By national standards, Oregon is considered “under-retailed,” with 18.9 square feet of shopping center space per capita compared to the national average of 23.7 square feet. There are two major reasons for this. The state’s tougher-than-average land-use laws slow the spread of retail-friendly sprawl, and the lack of a sales tax limits the government’s incentive to rubber-stamp all retail requests in order to bring in more tax revenues.
But while Oregon’s 19 feet of shopping centers per person is low by U.S. standards, it is enormous compared to France and other nations that have embraced buying locally over chains. The average in most of Europe and Canada is closer to 2 square feet per capita.
For communities already defined by blighted commercial strips, the notion of becoming more like Paris is more than slightly complex. “You don’t solve this puzzle easily,” says Reeves. “It’s expensive and there’s not a lot of money out there.”
Further complicating matters is the fact that, as much as urban planners and retail consultants hate them, commercial strips kind of work. About 35,000 people drive up and down McLoughlin each day, and enough of them stop in to buy a car or a pawned guitar or a lap dance to keep those businesses open. Rents are low compared to the rest of the Portland area, and that’s not a bad thing for everyone.
“These areas do provide low-cost space,” points out Jerry Johnson of Portland-based real estate consultancy Johnson Reid. “Certain businesses are great businesses but only if they have low-cost space.”
Robert Bach, chief economist for California-based real estate firm Grubb & Ellis, argues that reports of the commercial strip’s death have been greatly exaggerated. “Strip centers are based on convenience,” he says, “and there will always be some demand for what they offer.”
Portland landlord Barry Menashe, who owns property in suburban strips in Beaverton and Gresham as well as downtown, also scoffs at the argument that commercial strips are doomed. “There’s still cars, neighborhoods, people, customers. They aren’t just going to go away.”
He has a point. But can commercial strips make the changes necessary to remain competitive? In some ways and in some areas, they already have. For one thing, strip centers are becoming more ethnically diverse. One fully packed center along Highway 99W, the Tigard Plaza, contains a fish and chips joint, a Chinese seafood market, an Italian Deli, an Indian imports store, a Vietnamese beef noodle soup house, an Asian grocery store, a pizza place, a Mexican tienda with fresh bread and money wiring services, a driving school, a tattoo and body-piercing shop, a co-ed fitness center, a barber shop and more.
The same low rent that enables a no-credit used car lot to survive also allows ethnic Chinese herb shops and bilingual beauty centers to take hold. The most prosperous example of diversity on a local strip may be the Fubonn Shopping Center on 82nd Avenue, billed “the largest Asian shopping center in Oregon.” Completed in 2005, Fubonn has transformed a formerly bland strip location into a lively collection of coffee houses and bubble tea shops, Vietnamese restaurants and shops selling books, music and jewelry. Just down 82nd on the opposite side of the street from Fubonn, a huge former multiplex theater has been transformed into a Slavic church.