When developer Richard Singer was 3 years old, he and his two siblings received a building on NW 23rd Avenue as a gift from their grandfather, Harry Zell, one of the two brothers for whom the now-closed Zell Bros. Jewelers was named.
Now, 56 years later, Singer owns most of the real estate along the avenue, with one notable exception. His only child, Edie, 14, owns a building at NW 23rd and Thurman, the one that houses the Northwest Portland branch library. She got it on her fifth birthday, a gift from her dad. Call it family tradition.
Singer’s roots in the Nob Hill neighborhood go deep, starting from when the Zells moved to Johnson Street in 1912. His father, Dr. Milton Singer, was an eye surgeon at Good Samaritan Hospital, with offices at NW 23rd and Irving Street Although the family home held a loftier perch in the Hillside neighborhood, Singer can’t think of a time when NW 23rd Avenue was not central to his life.
His childhood real estate gift now houses the restaurants he considers his unofficial office. When he’s not ensconced at either Papa Haydn or Jo Bar, Singer is usually on his feet, visiting tenants along the street or calling on merchants whose businesses he would like to add to the bustling retail-restaurant mix known to many as Trendy Third. “The mix is everything,” says Singer. And it’s not accidental. Singer says he has hand-picked every tenant of the buildings and old Victorian houses that he owns.
Richard Singer owns most of the real estate along "Trendy Third," Portland's NW 23rd Street. // PHOTOS BY SHAUN STRICKLAND
Singer keeps particulars about his real estate holdings close to his chest, saying only that he owns “lots” of buildings along the street. (Even the presidents of both the NW District and the Nob Hill Business associations say they don’t have a clue how much Singer owns.) Some of those include the Queen Anne Apartments at NW 23rd and Raleigh Street, the Williams-Sonoma Home and former Music Millennium buildings and those containing Pizzicato, Dazzle and Rich’s Cigar Store.
To select tenants Singer mostly follows his own keen retail instincts, but he often heeds requests from shoppers. He says a frequent request lately has been for additional fine dining, so he’s wooing specially targeted restaurants to fill the long-vacant space once occupied by Music Millennium.
“We’re very specific about who we bring in,” he says. “I approach most of these people. And until we get somebody we’d rather be empty.”
Singer says the vacancy rate on the street is low. Some spaces are empty but he says that’s by design. “The market’s been weak but we’re lucky enough that we don’t have to just fill a space. We’ve had plenty of monetary offers but we need to have the people customers are asking for.”
Singer stays on top of retail trends by shopping in cities around the world, looking for ideas or even businesses he can bring back to NW 23rd. Cosmetics store Lush was a discovery he made in London’s Covent Garden. His persistent wooing of the company took years, but he landed one of the first Lush stores in the U.S.
Singer recently has made scouting trips to Boston, Nantucket, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Paris, London and Gstaad, Switzerland. But New York, where he lived as a Columbia University student, remains his favorite. “I think nothing can beat New York,” he says. “The neighborhoods are so fantastic. Each one is a defined situation with great retail.”
But his hometown comes close. “Portland has one of the freshest retail scenes,” he observes, predicting that the next super hot neighborhood will be the West End, the area just south of the Pearl District, which is already bursting with restaurants and boutiques. Needless to say, Singer, who works closely with his younger brother, Don, owns property there, such as the “Checkerboard Building” on SW 10th next to the Ace Hotel, and the building at SW 11th and Alder Street that houses Knit-Purl.
Singer’s careful attention to his tenants and shoppers has won him many friends, but editor Allan Classen of the Northwest Examiner has opposed the Trendy Third model nearly since the shopping hot spot began developing about 30 years ago, saying that residents don’t want “a tourist destination.”
Singer shrugs off the criticism, preferring to recall the encouraging words from his real estate mentors, Jordan and Harold Schnitzer, when he first shared his vision for NW 23rd Avenue. They told him his instincts were great, but he was far ahead of everyone else. And that’s the way Singer plans to keep it.