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BACKSTORY: Many eagerly have awaited Ikea, but some critics say any big-box store is a bad idea
by: JIM CLARK, Ken Bodeen, who will manage the Ikea store at Cascade Station, gets excited as he watches the building go up. “Portlanders are very savvy about home furnishings,” he said.

Ikea, the Swedish furniture giant that's attracted a cultlike following around the world for its cheap, sleek home furnishings, employs a host of sustainable business practices that any green Portlander would raise a glass to.

For example, the company - set to make its debut in Portland this summer at the Cascade Station development near the Portland International Airport - recently started a campaign to recycle light bulbs and began charging 59 cents for durable bags and a nickel for disposable plastic bags at the checkout counter.

With its generous benefits for part-timers, paid maternity and paternity leave, and other perks, it also is ranked among both Fortune and Working Mothers magazines' top 100 companies to work for.

But in a land where people can't seem to decide whether to protest or patronize corporations like Starbucks and Wal-Mart, and sometimes do both, it would be expected that Ikea's impending move into Oregon territory would open a window - covered in affordably stylish curtains, to be sure - for some lively debate.

While there has been no organized opposition to the store locating here, there has been a growing amount of underground rumblings.

Citizens have weighed in on a host of complicated issues: the recent flap over the legality of Ikea's larger-than-life sign, the use of taxpayer dollars to support this chain-store development, where the store will sit, the impact the site may have on locally owned businesses, and the ambivalent attitude city officials and residents have displayed toward big-box stores.

As one poster named 'Marleen' phrased it on Portland's Indymedia Web site: 'Why is Portland simultaneously cheering IKEA and booing Wal-Mart? How Does Portland Spell Hypocrite? I K E A.'

Marleen echoes the thoughts of many locals who are strongly opposed to big-box stores for their impersonal nature, impact on traffic congestion and repercussions to locally owned businesses.

She also says they 'place an emphasis on disposable possessions' and 'take up large chunks of urban space.'

'Who cares if they shave off a bigger sliver of the spoils for their employees,' she wrote of Ikea. 'IKEA is a suburban car-culture oriented business that just happens to appeal to the condo-set.'

Despite these sentiments expressed by a fragment of the community, most loyal Ikea shoppers aren't paying attention to the politics surrounding the store at all, but are absolutely giddy for its arrival, visions of $299 dining sets and $349 sofa beds dancing in their heads.

To the uninitiated, walking through an Ikea store is more like exploring a small city in a mazelike fashion, where customers can toss bric-a-brac into their shopping carts and retrieve large items from shelves in a warehouse just before checking out. Most furniture items require assembly, one of the ways the company keeps prices down.

Besides being the only one of the 250 worldwide sites located within steps of a light-rail line, Portland's Ikea will look exactly the same as all the others, store manager Ken Bodeen said during a recent site visit.

There's a 250-seat restaurant that specializes in Swedish meatballs and other home-style fare, a supervised children's play area and baby care rooms throughout the store.

There will be 50 room settings, three model homes and 10,000 products, and the store will employ about 400 people from the metro area. Recruiting begins in a few weeks.

The building sits at the eastern edge of Cascade Station, the 120-acre development along the airport light-rail line and bordered on the east by Interstate 205.

It's set to open this summer, although no date has been announced. The building is 280,000 square feet, considerably smaller than the 350,000-square-feet store in Renton, Wash., which occupies an old Boeing hangar.

There will be 1,200 parking spaces and 75 bicycle racks, and the word is still out on how patrons might get their large items back to town via the MAX.

'I would love to see a furniture car,' Bodeen quipped while visiting the site one recent afternoon.

Barring that, customers may take advantage of the store's delivery service, the rates for which currently are being set.

The building itself eventually will be painted blue and yellow, Sweden's national colors. And rather than a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Ikea employs a log-sawing ritual, a Swedish practice meant to herald a new home.

Journey began 10 years ago

The story of how Portland's Ikea came to be starts in 1997, when the city, Metro, TriMet, the Port of Portland and an entity called Cascade Station Development Co. - a partnership between two developers, Bechtel Corp. and Trammell Crowe Co. - hatched a plan for the airport light-rail line extension.

For $42 million, the development company and the Portland Development Commission secured development rights to 120 acres of the site with a 99-year lease.

In February 1999, the City Council adopted a plan for a mix of retail, offices, a hotel and entertainment at Cascade Station, specifically prohibiting big-box stores from locating there.

However, six years later - after the PDC spent $28.3 million on two airport MAX stops, a connecting overpass and a stretch of park blocks, utilities, streets and sidewalks - the site remained empty.

So in February 2005, city officials rewrote the plan and allowed big-box stores to develop there, desperately seeking an anchor for the site.

After several months of talks, Ikea announced on Oct. 20, 2005 , that it would locate here, signing a 99-year lease with the Port of Portland, which owns the land.

Dave Mazza, an activist who worked with labor groups to keep Wal-Mart out of Sellwood, has a problem with the city giving big-box stores special incentives.

'We should not be considering any sort of public subsidy to entice these types of businesses to locate in our communities,' he said. 'They already have enough advantages without us throwing more taxpayer dollars at them.'

Bob Alexander, the PDC's economic director, counters that charge: 'There was no incentive to Ikea from us, nor the port, I believe - just like a regular real estate deal. Imagine that.'

Still, other critics believe Cascade Station has been a money pit of taxpayer dollars.

'I look at Cascade as somewhat of a misuse of urban renewal,' said Jerry Ward, a Southwest Portland resident who's kept a close eye on the city's handling of urban renewal areas.

'Because here you have road access, all the basic things were there next to an airport, why did the city put that in an urban renewal area?' he said. 'It doesn't make sense.'

Bruce Allen, senior development manager for the PDC, explains why it was created: 'We saw this as one of the areas we could actually focus on another aspect of our economy in Portland, industrial development,' he said. 'It was already an emerging development but had the potential of thousands of acres of farmland that the city deemed appropriate for development.'

Steve Schopp, a longtime urban renewal critic, highlights the city's treatment of Ikea, compared to Wal-Mart. 'Funny how a big-box moratorium was needed for Hayden Island recently, but we're supposed to believe the same politicians who say Cascade Station is a success now that Ikea is coming?' he said.

He's referring to the resolution Commissioner Sam Adams - the council's most vocal opponent of Wal-Mart - created last year when Wal-Mart set its sights on opening a Hayden Island location.

Adams explained his actions on his own blog: 'I voted for big boxes at Portland's Cascade Station development near the airport. It was developed with the proper infrastructure as well as a transportation plan that includes light rail and a street grid to handle the trip generation at this location. Unfortunately, Hayden Island lacks such an adequate plan.'

Sign draws Leonard's ire

Cascade Station is still largely empty, beyond the construction crews at the Ikea site and the other large concrete box for what would have been a Costco Home store at the opposite end of the site.

That company pulled out of the development but still may decide to locate there, Allen said. He declined to disclose any other retailers, but there has been talk of a Best Buy and Sports Authority moving in.

The goal is for 30 to 40 retail shops and restaurants to open this fall. There also will be at least three business hotels and a large office building on the site.

One of the hotels will be aLoft, a new brand that caters to business travelers and is part of the W Hotel chain, according to Steve Wells, Trammell Crowe's managing director.

Wells said the contracts for the two other hotels are close to being signed, and construction also will begin on a 100,000-square-foot office building this summer.

Until those structures are built, the most recognizable thing at Cascade Station is Ikea's 100-foot sign painted in its signature blue and yellow, which Commissioner Randy Leonard called attention to recently after driving by.

As the enforcer of the city's sign code, he became angry when he said he learned that Ikea received an exemption from the city's sign code years ago when the city was trying to lure the store to Portland.

Leonard doesn't think that was right, and called for a freeze on permits for all other signs at Cascade Station.

Wells said no wrong was done. 'I think the signs are legal and we'll work it out,' he said. 'We don't agree with Commissioner Leonard's position at all. It was put in under a building department-issued permit.'

Bodeen, the store manager, is aware of the politics being raised but is staying out of the fray, saying the issues predated the store being here.

'I get so excited when I talk about Ikea,' he said. 'Portlanders are very savvy about home furnishings. … We're excited to bring affordable, well-designed home furnishings to the Portland area. We're excited to be a catalyst for economic development here.'

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Map of Cascade Station


Where's Ikea?

• Of the 25 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., Portland (No. 24 in 2005 U.S. Census estimates) is one of seven with no Ikea. By next summer, only four metro areas in the top 25 will be without an Ikea: St. Louis; Tampa, Fla.; Denver; and Cleveland.

• Only two Ikea stores currently are located in cities smaller than Portland: New Haven, Conn., and Austin, Texas. Within a year, stores also will open in the smaller cities of Cincinnati; Orlando, Fla.; and Salt Lake City.

• Forbes' 2007 list of the world's billionaires lists Ikea's founder, Swedish-born Ingvar Kamprad, at No. 4, with a net worth of $33 billion.