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Burnham residents wary of city plans

Tigard's approach to property purchases puts some owners, businesses on the defensive
by: Jonathan House, BURNHAM BUSINESS — Bret Swopes, owner of Manning’s Automotive Service, believes that the city of Tigard is trying to run his business, along with others, off of Burnham Street with a proposal to widen the streets and add bike lanes and sidewalks.

TIGARD - Steven DeAngelo, some in the city of Tigard would say, is probably being overly dramatic when he refers to the city's effort to secure narrow strips of roadside land along Burnham Street as 'the property takings.'

With a map spread out in front of him, DeAngelo, the owner of DeAngelo's Catering and Events, directs his fingers around it like game pieces on a Monopoly board, identifying each property and its owner in turn.

'This is the 'takings map,'' he said. There are 28 properties total, though six of those are already city-owned.

DeAngelo received a letter in the mail last month from Right of Way Associates, a Beaverton-based company hired by the city to orchestrate the land purchases, though he later discovered that his properties - he owns three, including one purchased as recently as six months ago - will not be affected in this round of land deals.

But for him, and for many business and property owners affected by this opening salvo in the city's downtown redevelopment strategy, the city's tactics to secure the land has established, for some, an overlay of distrust.

'They talk out of both sides of their mouth down there at City Hall,' said Nancy Spohn. Spohn, who is shy about giving her age, moved onto Burnham Street with her husband, Wilbur, in 1971. Together the couple operated an automotive mechanic shop adjacent to their home for five years, when Wilbur went on to teach in his field at Portland Community College for the next 10 years. Wilbur died a little less than a decade ago.

A swatch of the Spohn's property, one that includes two trees and two parking spaces for her tenant in the former shop, Manning's Automotive Service Center, is identified for city acquisition.

'I'm just very upset about having to give up half of my front yard and two of my beautiful trees,' Spohn said. 'I shudder to think about having to move. I'm happy here.'

A City Council resolution in February authorized the city to negotiate for the properties. Following a Right of Way Associates market appraisal, the council has stated its willingness to pay $75,000 above the appraised amount for the needed land.

In the event of an impasse, the city resolved that it would use condemnation, or eminent domain, authority to secure the properties. Some property owners, such as Spohn, have said that action has cast a dark cloud over the property negotiations as they go forward.

'What I fear is the eminent domain,' Spohn said. 'They can exercise that, even though they told us they would not.'

Exacerbating fears has been the apparent absence of an effective communication strategy from the city.

Spohn said the city deserves a 'zero' for its effort to communicate with her about the purchases.

DeAngelo agreed.

'You can go door to door really quickly and get that done,' he said. 'That was not done.'

Other property owners, including John Zuber, who runs a construction company on Burnham Street, said he has seen little effort from the city to educate him on the proposed deal.

'I don't know what they're going to do,' Zuber said. Zuber's property is the one property along Burnham Street the city is expected to buy in full, forcing him to move as the construction season enters full swing.

City seeks to calm agitation

The City Council and - most vocally - Mayor Craig Dirksen have attempted to calm agitation arising from eminent domain's inclusion in the city resolution, especially as it was raised at the beginning of the negotiation process.

'If we would have chosen to wait, I think people would have said, 'Why did you wait until now to raise this?'' Dirksen said.

Dirksen, when asked about the city's communication efforts, also stressed that city meetings have been advertised and open to everyone.

Gus Duenas, the city engineer, also pointed out that the city mailed all of the property owners, including those listed in this article, a letter of its purchase intentions on March 20. Once those properties are secured, he said, the finer details of the purchase plans would be unveiled.

One reason city officials gave for outing eminent domain early in the process is so property owners will be aware of available tax breaks from the sales, a possibility when such transactions occur under the outside threat of condemnation.

When asked, the councilors said they had no knowledge of known holdouts along Burnham Street, and said they did not perceive its inclusion in the resolution package as a hammer to drive property owners to the bargaining table.

The urban renewal plan specifically states that eminent domain will not be used for economic development purposes, a sour concept for many that reached prominence with the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London. But city officials view the Burnham Street acquisitions as a separate function of the city and not subject to the limits spelled out in the urban renewal plan.

The price tag on the Burnham Street improvements that includes an expanded Fanno Creek Park and a public plaza totals $7 million, including around $1.9 million set aside for the property purchases.

There is an ambitious timeline to seal the property purchases and lock in work on the two-year project. City Manager Craig Prosser said the city had hoped to have the purchases completed by July, but now he thinks that date will be pushed out.

'Now it's beginning to look like September because land acquisitions are taking longer than we had expected,' Prosser said.

The budgetary outlook for the improvements is also a matter of speculation to many of Burnham Street's property ownership and business community. Though the city has budgeted funds for this year, Prosser said the city would likely have to take out a loan based on anticipated cash flow to cover next year's costs.

DeAngelo, who many along the street have adopted as the liaison with the city, said he is concerned the city has adopted a risky strategy in these first stages of the downtown redevelopment plan, one that he said is a potentially dangerous ploy headed into a stagnating economy.

'This build-it-and-they-will-come strategy - I don't think it works,' he said.

Businesses on defensive

Bret Swopes, owner of Manning's Automotive Service Center where he's been for the last 20 years, said he has two immediate concerns with the Burnham Street improvements: parking and access.

'We're going to lose two parking spaces, as you can see. I don't even have a lot of spaces to start with,' Swopes said of the nine spaces granted him at the moment.

Swopes said he is already getting the inkling that his business and others like it on Burnham Street are part of a dying breed.

'I think they want us out of here, and they're going to do everything they can to get us out of here,' Swopes said.

And, he said, the city has not reached out to the existing business community.

'I've got absolutely no information at all from the city of Tigard,' he said.

Prosser said there has been no secret made about the goal to transform Burnham Street into a largely mixed commercial and residential zone. He said there is a strong possibility businesses such as Swopes' will fade away as market forces take over.

'Over time, the type of business down there is going to change,' he said.

If the plans pan out, the entirety of the downtown zone, further adorned by this fall's inclusion of TriMet's commuter rail, will draw diners, shoppers and, likely, a showing of the upwardly mobile in the Portland metro region.

DeAngelo said the city, as a whole, wants just such a downtown area to showcase to the rest of the region. After all, he said, the city voted in favor of the downtown redevelopment in 2006.

'Obviously, someone is a proponent of it, because it passed,' he said.