would be responsible for people who might be turned away from the rest area but decide nonetheless to camp out right outside it.
But the new site—provided any kind of agreement emerges and the council approves it—would have the benefit of being legal.
Fritz says it's zoned more flexibly, allowing industrial uses as well as group shelters. Council approval is important, because commissioners have the right to interpret code as they see it.
"It's giving permission ahead of time," Fritz says, "instead of seeking forgiveness."