The warehouse at Terminal 1, 2400 NW Front, might be a 400-person shelter by this fall.
The warehouse at Terminal 1, 2400 NW Front, might be a 400-person shelter by this fall. City of Portland

For all the remarkable things about the debate over Northwest Portland's Terminal 1, the most striking may be how it's scrambled the long-drawn battle lines we're used to when it comes to Portland's homeless.

It's partly the lack of certitude or concrete specifics inherent in the proposal to put a 400-person temporary shelter on the 14.5-acre plot of city-owned land. And it's the immensity of a 1,000-plus person "campus" that could follow in coming years.

For some people, it's the provenance of the plan to begin with: big-time Portland developer Homer Williams, who just three years ago was cutting deals to get homeless people far away from his property.

Whatever the varied reasons, the debate this morning—as a sharply divided Portland City Council approved a resolution that sets the table for a temporary shelter and more at 2400 NW Front—was different than past ones.

Take a telling line from Joe Walsh, a council gadfly who never misses an opportunity to excoriate city council for its treatment of the homeless, but who adamantly opposes the notion of a shelter at Terminal 1.

"These neighborhood association people, they're on the side of me, but they’re ugly," Walsh said. "What they said today is ugly, and I resent being on the same side as them."

Of course, you plan for the neighbors Walsh was talking about at hearings like this. Plenty Riverscape District neighbors showed up to talk about safety concerns. At least one trotted out an odious generalization about addicts and sex offenders. A lady brought her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter to the microphone and forced her to say: "I wanted you guys to not build the homeless thing." (The girl was booed.)

And businesses, as is typical, came to the table to fight. The Portland Business Alliance was the first entity to suggest using Terminal 1 as a shelter in the first place, but now opposes the idea because of "jobs."

Walsh's own critiques are different: He and others—including some of the city's most stalwart advocates— worry about huge numbers of people being callously "warehoused" on the property.

Terminal 1 is potentially the most meaningful injection of private cash into the fight to fund homelessness that Portland's ever seen, but today skepticism and uncertainty appeared to far outweigh any outright support.

"Is it the right thing? I don’t know. We don’t know," said Ibrahim Mubarak of the group Right 2 Survive and the homeless rest area Right 2 Dream Too. "But they want to do something."

"I do not want to live in a prison," said Desiree Rose, a resident of the organized homeless encampment Hazelnut Grove. "I won’t go."

Homer Williams makes his Terminal 1 pitch (again) at City Hall on Wednesday.
Homer Williams makes his Terminal 1 pitch (again) at City Hall on Wednesday. Dirk VanderHart

In the end it didn't much matter. Council had convened Wednesday morning with positions pretty clearly staked out.

Nick Fish, commissioner in charge of the Bureau of Environmental Services, which currently controls the property, is strongly against the shelter proposal. He's argued for weeks his bureau should be able to sell the rare industrial resource, bank a big profit for ratepayers, and create new jobs on the site.

Dan Saltzman, commissioner in charge of the Portland Housing Bureau (PHB), was the strongest champion for the idea, saying the opportunity at Terminal 1 was a minimal risk if it didn't work out, but was too big a chance to pass up because of the involvement of developer Williams.

As PHB Director Kurt Creager put it, bolstering his boss's argument: "This may be a moment in time—a singular opportunity."

As expected, Saltzman had the backing of Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick. After more than three hours of considering the matter, council voted 3-2 to approve a lease between Saltzman's PHB and Fish's BES to potentially establish a shelter, with Commissioner Amanda Fritz coming out forcibly against.

"Today we can take the first step to achieve what I believe could be an opportunity to change the landscape for people experiencing homelessness," Saltzman said early on in the hearing.

With the vote, BES is essentially being forced to lease its land to the housing bureau—and potentially on terms that Fish finds objectionable, to say the least.

As we reported he would yesterday, the commissioner floated a package of amendments that would have forced PHB to pay market rate for Terminal 1's 96,000-square-foot warehouse, and potentially some of its parking lot as well. Fish's amendment package also would have specifically forced the Housing Bureau to get blessing from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to house people on the industrial site, and required council approval before a six month lease was extended.

It all got shot down, along the lines of the same 3-2 vote.

That means that the Terminal 1 lease might be as low as $10,000 per month, the same rent BES charged Nike in a deal for the space last year. But Fish argued today that times had changed, and that council "cannot bend" in charging fair market rate for the property, which he thinks could approach $1.2 million a year for the full 14.5-acre plot. That argument has roots in the city's charter, which dictates ratepayer money spent by utility bureaus like BES must go toward furthering utility services. Fish—along with several groups that watch BES expenses—argued today forgoing market rate would be problematic to that requirement.

Most of council disagreed.

"We no longer spend utility money that's questionable," said Hales, referencing an ongoing lawsuit over BES and Portland Water Bureau spending. "That does not mean that a bureau is eligible for the maximum possible rate of return from a general fund bureau."

In their customary statements before votes, commissioner laid out a variety of arguments for and against.

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Novick said he'd consulted Josh Alpert, Hales' former chief of staff and head of the mayor's homeless intiatives until he departed in June. Alpert spent a good portion of his last year in City Hall ferreting out potential sites for shelters.

"I called Josh Alpert and asked are there better sites than Terminal 1," Novick said. "He said, 'no.'"

Fritz described the painstaking process that had gone into figuring out how to move Right 2 Dream Too, and suggested this effort was slap-dash. "Vulnerable people should not be put all together in large warehouses," she said.

Fish, who seemed bolstered by the skepticism of the crowd, did a theatrical bit where he laid out what he'd learned from "sponsors" of the proposal during the meeting—including Saltzman, Williams, and former Portland Development Commission Director Don Mazziotti.

"Here’s what I learned about the plan," Fish said, then paused for a small silence. "Here what I learned about the funding, both public and private. [silence] Here’s what I learned about the city’s role. [silence] Here's what I learned about benchmarks for success. [silence] As you can see I didn’t learn much."

It's hyperbole, but Fish does have something of a point. It's not totally clear who exactly will run the temporary shelter, when it might be up and running, how much it will cost to operate, or what parameters it will operate under.

Kurt Creager, director of the PHB, said his staff would defer to developer Williams to select an operator. Williams has pledged to pay for the operating expenses of the shelter, which Creager estimated could be between $1 million and $2 million a year.

Williams told the Mercury after the hearing that those figures were way overblown. So did Bill Russell, executive director of Union Gospel Mission, who promised he'd convince his board of directors to staff the shelter.

"It's not going to cost that," Williams said, though he couldn't offer a more detailed estimate. In recent weeks the developers been building support—and soliciting donations—for the shelter proposal from his colleagues. He declined to say how much he'd raised.

"This is something that's never been done before," Russell cautioned, saying costs might vary wildly depending on choices about security.

This much is clear: Construction at Terminal 1 for the shelter will be kept to a minimum. Because the space is zoned for industrial uses, the shelter's backers will need to pipe in water and heat via temporary means, as opposed to making permanent changes. Military-style disaster response vehicles such as those used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency were raised in the hearing.

Amid all that uncertainty, one pressing question about Terminal 1 was answered today: The state's DEQ sent word to staffers for Saltzman and Hales that the state didn't have qualms with people staying at Terminal 1. The email, from DEQ Northwest Region Division Administrated Nina DeConcini, said the agency had gone over 2005 data from the site. It found that "substances present in soil are below residential criteria," with the exception of one sample that was deemed "not representative."

"On this basis," DeConcini wrote, "DEQ has determined that there does not appear to [be] a cause for concern for direct contact exposure to soil considering a residential exposure scenario at the T1 site."