A quiet proposal by a pair of Portland developers for a massive complex to shelter and house homeless Portlanders got a familiar response from one city commissioner today: Sounds great, but probably not here.
That commissioner is Nick Fish, who's in charge of the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services (BES), and so controls a piece of property that's been eyed by developers Homer Williams and Dike Dame: The Port of Portland's old Terminal 1 property, at NW 21st and Front.
As first reported by the Oregonian, Williams and Dame have been shopping around an idea for the last month or so: A $100 million campus dedicated to both offering an emergency shelter to the homeless, and transitional housing where people can get on their feet.
The pair of developers—best known for work in the Pearl and South Waterfront—have reportedly been trying to cobble tens of millions in private investment, but want buy-in from public coffers as well. City Hall sources say the project would be modeled after a sprawling campus in San Antonio called Haven for Hope.
Williams hasn't responded to an inquiry about the idea, but met with Fish over lunch roughly a month ago to discuss the idea, then had a subsequent meeting with Fish's staff. He made clear in those meetings he was interested in the 14-acre Terminal 1 as a potential site.
But in a memo to the rest of Portland City Council today, Fish lays out a list of "practical considerations and challenges with the T1 site." While he calls the idea for a "Oregon Trail of Hope" campus an "innovative, creative proposal," he suggests it's not fit for Terminal 1 for a number of reasons. Briefly:
•The land is zoned for heavy industrial purposes, so not fitting for residential use.
•Any attempt to make it fit for residential use would require a change to Portland's newly minted Comprehensive Plan, which might not be possible until 2018.
•BES thinks it's going to make a boatload of money off the property when it goes up for sale next month.
"In light of the technical, legal, and practical challenges outlined above, I do not believe that 'Oregon Trail of Hope' is an appropriate use for T1," Fish concludes. "However, this is an exciting idea and I encourage Council to undertake a broad survey of all available land (public and private) to identify a more suitable site."
The arguments aren't wrong, and Fish has certainly been an advocate for large-scale homelessness services in the past (think Bud Clark Commons). But the memo also blends in with the general refrain being taken up all over the city as officials poke around for properties that might house the hundreds of Portlanders who sleep outside every night. Everyone wants to help, but then every property that comes up for discussion is coincidentally not good enough.
We saw it repeatedly with homeless rest area Right 2 Dream Too, which the city is still hoping to put onto a plot of industrial land in the Central Eastside. And it's visible in the city's attempts to allow campers to live in land off North Greeley Avenue—which inspired the ire of neighbors, and has Mayor Charlie Hales' office now actively seeking a new plot.
Adequate land is in short enough supply that homeless Portlanders are living near contaminated dirt mounds (in land also owned by BES), and female campers who were promised a plot of city property where they could feel secure are still without one, as Willamette Week recently noted.
Maybe the properties Portland lands on to help these people aren't Terminal 1—though Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman has made clear he's interested in Williams and Dame's $100 million proposal—but they've got to be somewhere.
Here's Fish's full memo.