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Our Opinion: Terminal 1 wrong place to put homeless

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PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Commissioner Dan Saltzman wants to open a homeless shelter in this waerhouse at Terminal 1.We don’t believe the best long-term solution to Portland’s affordable housing crisis is to warehouse the homeless — but that’s quite literally what the Portland City Council has signaled it will do.

Commissioners next week will consider a well-intentioned but deeply misguided proposal to turn Terminal 1, a cavernous vacant warehouse in Northwest Portland, into a shelter.

The idea was sparked this spring by developer Homer Williams, who visited San Antonio, Texas, and was impressed by that city’s Haven for Hope, a massive one-stop “homeless campus” that included space for shelter beds, social services, child care and an after-school program for kids. He offered to help build support among local businesses to defray some of the cost of such a project — which he initially pegged at $100 million.

We see the merit in such a facility — particularly in contrast to the current spate of semilegal homeless camps that pop up in random locations, creating challenges for those who want to offer help. And we like the idea of enlisting the business community.

But Terminal 1, which is owned by the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services, is a particularly bad choice for such an ambitious project. The proposal does not adhere to the spirit of A Home For Everyone, a city/county initiative that places emphasis on community input and data-driven solutions to homelessness. It doesn’t comply with the city’s rules for disposing of surplus property, and it does not meet the requirements of the city’s most important tool — its comprehensive plan.

The warehouse sits on 14 acres of riverfront land zoned for heavy industrial use. The comprehensive plan, which is supposed to guide land use, notes that Portland has a shortage of industrial land.

That’s why the proposal has drawn an unlikely critic: Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Portland Audubon Society. The well-respected environmental advocate is fully supportive of efforts to help the homeless. But he says that if a prime industrial site is used as a massive social service center, it will make it harder to argue that environmentally sensitive areas along the Willamette River shouldn’t be developed for industry. He’s particularly worried about a renewed push to turn West Hayden Island into a marine trade terminal. “It feels like council has not come close to doing its due diligence or fully informing itself or the public about the implications of this decision,” he told the Portland Tribune.

One of the keys to helping homeless residents is to find them living-wage jobs. Taking a prime industrial site off the market undermines those efforts. Terminal 1 recently was put up for sale and expected to fetch at least the asking price of $8.6 million. That money technically belongs to ratepayers and could help offset future sewer rate increases.

What’s more, the 96,000-square-foot structure, which was used as a staging location for BES’ Big Pipe storm drainage project, is not suitable for habitation. Its roof leaks, and it would need extensive plumbing, electrical and sewer improvements before you could put down a cot. If the city is looking for an unused building that would require very few modifications, it should push the Multnomah County Commission to free up space in the mothballed Wapato Jail.

We understand the council’s eagerness to find a long-term solution to helping the homeless, but Terminal 1 isn’t it. We agree with Sallinger’s assessment that “it feels like the kind of well-intentioned but very poorly considered decision that so often gets council into trouble and ultimately destroys public trust.”

The council should reject this idea of warehousing the homeless at Terminal 1, and find a buyer who will pay a fair price and return the facility to its appropriate use as an industrial site that creates family wage jobs.