Fresh energy, fresh debate in Old Town

University will add vitality to area, but developers have gripes
by: L.E. BASKOW, The University of Oregon will move into all or part of three buildings in the property known as the White Stag Block in a transformation that promises to bring hundreds of new people to Old Town.

Hundreds of people crowded into the ground floor of a building in Old Town last Friday to celebrate the University of Oregon's plan to consolidate and expand its local programs there.

Mayor Tom Potter told the throng that the university's move to Old Town was part of a larger redevelopment plan that would 'infuse a new energy and vitality' into Old Town.

The celebration, which included an address by university President David Frohnmayer, occurred as the Portland Development Commission is scrambling to complete a plan for the area that already is being fought over by developers. In fact, one team of developers recently accused the PDC of favoritism in the way it is responding to proposals for the area - a charge PDC officials denied.

The object of the controversy is the Skidmore Fountain Building, the red brick building along the MAX light-rail line on the south side of the Burnside Bridge. It currently is owned by Saturday Market, the not-for-profit organization that operates the popular weekend arts-and-crafts fair in the parking lots around the building and under the bridge.

Although Saturday Market cannot make the payments on the building, local developer Ben Studz claimed he and partner Jeff Mincheff were rebuffed by the PDC when they offered to buy it in July. Studz and Mincheff - who work together under the name J.B. Equities - wanted to convert the building from small stores and offices to condominiums.

Studz believes their offer was not considered because the PDC wants to make the building available to Mercy Corps - the Portland-based international relief agency - for a new headquarters. The agency's 140 employees are spread among three buildings in Southwest Portland.

Mercy Corps project manager Kathy Cooke confirmed that the relief agency is talking to the PDC about two sites in Old Town for a new headquarters. One is the Skidmore Fountain Building. The other is the block housing the former Import Plaza building, located on the west side of Northwest Naito Parkway between Couch and Davis streets.

According to Cooke, both sites have pros and cons for a headquarters building. Each would require some new construction to accommodate all of the employees. Parking also is an issue, with the Skidmore Fountain Building requiring the construction of more expensive underground parking.

Cooke said her agency's board of directors hopes to choose which site to pursue by next month.

'They are our two final sites, and we hope to make a decision soon,' Cooke said.

PDC project manager Lew Bowers confirmed his agency is talking to Mercy Corps about the two sites. He denied that the PDC is postponing a decision on the Skidmore Fountain Building until Mercy Corps makes up its mind, however. Instead, Bowers said the PDC is still developing an overall redevelopment plan for Old Town that will not be presented to the agency's board of directors until December.

'We have not made any agreement with Mercy Corps,' Bowers said.

Bid doesn't move to sale

Studz and Mincheff have renovated numerous older apartment and other buildings in Portland, including the Cambridge-Trinity Apartments, 1963 W. Burnside St.

They approached the PDC about buying the Skidmore Fountain Building shortly after the agency was told not to pursue moving the Central Fire Station from a location south of the building to a new one on the Import Plaza block. The two met with several PDC employees, including Bowers.

Studz said he and Mincheff were prepared to offer $3.5 million for the building, slightly more than Saturday Market owes on it. According to Studz, they expected their offer to be seriously discussed. Instead, Studz said, PDC employees told them they would not entertain any offers on the building until later this year.

'When serious people offer serious money, you expect a serious discussion. Instead, it was more like, leave your number and maybe we'll call you,' Studz said.

Puzzled, Studz began asking others in the development community what they thought was going on with the building. When he heard that Mercy Corps was talking to the PDC about it, he figured a behind-the-scenes agreement already had been reached.

Bowers apologized for what he called miscommunication at the meeting and afterward. According to Bowers, the PDC was still absorbing the decision to not go forward with the fire station move from south of the Skidmore Fountain Building when the meeting occurred.

'We couldn't really commit to anything at the meeting because we had to go back and reconsider everything we had been working on. That's what we meant to tell them. I'm sorry if we didn't make ourselves clear,' he said.

Bowers also said that no one will be given the exclusive right to develop any Old Town property. Instead, the PDC will first approve a plan that calls for certain levels of development on specific properties, then the agency will work with a number of developers to determine which ones will do the best job.

'The goal is to get the greatest public benefit. Once we know what we want to achieve, we'll work to see who can do that,' Bowers said.

University presence will help

The University of Oregon is not waiting for the plan to be finalized, however. As last Friday's ceremony showed, it is moving full steam ahead with plans to occupy all or part of three buildings in what is now being called the White Stag Block in Old Town. The buildings are just north of the Burnside Bridge between Northwest Naito Parkway and First Avenue.

The university will occupy all of the Hirsch-Weiss Building, which is commonly called the White Stag Building because it features the former White Stag neon sign that has been converted to a Made in Oregon sign.

The school also will occupy parts of two other adjacent buildings, the Bickle Building on the north and the Skidmore Building on the west.

All three buildings are being remodeled by the Venerable Group Inc., a real estate firm specializing in historic properties. When the work is completed by early 2008, the university plans to consolidate and expand its existing programs in the buildings, including offerings by the schools of allied arts, architecture and journalism.

A fourth building on the northwest corner is not part of the project.

The finished project will bring hundreds of new people into Old Town every day. The city hopes to further increase the use of the area by encouraging the construction of more housing, stores, restaurants and office space.

With the approval of the City Council, the PDC has spent years working with residents, landlords, business owners, community groups and social service agencies to create the vibrant neighborhood Potter alluded to in his address.

But Potter also threw a monkey wrench into the PDC's efforts in June. He and Commissioner Erik Sten pulled the plug on a key part of the agency's emerging Old Town plan - moving the Portland Fire Bureau's Central Station from its existing location just south of the Skidmore Fountain Building to a new building to be constructed on the Import Plaza block.

Potter and Sten told the PDC to forget the idea after the estimated cost of the new station reached nearly $30 million and threatened to go higher.

Moving the station would have allowed the PDC to work with developers to build a large, mixed-use housing project on the station's former site, bringing hundreds of new residents into the area.

But, after Potter and Sten nixed the idea, the PDC essentially started its planning process over again, returning to the Old Town stakeholders to ask what else they would like to see happen.

Bowers said PDC staffers working on the new plan will update the PDC board on their work in October and present a formal plan by December.

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