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Interstate dreaming hinges on light rail

Some shops struggle to stay open, others arrive during latest MAX project

Two years' worth of light-rail construction Ñ cracked window panels, blasting jackhammers and blocked parking lots Ñ could have driven almost any business owner to close down or move.

In the case of North Interstate Avenue, three businesses did just that, including a pet hospital and a music store. Others, such as Nite Hawk Cafe & Lounge and Swan Garden Restaurant, paid the price with disappearing lunch and dinner crowds and slipping profits.

But with Interstate MAX light-rail construction nearing its final phase, the up-and-coming neighborhood is making up for the loss with 20 new businesses, including the North Star Coffee House, 7540 N. Interstate Ave.; Ripe Catering, 2240 N. Interstate; and Prananda Yoga and Arts Center, 4812 N. Interstate.

TriMet is considering opening the 5.8-mile train route as early as April 2004, five months ahead of schedule.

And the Interstate Avenue Association has even begun branding its slick central street 'The Avenue.'

'People are optimistic and looking forward to the opening of the new MAX line,' said Ann Becklund, director of community affairs for TriMet, the builder of MAX. 'There's a sense of renewal.'

Reportedly, New Seasons is scouting for land for a new grocery store near North Portland Boulevard and Interstate, and Fred Meyer plans a renovation of its North Lombard Street store.

New line is reason to relocate

That North Interstate Avenue did not fare worse during the lengthy, aggravating construction of the $350 million light-rail system is the result of numerous business retention efforts by TriMet and the Portland Development Commission. The heaviest segment of construction ended three months ago, with completion of sidewalks and bike paths stretching from the Rose Quarter to the Kenton neighborhood.

Mayor Vera Katz's goal was not to lose a single business on North Interstate because of light rail. As part of its 'Open for Business' campaign, TriMet advertised on businesses' behalf, installed signs and helped with such things as setting up checking accounts.

Cascadia Revolving Fund, a nonprofit community development financial institution, provided 12 low-interest loans totaling $165,000 to struggling Interstate businesses, according to a report presented Wednesday at a PDC meeting.

'It was an amazing lot of work to make sure that (closings) didn't happen,' said John Southgate, PDC's development director for Interstate.

The light-rail line is the center of the 3,400-acre Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area Ñ the city's largest renewal project. Property tax collections in the urban renewal district will pay for $30 million of light-rail costs.

The commuter rail was a major factor in Richard DeWolfe's moving his architectural restoration business, Arciform, to 4231 N. Interstate, last April. He renovated his building in tandem with light rail's construction.

'If the city didn't see much economic development in the neighborhood, it would have been a crapshoot,' DeWolfe said.

Final straw for struggling firms

From the start, some Interstate businesses were hanging on the edge. So it was hardly surprising that there were more business closures on Interstate than there were near the west-side MAX, which claimed only one business casualty.

The Interstate MAX route passes 105 businesses, while the airport MAX line, by comparison, runs along Interstate 205 far from any stores or restaurants.

The Interstate businesses that closed Ñ Dr. Dan's Pet Hospital, A & D Liquidators and Interstate Music Monster Ñ were already struggling when MAX construction began in September 2001. TriMet's Becklund said they had a business consultant helping Music Monster to develop ads and fliers and connect to University of Portland students.

Nonetheless, the independent record and CD store closed in spring 2002, as did A & D Liquidators. Dr. Dan's relocated to Florida.

'These were a lot more fragile businesses,' Becklund said. 'There were 30 to 40 very small retail-oriented businesses; because of their location on the light-rail line, it was tough.'

The Nite Hawk Cafe & Lounge, 6423 N. Interstate, is still recovering from a 20 percent drop in income.

'Traffic went down significantly on Interstate,' said Bill Mildenberger Jr., whose parents have owned the Nite Hawk since 1980. 'When it dropped, so did business.'

'We're coming out of this, but we were scared to death,' Mildenberger said. 'First, there was MAX, then 9-11 and then the Oregon economy. If we were baseball, we'd have struck out.'