By Oakley Brooks
Vanessa Sturgeon, president of TMT Development near the stalled construction of the Park Avenue West office tower at Park and Yamhill in downtown Portland. // Photo by Anthony Pidgeon
TMT Development is caught in a trap. One of the lions of downtown Portland real estate development, it’s looking to erase a black eye dished out by the financial crash and to cover that construction pit at Park and Yamhill with the completed high-end office tower, Park Avenue West. But after a potential deal-clinching lease with the Portland Development Commission fell through last summer, future tenants and prospective lenders are now skittish about signing onto the project. Big tenants all over town are skeptical it will actually happen after lying dormant for three years.
In order to impress them, “The goal is to get the building out of the ground and have something to talk about before pursuing big tenants,” says Vanessa Sturgeon, TMT Development’s 33-year-old president. But banks, life insurance companies, pension funds or trusts who might offer the means to finish the project want to see roughly half of the building’s 22 stories leased before they’ll hand over the money.
“It’s all swirling around at the same time,” says Sturgeon, with a hint of hope that something may come out of discussions around town. In mid-April, the company submitted a proposal to the City of Portland, along with several other developers, in an attempt to win the Bureau of Environmental Services’ 75,000-square-foot lease.
With no concrete progress, however, rumors about Park Avenue West’s revival — alive since the fourth quarter of last year — continue to die in that motionless downtown pit and leave it as a lingering wound from the Great Recession.
That Sturgeon is opening up at all about negotiations is a sign of anxiety at TMT. Under Sturgeon’s bullish grandfather, Tom Moyer, the company built and continues to manage 9 million square feet of office space from Salem to Seattle, including the 1000 Broadway building and the magestic Fox Tower building at the heart of Portland. Moyer has been an important corporate citizen, building an auditorium at Central Catholic High School, offering scholarships through a trust named after his late wife, Marilyn, and donating at least $7 million for land and construction costs for Director Park, opposite the Fox Tower. But the company has rigorously maintained a low media profile, preferring to stick to an adage borrowed from reclusive venture capitalist Henry Hillman: “The spouting whale gets the harpoon.”
“They are a closely held family company and they just don’t burn a lot of calories on outreach,” says Bart Eberwein, vice president at Hoffman Construction, which is the general contractor on Park Avenue West and built the Fox Tower.
But Sturgeon admits the worth of the company’s real estate has, not surprisingly, dropped precipitously in value in recent years. And there may be more stress in the company, out of view.
Moyer is now 92, and though Sturgeon says, “He’s holding up incredibly well,” she would not allow him to be interviewed. Sources in the commercial real estate community say Moyer’s memory trouble, often chalked up to a lovable forgetfulness, is now a sign of advancing age. There’s a chance that his company would pass into estate before the Park Avenue West project is finished, and family members who stand to inherit the company and Moyer’s personal wealth may not want more of his money put into Park Avenue West.
Sturgeon says that picture of behind-the-scenes activity is “inaccurate.” But when asked if the family was supportive of the project she won’t answer: “I'm not going to comment on the family’s position,” she says.