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Portland public market idea far from dead

$25,000 study under way to probe Union Station site, hotel plan and more
by: DAVID PLECHL, Ron Paul, a tireless booster of a year-round public market downtown, keeps the optimism on high for the latest plan of siting it at Union Station. A feasibility study’s on the way.

After striking out repeatedly on his grand plans to bring a public market to Portland over the past seven years, Ron Paul is hopeful that this time around, things will be different.

Paul, a former restaurateur and city employee who now is consulting director of the nonprofit Historic Portland Public Market, says a feasibility study for his latest dream site - Portland's historic Union Station - is due out in 60 to 90 days.

The $25,000 study, performed by Mahlum Architects and funded by the city, will 'determine scenarios for the public market to happily coexist with Amtrak's function,' Paul says.

The trade group Architectural Foundation of Oregon also contributed $5,000 to the study.

Paul and the rest of his foundation previously have floated plans to bring the market to the old Monte Carlo site on Southeast Belmont Street, the federal immigration building at 511 S.W. Broadway, downtown's Galleria and the Old Town site of Fire Station No. 1.

Public market advocates had gone through an extensive feasibility study for the fire station site before Mayor Tom Potter and Commissioner Erik Sten decided against moving it, thus taking the option off the table.

But food enthusiasts haven't given up hope on the public market project, saying that interest in sustainably grown food in Portland is at an all-time high, and the city is somewhat of a poster child for its advocacy of local food.

'A project of this nature, which requires buy in from so many different sectors, is always nerve-racking because you never know, even if you've lined up support in one arena, what might happen the next day,' said Amelia Hard, board president of the association. 'It's very much a juggling act. But I think we all toughened up quite a big deal. … We're back in the fray, sadder but wiser.'

Financing, space questioned

The plan to locate a public market at Union Station has drawn both support and skepticism.

Critics charge that with the growth of rail travel, there is not enough room for a market at the station next to Amtrak, which leases space from the city along with Wilf's Restaurant and Piano Bar and assorted offices and concessionaires.

'A market won't work,' says Dan Block, president of an agriculture consulting firm whose office would be replaced by hotel rooms as part of Paul's current plan. 'It's getting busier and busier with passengers all the time.'

Other observers doubt whether Paul's financing plan is anything but pie in the sky. Paul brushes those characterizations aside, saying that the effort is very much growing from the ground up, building on the city's rich history of public markets.

City officials and others have been 'intrigued' by the idea of a public market at the station but don't yet know the details, so they'll be eagerly awaiting the information, said Brendan Finn, chief of staff to Commissioner Dan Saltzman, a board member of the foundation who thinks the market is a good fit for the station.

Paul talks about his vision of a public market, one he believes would complement Portland Saturday Market and the various farmers markets around town.

The public market would be open six or seven days a week, host about 30 vendors and offer only regionally and sustainably grown products - everything from seafood and meat to fruit and veggies, bakery goods and cheeses.

He compares it more to the Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver, British Columbia, or the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, than to Pike Place Market in Seattle.

Rooms could be part of the deal

At Union Station, he sees the public market occupying the available space in the concourse, between Wilf's and the main hall, and beneath the veranda that extends to the south part of the building.

It also would wrap around to the northwest corner of the station and extend under the Broadway Bridge, where it potentially could occupy the space of the post office and be just steps away from access to light rail in all directions.

Once established, the market's operation would sustain itself financially, Paul says, by both the vendor fees and an affordably priced hotel at the station that would bank on the charm and convenience of the station.

'It wouldn't be a high-end, chichi hotel since you'd have the noise of the trains and the market - more of a travelers' hotel,' he says.

As for getting the market up and running, Paul says it will take about $5 million to $6 million in private funding, which he is confident could be raised.

He doesn't want to fund it publicly, since taxpayers are wary of big, city-funded projects after large cost overruns like the tram.

Taxpayer fatigue is 'still a real dynamic,' he says. 'This is the next public project in line. How do we solve it? Do we go to voters for a bond issue? I'm not wild about that.'

The looming question, he says, is whether the city can and will commit to fixing the deferred maintenance on the 110-year-old station without debt obligations. He would hope ideally to begin the construction of the market and major restoration in 2010, when Amtrak's lease with the city is up.

Amtrak's 'happy where we are'

Vernae Graham, an Amtrak spokeswoman, said that the company is working with the consulting firm on the feasibility study. Other than that, she said, 'we're not moving anywhere. We're happy where we are.'

That leaves the question of where the city might find the funds to address the $30 million to $40 million in deferred maintenance.

Paul says it would come from a mix of state transportation and economic development funds, federal support from Oregon's congressmen, and tax-increment financing through the Portland Development Commission.

Since Union Station's urban renewal area is expiring in 18 months, its fate will be left to a city and PDC committee that currently is looking at redrawing the boundaries of nearby urban renewal areas.

During the committee's talks so far, 'Union Station was flagged, pulled out as a serious consideration,' says Finn, aide to Saltzman, who serves on the committee.

Jim Coker, the city's point person on the station maintenance, says there are no future funds dedicated to renovate the building beyond the $1.5 million in roof work under way and another $1.5 million grant for more roof work next year.

He doesn't have an official comment on the merit of the public market idea, except to say: 'It's nice seeing someone else with a goal that wants to save Union Station. Save Union Station!'

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