Troutdale community looks forward to end of downtown eyesore

A tractor claw sinks into the shredded remains of the old Tiller hotel and cafe, gobbling century-old boards. The man controlling the mechanical beast swivels it on its base and drops the debris into a container.

Likely Troutdale’s oldest commercial structure, built in 1907, the faded green building was the last to go down Thursday in the demolition of an entire city block on the Historic Columbia River Highway in downtown, save for Troutdale Vision Clinic, sole survivor in the block.

The community is excited to finally see progress on the block formerly owned by Tony Marino, between Southeast Dora Street and Harlow Avenue. Several buildings have sat vacant and decrepit since a fire scorched through the old Weinhard building 11 years ago.

“Sometimes it takes a long time to get good things done,” said Neil Handy, a local man and real estate manager who as a kid remembers walking from his father’s auto shop on the historic highway, where the fruit stop now is, to eat pie and ice cream for breakfast at the cafe.

“And this was a long, long, long, long time coming,” he said.

Three developers have come together under the name Discovery Block Partners to demolish the old buildings and rebuild a 32,000-square-foot new business space.

by: CONTRIBUTED ARTWORK: SODERSTROM ARCHITECTS PC - This artists rendition shows what the proposed development in downtown Troutdale will look like.In August 2002, James Gurtisen, optometrist and Troutdale Vision Clinic’s owner, was giving an eye exam when a fireman burst into his clinic and evacuated his staff as flames burned the building next door to the ground.

“They could not get the fire out,” Gurtisen said Friday, standing on the sidewalk, staring into what was once the Weinhard building, now a giant rotting pit of desiccated wood.

A brick wall built 100 years ago with a high-proof fire protectant prevented the fire from reducing Gurtisen’s eye clinic — which once housed the Troutdale General Store — to ash.

But while his clinic lived, the charred building rotted. Its property owners neglected to clean it up, and it sat for more than 10 years, collapsing into its basement and creating an eyesore for the community.

“It looked like a bomb went off,” said Terry Smoke, who co-owns the new Troutdale General Store across the street from the eye clinic.

Smoke moved into his store a year prior to the fire. Since then, he’s been watching the burned-out hole become more decrepit and gross, a place where he says feral cats nest and children crawl down and step on nails.

“Nobody would come over here on this side of the street,” said Gurtisen, who bought the property next door in 1995 when the opposite side of highway, now filled with shops and galleries, was an open space next to the railroad tracks.

Removing the eyesore and developing the block will energize downtown Troutdale, Gurtisen said.

“I had a dream this town would develop out real nice,” Gurtisen said. “Now it’s finally coming true.”

His dream is shared by many in town.

“I don’t think there’s a single person down here that’s not jumping up and down for this,” Smoke said.

In the past couple of years, the community has been pushing for change, he said. “It’s been a real fight. We are glad to see someone bought it and is now developing it.”

Discovery Block Developers purchased the property and drew up plans for the project in 2007. The design includes a mixture of retail and commercial office space that will take the place of the old Weinhard building and the old cafe, with opportunity for restaurants, brew pubs and galleries.

“We’ve had lots of interest with people calling to potentially locate their businesses there,” said Mike Greenslade of Bremik Construction, one of the developers.

Rumor had it the Multnomah County Library was in line for a spot in the new development. Greenslade confirmed it no longer is. He said when the economy bottomed out in 2008, the deal fell through and the library ended up leasing a space in the Cherry Park Shopping Center.

The new development also calls for 11 townhouse units that will be perched on Southeast Second Street, separated from the design’s central business district by a medium-size parking lot.

“Downtown needs more housing units,” Greenslade said. He hopes the townhouses will be a catalyst for similar development in the area. There can be great stores and shops, but “If you get a residential population, that’s what makes downtowns thrive,” he said.

Bremik Construction also has been in talks with the city of Troutdale to re-establish city hall, (the old city hall building off Southeast Kibling Street was condemned) in what will be the new commercial space.

“It would be really nice to get them under one roof,” Greenslade said. For now, city staff is spread throughout town, holding council meetings in a room adjacent to the parking lot of the historic highway.

The new building facades on the highway are designed to match the rest of downtown Troutdale’s historic business district, which must stick to the city’s strict design code.

As a gateway to the gorge, the design will be a nice architectural fit for its location, donning Cascasdian features with large timber, local stones such as Columbia River basalt, and natural lighting, Greenslade said.

Bremik is going to try to incorporate the 100-year-old brick wall that withstood the fire on the east side of the eye clinic as a piece of history in a new building.

Greenslade expects the demolition to be complete by the end of the week, but a construction date has not been set yet.

Smoke is glad he never again will have to explain to the thousands of customers who ask what happened across the street.

“This is going to be a good step at taking on the south side of the street,” Smoke said. “I think things are really going to take off in the next couple of years.”

Handy hopes the block “will arise out of the ashes as something the whole community can be proud of — for the next 100 years.”

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