Council misgivings could hinder Burnside project if giant retailer's in mix
A majority of Portland City Council members say they oppose the idea of a Home Depot or Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse being built at the east end of the Burnside Bridge.
Mayor Tom Potter and Commissioners Sam Adams and Erik Sten told the Portland Tribune they fear a big-box store there could hurt small, locally owned businesses in the area.
The Burnside Bridgehead project is being spearheaded by the Portland Development Commission, the city's urban renewal agency. Two of the three proposals that it's considering are anchored by so-called big-box stores, while the third calls for local businesses and nonprofit organizations to be major tenants.
The agency's board of directors is scheduled to select the developer of the site Feb. 23.
Because the city charter created the PDC as an independent agency, the five-member City Council cannot veto its decision. But a majority of the council could derail or delay the project by refusing to approve zoning and traffic management changes that must be made for the project to proceed.
'It might be important for the PDC make a decision that has the support of a majority of the council, given that there might be some ancillary issues that have to be decided later,' said Adams, who came out against including a big-box retailer in the project during his campaign for the council.
Matt Hennessee, chairman of the PDC board, said he's aware of the controversy and the agency is making every effort to include the council in its deliberations. Among other things, Hennessee said, the commissioners will be invited to attend a public briefing on the proposals, set for next Wednesday at the agency.
'The council members know they can always give me a holler. I have also asked the staff to contact each of them and make sure that we answer all of their questions,' said Hennessee, who is president and chief executive officer of Quicktrak, an international financial risk management and technology company based in Beaverton.
The Burnside controversy comes at a critical time for the development agency. Potter is the city's first new mayor in 12 years. His predecessor, Vera Katz, pushed the PDC to encourage and help fund major projects, including building up the Pearl District in Northwest Portland.
Some of its projects have stirred controversy. For example, the League of Women Voters and Commissioner Randy Leonard have questioned the extent of tax credits the PDC used to spark the Pearl District construction boom. And neighbors who live near the Headwaters project in Southwest Portland complained that the PDC ignored their concerns over density and traffic issues when it approved a 170-unit housing project late last year.
Potter ran for mayor on a platform of increasing citizen participation in the city's decision-making process. He has assumed control of all city agencies as part of his Bureau Innovation Partnership project, intended in part to make them more responsive to the public. Although the PDC is an independent city agency, the mayor appoints its board.
Meanwhile, the City Club will release a report on the agency's interaction with the public next week. Although Research Director Wade Fickler declined to discuss the report in advance, he said it will be 'comprehensive' and will include some information on the Burnside Bridgehead controversy.
Concern for small business
Like Adams, Potter came out against including a big-box store in the project during the election. He has not changed his mind since taking over as mayor.
'I believe we must nurture the small, independent businesses that create family-wage jobs and keep Portland dollars in Portland,' Potter told the Portland Tribune on Wednesday. 'I also don't want the small hardware and paint shops now in the area to suffer if they are forced to compete against a giant outside company like Lowe's or Home Depot.'
Sten also is unswerving in his opposition.
'There are already plenty of big-box retailers in town Ñ and plenty of other locations where they could be built without public subsidies,' Sten said.
Commissioners Leonard and Dan Saltzman said they might support including a big-box retailer in the project, depending on the final design. But Leonard and Saltzman also said they were worried that such a store could hurt the area's small businesses, especially the independent hardware and other construction-related stores.
'I've been following this with great interest and have met with a number of business owners in the area who think it would be disastrous for them,' Leonard said.
Saltzman said: 'I'm not going to rule out a big box because it's possible that one could be done that fits the area, but I appreciate the fact that they could have a negative impact on the unique local businesses in that area.'
Hennessee said opposition to the big-box retailers extends well beyond the council.
'I've received about 500 e-mails on the subject, and most of them are opposed to it,' he said.
Neighbors speak up
Much of the opposition is coming from small businesses and residents, including the boards of directors of the Hosford-Abernathy, Kerns and Mount Tabor neighborhood associations. They argue that such a large retailer would attract too much traffic for the area's already busy streets and take business away from local merchants.
A number of area businesses, however, have no objections to including a big-box retailer in the project. Steve Miller, who owns Hippo Hardware at 1040 E. Burnside St., does not believe a nearby Home Depot or Lowe's would hurt his business, which specializes in recycled building materials and fixtures. But Miller said a big-box store could hurt some businesses in the area, especially such nearby hardware stores as Ankeny Hardware at 1134 S.E. Stark St. and W.C. Winks Hardware at 200 S.E. Stark St.
'I'll be fine, but they could be hurt,' Miller said.
Chip Lazenby, the PDC's in-house lawyer, said the question at the end of the day is this: 'Is it economically viable?
'We're working cooperatively with (the council). If the community is against those projects, the commission will take that into account. We'll weigh that and the council's concerns in our decision,' Lazenby said.
Decision pushed back
The growing public interest in the project prompted the PDC to change its schedule for choosing a developer.
The board originally planned to pick the developer Feb. 9 after holding two public forums on the project last month. But opponents complained that more hearings were needed, and Adams, Leonard, Saltzman and Sten wrote to the agency calling for greater public input.
The board agreed not to select the developer until Feb. 23. Before that, the board and the City Council will be publicly briefed on the project next week, and the board will hold a public workshop Jan. 22.
More public testimony will be taken at the board's Feb. 9 meeting.
PDC staff members also will discuss the project with the boards of nearby neighborhood associations before the final vote.
'I completely agree that the public needs to feel it has ample opportunities to speak out about the project,' Hennessee said.