Agency says homeless group can relocate; neighbors vow appeal

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - City officials want to relocate Right 2 Dream Too, a homeless camp on West Burnside Street, to a city-owned parking lot under the Broadway Bridge, but an attorney for critics says the citys legal rationale is faulty.     If Portland’s City Council approves an agreement to move the Right 2 Dream Too homeless campground to its new site under the west end of the Broadway Bridge, it could set a precedent that tents and campgrounds are legal on parking lots across the city, according to a legal interpretation of the move by an attorney for the Pearl District Neighborhood Association and Pearl District developers.

Members of the neighborhood association and local developers will take their case to City Hall during a hearing on the proposed move at 2 p.m. today (Thursday, Oct. 3). The hearing is expected to last more than four hours.

Three weeks ago, City Commissioner Amanda Fritz seemingly resolved the longstanding dispute about Right 2 Dream Too’s controversial Old Town location next to the Chinatown Gate on West Burnside Street. She negotiated a deal in which Right 2 Dream Too would move to city property and the owners of the West Burnside property would have erased more than $20,000 worth of fines for hosting the campground.

In return, the property owners and Right 2 Dream Too agreed to drop a lawsuit against the city for assessing the fines and declaring illegal the campground, which Right 2 Dream Too officials refer to as a rest area.

Portland Bureau of Development Services Director Paul Scarlett issued an opinion Sept. 26 that said Right 2 Dream Too legally could be placed at the new site without the need for neighborhood design review. But the proposed new site for Right 2 Dream Too borders the Pearl District and sits a block from the construction site for the Pearl District’s first hotel. With City Council poised to meet today on the issue, the alternative legal opinion from the Pearl District paints a picture of a city government skirting the law to get a desired result.

According to the Pearl District opinion, written by local land-use attorney Christie White, the BDS opinion “is a report that is deeply contrived to meet a pre-determined conclusion. It is legally invalid in many ways. Most importantly, it represents a radical departure from the city’s regulatory treatment of other applicants and sets a precedent of chaos and divestment in the downtown.”

Scarlett’s letter argues that a homeless camp is allowed on the parking lot beneath the Broadway Bridge as a Community Service use and that no land-use review or neighborhood design review is required. That means campgrounds could be allowed without review on any similarly zoned parking lot in the city, says Patty Gardner, executive director of the Pearl District Neighborhood Association.

“I just don’t understand what the city is trying to do at this point,” Gardner says. “If we’re saying camping is legal throughout the entire city, just say that and see how the public reacts. Basically, they’re saying tents on parking lots are fine, anywhere, anytime.”

Legal all along?

Ironically, Michael Wright, co-owner of the West Burnside Street property, invited Right 2 Dream Too to set up its tents free of charge two years ago after BDS told him he could not rent space on his empty lot to food cart owners. Soon after the Right 2 Dream Too tents went up, BDS started fining the property owners for hosting the campground.

Fritz, who oversees BDS, says the tents were legal all along but the fines were assessed because Right 2 Dream Too and the property owners did not seek the necessary permits before putting up their tents and fencing.

In an email response to the Pearl District opinion on the proposed new site, Fritz told the Tribune that the city’s interpretation was that allowing the tents beneath the Broadway Bridge did not mean they would be allowable on all parking lots.

“The use isn’t legal because it is on a parking lot. It’s legal because of the zoning of the lot, according to the BDS analysis,” Fritz wrote. “The zoning confirmation letter doesn’t address whether the use is legal on other parking lots, or other lots in general.  Nobody is proposing to ask permission for tents on any other lot in Portland, that I’m aware of.”

As for the lack of design review, Gardner says the community service designation cited by Scarlett — which applies to libraries, museums and senior centers — hasn’t been used before to avoid community input.

“They all have design review,” Gardner says of previous community service buildings. “They’re forcing it and they’re trying so hard to avoid any official public review it’s ridiculous.”

The Pearl District Neighborhood Association also claims that the city did not properly solicit public input before reaching the deal to move Right 2 Dream Too.

“If public involvement is calling a community organization and saying, ‘Gosh, I’m sorry you found out about it but we’re doing it anyway,’ that’s not public involvement,” Gardner says.

If the council approves the deal to move Right 2 Dream Too to its new location, Gardner says the Pearl District coalition will take its case to the state Land Use Board of Appeals.

Changing uses

In a separate action Monday, a group of Pearl District investors had their attorney send a letter to city officials claiming the city will violate its development agreement if Right 2 Dream Too moves to the parking lot.

Investors in the new Pearl District hotel, a Marriott Residence Inn, say their development agreements with the city preclude changing use at the Broadway Bridge parking lot without their approval.

“When the city comes in and says it’s no longer a parking lot, it’s going to be something else, that’s a violation of the agreement,” says John Mangan, spokesman for a group of Pearl District business owners and investors who are fighting the Right 2 Dream Too move.

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