Urban renewal cash offered in exchange for homeless center

As the clock ticks on the remaining months of his tenure at City Hall, Commissioner Erik Sten is taking off the kid gloves.

At a heated neighborhood meeting last week, Commissioner Sten proposed the raw elements of a deal that could reshape the face of Old Town for years to come.

Stripped to its essentials, it went like this: Landowners and business interests should swallow their reservations and let the city build a new homeless center in Old Town - in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars of development subsidies in a new urban renewal district.

Homeless advocates cheered Sten's horse-trading; reaction among developers in the audience ranged from discomfort to outrage. 'It was thinly disguised extortion,' developer John Beardsley fumed.

'So many people were upset,' said Carol McCreary, president of the Old Town Chinatown Neighborhood Association.

Sten is pushing for a new 'homeless access center' to replace the dilapidated shelter run by Transition Projects Inc. at 475 N.W. Glisan St. The proposal calls for a shelter, day room, dining hall, enclosed courtyard, retail and underground parking, topped by at least four floors of affordable housing.

Although several sites are under consideration, the most likely location for the center is Block 25, also known as the 'Dirty Duck block,' a grimy chunk of Old Town real estate bordered by Northwest Flanders and Glisan streets and Third and Fourth avenues.

The Blanchet House, which provides meals to the homeless, occupies a building in the block, and also would upgrade its facilities under the plan.

Predictably, the plan has sparked opposition from neighbors, who argue that Old Town already shoulders more than its fair share of homeless services. Chinatown leaders fear the center will tarnish the area's image.

'This neighborhood is ready to tip over,' said Grace Lee, executive director of the Portland Classical Chinese Garden, which sits cater-cornered from Block 25. Other neighbors complain that the location took them by surprise and claim the city hasn't followed its own procedures.

Sten started off by arguing for the access center on its own merits, arguing that the phenomenon of homeless people thronging on sidewalks outside Transition Projects' existing shelter was a direct result of its outdated facility - and a shortage of affordable housing to help move people off the streets.

For those members of the audience who remained skeptical, Sten dangled a monumental consolation prize.

'The moment is now'

Sten chairs a committee that is in the process of redrawing two urban renewal districts that are set to expire.

If Old Town is drawn into the boundary of the prosperous River District, Sten said, somewhere on the order of $300 million to $400 million of urban renewal money would flow to Old Town developers - but only if the neighborhood access center gets built.

'The moment is now,' Sten told the overflow crowd at the meeting of the Old Town Chinatown Visions Committee. 'I implore you not to let your dislike of aspects of this process kill this opportunity.'

While some opponents resented what they considered brass-knuckle tactics, others accentuated the positive.

'He was pretty blunt,' said Lee of the Chinese garden. 'But I think that 'threat' is too strong a word. I look at it as an opportunity to fight for dollars to balance the equation.'

Along with the tantalizing prospect of urban renewal funds, Sten lobbed a grenade at one particular project. The city, which bought the decrepit Grove Hotel at 421 W. Burnside St. last year for $1.8 million, ultimately plans to bulldoze the building to make way for a two-block grocery project envisioned by developer David Gold on the so-called Goldsmith Blocks.

But, Sten said, the council might change its mind and maintain the Grove Hotel and its 70 units of low-income housing unless the access center proceeds.

'If this thing implodes, the likelihood of the Grove going away is very small,' he said. 'I'm willing to be the scapegoat.' Sten, Portland's longest-serving city commissioner, recently announced that he will resign his seat by April 1.

Boundaries will move soon

With Sten's departure around the corner, opponents may try to stall the plan until he is safely bundled off into retirement.

Unfortunately for them, Sten has inoculated himself against delaying tactics because the boundaries of the urban renewal districts will be redrawn before he leaves office - by a committee that he chairs.

Sten's ability to direct urban renewal money is a direct result of the City Council's move to wrest control of the Portland Development Commission's budget, which was approved by voters in May.

During that debate, City Hall watchers voiced concern that the PDC was originally designed to be independent from the City Council so as to insulate it from politics.

'That's what I was afraid of,' says former Mayor Vera Katz, who says she watched the council's colonization of the PDC 'with some degree of horror.'

Sten aide Margaret Bax denied the suggestion that the commissioner was using the urban renewal money for political ends.

'I don't know if you'd call it horse-trading,' she said. 'We can't do the access center if we don't expand the River District.'

She also said that her boss remains flexible about the final location of the homeless center, so long as it stays in Old Town, and pointed out that the purpose of urban renewal money is to fix up the run-down parts of the city and combat squalor - exactly, she said, what the project is intended to do.

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