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Burnside builders back off big boxes

Critics of retail plan raise the volume, and developers respond

Public and political pressure may be paying off for opponents of the inclusion of a 'big-box' retailer in the Burnside Bridgehead project, which is being spearheaded by the Portland Development Commission.

Both of the developers who proposed anchoring their projects with a national chain retailer say they now understand that many in the neighborhood are against the plans Ñ and they are prepared to change them.

'It's critical to create a project that Portlanders will support, and we are hearing loud and clear that they do not want a large-format retailer,' said Mark Edlen, manager of the Gerding/Edlen Development Co., which had proposed a Home Depot for its project. 'We are prepared to eliminate it if that's what the PDC decides.'

Bruce Wood, a senior director for Opus-Northwest Development, said the same is true of his company, which had proposed anchoring its development with a Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse.

'We have never been wedded to a big-box retailer,' Wood said. 'This project has to have the support of the community.'

Both developers said they only included the big retailers in their proposals because that's what the PDC wanted at the time.

'This process right now is really about picking the developer, and whoever it is, their project will change anyway,' Wood said.

The third Burnside Bridgehead proposal, submitted by Beam Development, is built around local businesses and nonprofit organizations.

The possible changes come during a growing groundswell of opposition to the inclusion of a big-box retailer in the project, which will remake five underdeveloped blocks at the east end of the Burnside Bridge. Opponents include many residents and merchants in the area. They fear that national chain stores will take customers away from local retailers, hurting what they call the unique mix of independent hardware and remodeling-oriented businesses in inner Southeast Portland.

No veto, but some leverage

Mayor Tom Potter and city Commissioners Sam Adams and Erik Sten also have come out against including a big-box store in the project. Because the PDC is an independent agency, the five-member City Council cannot veto the board's choice of a developer. But the council could derail or delay the project by refusing to approve zoning and traffic management changes that must be made before construction can start.

The opposition also has prompted the PDC's board of directors to change its process for picking the developer, beginning with its Wednesday meeting at the urban renewal agency's headquarters, 222 N.W. Fifth Ave. The board is scheduled to hear presentations from all three developers starting at 5 p.m. Potter and the rest of the City Council plan to attend.

An evaluation committee that reviewed the proposals had been scheduled to recommend a developer to the board at the meeting. But last Thursday, the board's chairman, Matt Hennessee, asked the committee to postpone making a final decision until after public forums on the project are over.

'We're trying to do everything possible to accommodate the needs of the public,' he said.

Committee member Michael Pratt said he understood why the panel was asked to postpone its decision.

'They've been caught off guard by the level of public interest in the project,' said Pratt, who owns Pratt & Larson Tile, 1201 S.E. Third Ave.

Timeline shifts

At Hennessee's direction, the PDC has added several public forums on the project. They include a workshop from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Jan. 22 at the Oregon Convention Center, 777 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. The full PDC board and Executive Director Don Mazziotti are scheduled to attend.

The PDC board had planned to name a developer Feb. 9, after the committee briefing and a Jan. 26 public hearing. But the final decision now has been pushed back to Feb. 23.

The board now will take public testimony on the project at its Feb. 9 meeting, and PDC staff members have scheduled presentations to the boards of the Buckman, Eliot and Kerns neighborhood associations before the final vote.

Mazziotti said both the evaluation committee and PDC staff will make recommendations to the board before the Feb. 23 vote.

'We will ask everyone who's been involved in this to make their views known before the process is over,' Mazziotti said.

Emily Simon, an outspoken big-box opponent, is not yet convinced, however.

'We'll see what happens in the end,' said Simon, a Portland attorney who is co-chairwoman of the Kerns Neighborhood Association land-use committee and a member of a grass-roots opposition group called the Alliance for Responsible Inner Eastside Neighborhood Development.

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