When Paul Allen’s wrecking balls came for Portland’s old Thunderbird Motel in the early 2000s, a small parking lot remained.
Today the lot is a paved wedge, squished between the cheers of the Moda Center and the opaque, dusty commerce of a looming grain mill. For years, it has hosted the flashy cars of Trail Blazers, or trucks schlepping equipment to the arena’s next big spectacle. On a recent visit, a security guard said he’d been told explicitly to keep the homeless away.
And last week, this unassuming lot became a surprise savior.
After years of fruitless leads—and of promising plans that flagged in the face of NIMBY opposition—the small parking lot might finally be a place the homeless rest area Right 2 Dream Too can call its own.
At least until October.
The news emerged on Thursday, April 6, just one day before the well-regarded homeless camp was supposed to be tossed out of its longtime home under the Chinatown gate at West Burnside and 4th.
As first reported by the Mercury, the Portland Development Commission (PDC) that day revealed a concession: It had threatened to tear up an agreement to purchase the Chinatown plot if campers weren’t gone by April 7. But after repeatedly insisting that that date was firm, the PDC had agreed to a two-month extension.
“It was an 11th-hour decision that pretty much came together yesterday,” Michael Wright, R2DToo’s landlord of nearly six years, told the Mercury on Thursday.
More surprising was the reason for the extension: After years of poring over lists of city-owned property to find R2DToo a fitting home, officials had suddenly discovered a plot no one had brought up before.
The old triangular Thunderbird lot is owned by PBOT as a “right of way,” though the bureau has been giving the Trail Blazers organization free run of the place. And it checks many boxes that R2DToo supporters have been looking for in a new site: It’s close to transit and reasonably near the social services clustered in Old Town. It’s also not indoors, which boosters like Commissioner Amanda Fritz have been adamant about in a new location.
“It’s one of the best spots we’ve seen,” said Trillium Shannon, a board member of R2DToo. “We provide safe sleep. We can do that there.”
The existence of the lot caught many people by surprise. It was uncovered mere weeks ago, as Marc Jolin, director of the county’s Joint Office of Homeless Services, and a city employee named Ben Mauro were scouring the internet for possibilities.
“It’s a PBOT property,” says Fritz, who for years led the effort to find R2DToo a home. “We had previously been looking at the ones that were in Mayor [Charlie] Hales’ portfolio or mine.”
Berk Nelson, Wheeler’s point man on homelessness, worked to bring parties together around the move—including selling Dan Saltzman, the city’s transportation commissioner, on approving the deal. Three separate agreements paving the way for the move were signed mere days before R2DToo was slated for eviction.
The camp has had its share of dicey moments since it was founded in 2011, but for Shannon, this felt like the closest R2DToo had ever been to demise. She seemed to still be grasping the fact of its survival Friday afternoon, at a press conference announcing the deal.
Because we’re talking about R2DToo, though, you can expect complications.
To anyone who’s watched this saga—and seen the camp rebuffed from potential moves no fewer than three times (see here, here, and here)—it feels almost too convenient that the city could quickly find a suitable plot after years of searching.
After the last failed attempt earlier this year, when Wheeler vetoed Fritz’s proposal to move the camp to a city-owned parking lot on Southwest Naito, it seemed likely R2DToo would be unceremoniously evicted with no place to go. Wheeler’s office went so far as to suggest that was likely, noting the Naito proposal would’ve only been a temporary solution anyway.
Now the camp’s got new life, but Wheeler’s solution is also temporary.
The old Thunderbird lot is zoned for industrial use, according to city officials, which means a mass shelter isn’t allowed there under zoning code. The city will rely on its housing state of emergency to skirt those rules, but if the emergency is allowed to expire as planned in October, R2DToo could be out of options once again.
Notably, Wheeler’s office has not committed to pushing for an extension of the state of emergency, though Fritz said last week she expects city council will adopt one.
“I’m confident the council will vote to extend the housing emergency,” she said. “It seems very unlikely we’re going to solve our housing problems by October.”
Assuming Fritz is right, the camp’s stay in the new plot is still finite.
In announcing the move, officials said R2DToo might be able to stay on the lot for as long as two years. But it’s unclear where they got that time frame—it’s not reflected in official documents laying out the move.
A “space use” agreement [PDF] between the city and R2DToo says, “In no event shall this agreement be extended beyond September 30, 2018.” In the best-case scenario, that means R2DToo could be on the hunt next year.
Then there’s that one shining constant of Portland life: neighbors who want to have their say.
“We were not contacted about this decision. We want to have a role.”-Brian Griffis, Lloyd District Community Association co-chair
In announcing the move, the mayor’s office says it received the blessing of the operator of an adjacent mill (a woman who answered the phone at the company said she’d never heard of the matter, and referred me to an office in Connecticut), and no serious objections from the Trail Blazers organization, which said in a statement it is working “to ensure that this decision has minimal effect on our events and the surrounding neighborhood.”
One group the mayor’s office didn’t bother to contact? The Lloyd District Community Association (LDCA). In a statement issued Tuesday, the group said it has safety concerns because of the land’s proximity to transit and freight train traffic.
“We were not contacted about this decision,” LDCA co-chair Brian Griffis said. “We want to have a role.”