Owners across 212 blocks are asked to pay to decorate trees in 45-block zone
Portland's 45-block downtown core will be festooned with 13,000 strings of new holiday lights this year in hopes that the biggest retail season of the year will be, if not merry, at least bright.
But merchants in the unfestooned Ñ and presumably less festive Ñ dark side of the downtown district have been asked to help foot the bill.
And the dent in their pocketbooks threatens to put a crimp in their holiday spirits.
From Nov. 29 until March 31, the decorative lights will adorn about 700 trees from Southwest Second Avenue west to Southwest Eleventh Avenue and from Southwest Salmon Street north to Southwest Washington Street. The total cost: $3.5 million over nine years.
But each of the business owners in the 212-block 'business improvement district' under the jurisdiction of the Portland Business Alliance Ñ whether they're in the festive zone or not Ñ is being assessed increased fees to pay for the project.
Part of the increased assessment is for another $1 million that is earmarked for a proposed Pioneer Courthouse Square ice skating rink. It is contingent on whether Square administrators can raise an additional $11.2 million of the rink's $12.2 million cost.
Jim Atwood, who owns six buildings in the Old Town/Chinatown area, said, 'It's not that I'm against the skating rink or the lights, but I think it's inappropriate to tax (the 212 blocks) for the benefit of 45 blocks. We didn't ask Nordstrom's or Meier & Frank to pay for the Chinese gardens' on Old Town's northern edge.
To pay for the lights and the ice rink allotment, an increase in the District Property Management License fee of 2.1 cents per square foot of each building's assessed value is being charged to owners of 575 properties within the 212-block Downtown Clean and Safe Business Improvement District.
For Maxine Selberg, that works out to a $300 Ñ or 12.5 percent Ñ increase for the two buildings owned by her business, Peter's Office Supply, at 338 N.W. Ninth Ave.
For Louis Wachsmuth, who owns two buildings on the block between Southwest Second and Third avenues, it means a $600 to $800 increase, and for Atwood 'a few hundred' dollars.
The base fee is calculated on a complex formula using assessed value, square footage and elevator capacity.
Lighting up winter
The Portland City Council approved the increased fees July 31. The city's Bureau of Licenses, which collects improvement district money, mailed bills that included the new assessments the very next day.
Jodi Jordan, the business alliance's image marketing manager, said the group's members overwhelmingly supported the assessments. Sam Adams, chief of staff for Mayor Vera Katz, said his office received only one complaint.
J. Clayton Hering and Greg Goodman led the successful drive to install the lights. They are co-chairmen of the holiday lighting committee of Portland Downtown Services Inc., a Portland Business Alliance affiliate.
The plan's proponents say the lights will attract shoppers because they'll make the area feel safer. They say the lights also will lend downtown a distinctive design touch during the dreary winter months.
Despite the ire of merchants outside the downtown core, the threat of any insurrection already seems to have subsided.
While Atwood initially talked of helping fund an effort to appeal the increased assessments, he and other opponents now believe there will be no legal or legislative action.
A cosmetic fix?
Portland Downtown Services will purchase the lights Ñ the same type used by Disneyland Ñ from commercial lighting specialist Carpenter Decorating, a chain with offices in Lake Oswego. But most of the annual cost will be for installation of the lights and electricity.
Some opponents question whether cosmetic touches will address the downtown issues they regard as most troublesome.
'We have a politically correct liberal government that's afraid of taking on the real issues, like downtown panhandling and expensive parking,' said Wachsmuth, former co-owner of Dan & Louis Oyster Bar, 208 S.W. Ankeny St. 'Instead, they think that flashing lights will make people feel better.'
The lights could emulate the 12-year-old street illumination program on Northwest 23rd Avenue, between Flanders and Lovejoy streets.
There, 'People immediately responded to the lights,' said Richard Singer, who developed much of the area. 'I think these will be great for downtown.'
Selberg, though, wondered if the extra costs are worth it.
'I love my city, and I'm proud of it,' she said, 'but this just isn't fair.'