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Portland's core problem

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Friday, December 01, 2006

PDXdowntown1206.jpgThe Portland Business Alliance, city leaders and homeless advocates have agreed to clean up downtown together. Will their innovative solution work?

By Oakley Brooks
Photo by Stuart Mullenberg

At least once a day, Jordan Walden, the manager of Finnegan’s toy store in downtown Portland, calls in the Portland Business Alliance security force. The officers’ charge is to drive off, again, the pack of rough-edged, restless teenagers gathered outside Finnegan’s front door. “Sometimes they’re hanging out, sometimes they’re spare-changing, sometimes they’re fighting,” Walden says of the youngsters, who spill over from the Central Library on the other side of 10th Street.

They’re a drag on Walden’s attempt to keep the place warm and fuzzy and attract families looking for a toy fire truck or a stuffed animal. In fact, Walden ranks the panhandling vagrants outside her door as the biggest issue facing Finnegan’s, more than those lifestyle malls springing up in the suburbs or the road construction wave sweeping downtown Portland. “It’s intimidating for people to come to our store,” says Walden.

Walden’s perception of what’s eating away at downtown business puts her squarely among the majority of Portland’s owners and managers. Last year, for the fifth year in a row, they ranked panhandling as the top concern in a Portland Business Alliance (PBA) survey. The homeless people and other vagrants crowding the city sidewalks were on the tip of everybody’s tongue when Mike Kuykendall, the PBA’s vice president for downtown services, began making the rounds to meet local business leaders in mid-2004, soon after he was hired. “I could see that the number of people sitting on the sidewalks had just grown exponentially,” says Kuykendall, a former prosecutor in the Multnomah County district attorney’s office who had just returned from a legal think tank in Washington, D.C.

So early last year, Kuykendall renewed the PBA’s push to clean up downtown’s sidewalks. The resulting plan, to be debated beginning this week by the Portland City Council, is a feat of compromise between Kuykendall and homeless and civil right advocates, the PBA’s traditional adversaries on public nuisance issues. As part of the multi-pronged plan, police would be allowed to issue a $250 fine and a court citation to anyone repeatedly sitting or lying on the sidewalk in highly trafficked areas between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.

The tradeoff for homeless advocates is that the city and the PBA would invest in a day shelter for street people that would provide health care, job support and other services. The city also would install more bathrooms to reduce the chronic fouling of dark corners downtown, and it would put in benches carefully constructed to give people places to sit, but not for too long. A citizens’ board would oversee all of these new measures.

Passage by the city council, which has voiced support for the compromise, would allow the city to throw out an older “sit/lie” law, as the ordinance is often called, that had been a source of bitterness in the city. An earlier sidewalk nuisance law had drawn the ire of civil libertarians after it was used to arrest Iraq war protesters. Then a 2004 update of the law backed by the PBA angered homeless advocates because they weren’t consulted; meanwhile, police rarely used it because it had too many conditions. 

After five months of haggling in a work group convened by Mayor Tom Potter, the new plan holds some historic consensus. “It’s remarkable,” says Kuykendall, noting that the American Civil Liberties Union and the Oregon Law Center, among others, have given their backing to the proposal. “There’s a who’s who of homeless advocates and public defenders in this group and they’re unanimous in support.”

The plan promises to change the tone of downtown by breaking up some of the spare-change encampments along sidewalks and offering up new opportunities for street people to get healthy and employed. But it’s unclear how deep or lasting its impact on downtown business will be. It does not address aggressive panhandling. There’s also the question of how deeply vagrants on the sidewalk affect Portland’s retail climate — indeed any downtown retail climate. Despite all the complaints, 2006 has been a banner year for new investment in Portland’s retail scene.

Meanwhile, public defenders and homeless advocates involved with the plan are hedging their support for it on the viability of new homeless services. Some advocates say they will alter their position if the proposal turns into a simple method to sweep people off the street.

“I would say the jury is still out,” says Genny Nelson, co-founder of homeless center Sisters of the Road and a key member of the mayor’s work group.


WHEN POTTER TOOK OVER IN 2005, he and the city council tried a different approach to cleaning up downtown by offering addiction treatment, housing and job support for chronic offenders. The PBA has kicked in money for that program. (Business owners also fund extra police and security guards and hire formerly homeless people to clean city sidewalks.) Police also cleaned out downtown’s South Park blocks of its usual band of street kids, which had colonized one end of the park for drug dealing and trick biking.

But early this year, Kuykendall told Potter he still wanted a new, more effective sit/lie law; the existing one was ready to sunset in June. Initially he got a chilly response from Potter’s office. Potter’s deputy chief of staff, Austin Raglione, and Genny Nelson say that homeless advocates were still smarting from the new law passed under former Mayor Vera Katz. But in May, Potter agreed to extend the existing law to the end of the year and gathered a panel to at least study a new one.

Kuykendall and Nelson, both named to Potter’s panel, had a private sit-down before the group’s first meeting. Nelson explained that the reason there were so many people roaming downtown Portland during the day was that they had no place to go. Homeless shelters kicked people out first thing in the morning and many had no option but to sit on the streets. More services and a place for homeless people to go during daylight hours would be a big step toward solving some of the problems downtown.

By the end of their talk, Nelson and Kuykendall had reached a verbal agreement that Nelson would be open to a new sit/lie ordinance provided Kuykendall attached new homeless services.  It changed the complexion of the upcoming meetings. “I have been doing this for a long time and the business community had never come to the table supporting [new homeless services],” Nelson says.

It wasn’t until September, however, after a long summer of talks in the work group, that a plan came together. With the full group still in disagreement, a mediator urged Nelson, Kuykendall, Oregon Law Center attorney Monica Goracke and members of the city’s police force and the city attorney’s office to break off and take a stab at some concrete details. Goracke, who represents homeless and other indigent people, says she would have preferred that there be no new sit/lie law.

But she had listened to Kuykendall voice concerns about transients blocking access to businesses and had looked at Seattle’s sit/lie law, which had the support of its business community, and found it reasonable. It was limited in time of day and in the area in which it was applied. “It wasn’t so bad. I thought my clients could live with it,” she says.

That became a starting point. The group set the boundaries as the downtown core and the Lloyd District. Homeless advocates also negotiated with police reps to have street officers specially trained in dealing with transients — serving as resources as well as law enforcement personnel. And they argued that any new homeless services, to which Kuykendall had agreed to commit PBA funding, should function as part of the long-term goals of ending homelessness set out by Portland City Commissioner Eric Sten in 2004. In other words, the services shouldn’t be ineffective band-aids.

This last issue rose to the fore in late October when Potter’s public safety chief, Maria Rubio, presented the full panel with a draft of the new plan. As part of the plan, Rubio announced that the city would contract with the Portland Rescue Mission on West Burnside Avenue for daytime homeless services.

That decision had been arrived at thanks to behind-the-scenes research and negotiating by Kuykendall and a downtown cop named Jeff Myers, who got the rescue mission to sign on and the city council to verbally agree to the contract. But Nelson says the deal was acted on without a wide call for bids and that the rushed effort hinted that the city wanted to dump people in the rescue mission as soon as the new law went into effect.

In late October, she told the work group as much. “I said, ‘I’m concerned. We will not support an officer saying to someone that they can’t stay in downtown and they have to go to the rescue mission.’” Kuykendall told Nelson that wasn’t his intention; the issue was that a formal request for proposals would take too long.

Nelson finally agreed to both a short-term contract with the rescue mission and to putting out a request to other agencies for a long-term contract. (The city also is searching for alternatives to the rescue mission.) But after several months of friendly negotiation with Kuykendall, some political lines have been redrawn. “If this plan doesn’t include meaningful services, we won’t lend our support to it. We’ll pull out,”Nelson says.


WILL THE NEW PLAN ACTUALLY MAKE A DIFFERENCE for downtown businesses? It does not address  aggressive panhandling, an option which Kuykendall says was discussed only peripherally. Some cities around the country have implemented ordinances that specifically target aggressive panhandling, but Kuykendall says a similar law was out of the question here because it would be tough to get past the city council and almost definitely wouldn’t pass muster with the constitutionally liberal Oregon Supreme Court: Basic panhandling is a constitutional right protected by free speech.

A better method to decrease aggressive panhandling, Kuykendall says, is a massive education effort discouraging downtown workers and shoppers from giving change to street people. He plans to start that effort once the homeless day shelter is up and running.

“Giving money to people downtown is probably the worst thing you could do for them,” he says. “It gives them money for drugs and alcohol and draws people to business areas to panhandle.”

As concerned as business owners are with panhandling, there’s also a contradictory phenomenon going on downtown: It’s resurging. The city’s epicenter, Pioneer Square, may look like a collection point for most of the hardcore punks, Goths and junkies between Medford and Seattle, but at the northeast corner of the square, workers beaver away on the $137 million makeover of the former Meier & Frank building into a new Macy’s and five-star hotel.

On the other side of the square, Nordstrom has committed to a complete remodel of its store. Abercrombie & Fitch is busy revamping its outlet across the street and Lucky Jeans will soon be filling in an empty storefront on the opposite corner. One half-block away, Seattle’s Jeri Rice is hawking $1,700 dresses in a new storefront. And it’s all but certain that a big national retailer will lease 11,000 square feet in the Galleria mall by the end of November, according to brokers.

Across the downtown area, pedestrian counts were up 2% this past spring over 2005. Meanwhile, crime in the downtown core has dropped 12% in 2006.

Speaking of downtown, Scott Andrews, chairman emeritus of the PBA and president of Melvin Mark Properties, says, “I haven’t been this optimistic in a long time.” Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis is reporting its downtown retail vacancy rate at 5.78% for the third quarter of 2006, healthier than the rate at the same point last year. And while the headcount for downtown workers is still 4,000 below pre-recession levels, there’s near-unanimous consensus among brokers that demand exists for a new Class A office tower downtown, which will mean more bodies in the area for retailers.


THE UPWARD TRENDs mean that the issue of panhandlers clogging the streets may not be as desperate as it seems. Restaurateur Lisa Schroeder, who is the vice chair of the downtown retail council, recalls a lot of complaints about the street scene in her retail council meetings but very little proactiveness in solving the problems of increasing vagrants and street kids.

“We struggle to get people to attend meetings,” she says. “We ask people for input and it’s not really given. There are just not many ideas offered up.”

And, with pedestrian traffic healthy, national retailers also have little incentive to worry about street-level problems. “They’re just counting pedestrians on the corner,” says Ruth Scott, the former CEO of one of the PBA’s predecessors, the Association for Portland Progress.“They’re not worried about whether people are polite.”

Kuykendall says the city and the PBA have a duty to keep downtown looking sharp to attract future retailers, but he admits, “I haven’t had anyone say I’m not coming here because of the homeless problem.”

It could be that they don’t care, but it’s more likely a sign of acceptance. In any downtown, including Portland, some edginess is a part of business.

That philosophy underlies the city’s new $1.3 million downtown marketing initiative. Directed by ad agency North’s John Czarobski  and marketing consultant Chris Finks, the initiative’s centerpiece is a series of YouTube-inspired TV spots that extol the virtues of independent retailers. Asked if the grainy, rock-n-roll infused ads appeal to the person who wouldn’t mind stepping around a few panhandlers, Finks and Czarobski said yes, they were after the “urban tribe.” As for those who don’t care for that kind of atmosphere, “You could spend $4 million to convince them that downtown is safe,” Czarobski says, “And you still wouldn’t get them.”

One of the TV spots? It shows a bunch of kids gleefully playing toy instruments — at Finnegan’s. Even if the store is in a cold war with rowdy teens, the bet is that people  still will make a holiday trek to the neighborhood, warts and all. 



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