Abandoned Burger King at Broadway & Burnside (photo by Jason McHuff via Flickr)
For all the development that happened during the last decade's economic boom years, a major eyesore and symbol of destitution has remained for years at one of the most prominent intersections in the city of Portland, at Broadway and Burnside: a boarded up Burger King. But last Tuesday, the long-vacant fast food franchise, first built in 1978, finally disappeared. It wasn't flame broiled or fried like a slab of ground beef, but demolition crews were certainly doing this, to borrow from a past BK slogan, our way if not right away.
As Lost Oregon blogger John Chilson notes, this Burger King was actually once lauded for its design. The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects actually gave the this Whopper of a fast-food outlet a design award in 1978. And if you look at it a certain way, noticing the sloping overhangs, it does kind of gently recall northwest modernism, or at least a bastardized form rendered in 70s corporate fast food form.
The same Burger King in 1978 (image courtesy John Chilson, Lost Oregon blog)
More than any design award, though, this Burger King was long renowned for its less than ideal urban vibe. Apparently lots of drug dealers, prostitutes and petty thieves appreciated the royal treatment having a burger their way (unless it's fried, of course). One commenter on Chilson's blog recalls working there in the 1980s:
Great education in real life for a teen, I must say. Working the register left you open to threats, propositions, lost international tourists with travelers’ checks, crazy people, and shifty money-changers.
People were always trying to reach in and grab the till drawer at the drive-through–one of my coworkers kept a section of broom handle at that station so she could beat them on the arm. I just slammed the window as hard as I could. I also remember a coworker defending herself with a pot of hot coffee (yikes).
Addicts would nod off in the back dining area, and homeless would sleep there as well (most of the dining room, and the bathrooms, were completely out of the line of sight of the front counter–how stupid a design is that?!).
I had to clean the bathrooms sometimes and it was a real horror show. The mirrors were broken quite often, and there would be urine-soaked clothes laying around, and razor stubble from street guys trying to keep clean in there. Needles, flooding, you name it.
We used to slip the 'waste' (food that had been sitting longer for X number of minutes) to the homeless. The managers forbid us to give it to those in need, so there was an extra incentive to do it. That place is loaded with bad karma.
And that wasn't even the worst of it. Also in the '80s, a transient was crushed to death in the hydraulic trash compactor. "Supposedly, the man crawled in looking for thrown-away food (or possible just a place to sleep it off) when an employee threw a bag of garbage on top of him and flipped the switch," Chilson explains. "Although the homeless man’s cries were heard almost immediately, it was too late."
Burger King actually vacated this particular franchise in about 2002. Why has it sat vacant for eight years? After all, it's not as if there wasn't a very robust economic boom that could have revitalized this prominent street corner with housing, retail, office space or some mixed-use combination.
Regardless, now the BK site will be transformed into a $19 million health clinic, The Broadway Recovery Center, run by Central City Concern and expected to open in 15 months. The three-story, 44,000-square-foot building, designed by Portland's SERA Architects, would be adjacent to the Richard L. Harris Building, which houses the Old Town Clinic. The plan is to eventually knock down walls between the buildings. In one location, Central City Concern would then own two buildings and run programs offering health care for as many as 40,000 patient visits a year.
As The Oregonian's Tom Hallman reported, the first moments of demolition last Tuesday garnered cheers from the assembled crowd, which included Congressman David Wu. (Hopefully this is a kinder, gentler, more justified version of the architectural blood lust thrust at Memorial Coliseum.) But if you look at the comments section from this post (which admittedly I should remember never to do), it's not universally celebrated. Some feel the addition of more social services for the homeless and addicted will actually be worse than a boarded up burger shack.
"We don't need more of these losers in our city," writes the (unsurprisingly) anonymous commenter 'PDX97204'. "How much more do you want to spend on these people? And how many more from out of the area do you want to attract to our community?"
Another commenter believes the $19 million Central City Concern is devoting to this project a relative waste. "I wonder how many jobs would be created if they would have made Portland 19 million dollars easier to navigate, attracting new employers, and just plan being more customer/business friendly toward residents when delivering their services," writes commenter 'tombdragon'.
Luckily these are just common misconceptions. The City of Portland doesn't control, and can't control, how many transients and homeless people come here. Portland has a mild climate that may attract those at the bottom of the social spectrum, and a liberal political climate given to progressive social services that help people in need. If doing so is wrong, let's not rush to make it right. What's more, although perhaps Portland's economic development climate is another conversation entirely, it's not as if that $19 million could magically be moved from a nonprofit into some sort of kettle reserved for business incentives and tax breaks. In fact, one would expect downtown and Old Town businesses to be glad for this treatment center. If Portland really does have a problem with too many destitute panhandlers, drug dealers, perennial alcoholics and transients, a new facility like this is the way to handle the problem.
Somewhat ironically, Central City Concern actually was founded in 1979, within a year of the Burger King opening at Burnside and Broadway. It's just a coincidence, naturally, but perhaps it collectively says something about the late 1970s in Portland and beyond: a time when downtowns were crumbling as the middle class continued a suburban exodus. In the '80s, the franchise might have fared better if it sold rot-gut alcohol or crack cocaine. Funnily enough, the BK franchise itself was an example of suburban, automobile-oriented America coming to downtown Portland. Other fast food franchises like McDonald's exist downtown, but they are built into mixed-use buildings. The Burger King at Broadway and Burnside was, on the other hand, a standard single-story, drive-through fast food franchise, no matter its local design award. Clearly the award wasn't for urban place-making.
Today, though, the boarded-up Burger King at Broadway and Burnside may be an indicator that, despite the decades of under-performing and the current cloudy economic climate, the NW Broadway corridor may finally be transforming into something better. Pacific Northwest College of Art is renovating 511 Broadway, one grand old piece of architecture down the street. The moribund Daisy Kingdom Building has been renovated into an art-gallery hub (rechristened as the DeSoto Buiding). NW Broadway is the border between the Pearl District and Old Town/Chinatown, and while the Pearl has long been thriving with art galleries, condos and restaurants, Old Town and Chinatown are showing new signs of life as well. Some local businesses remain concerned that there is too much clustering of social services in Old Town, and it's true that no city should seek to ghettoize its less fortunate. Successful urban planning is about creating a mix, a melting pot. And with Powells Books just two blocks up Burnside and Pioneer Courthouse Square a five-minute walk away from the old Burger King site, it's not as if Old Town is some wasteland of people without mailing addresses or healthy livers. It's called a city, and replacing industrial fast food with social services is what Portland, like any progressive place, is all about.
Oh, and fried burgers are way better than flame broiled. If you're missing your Whopper fix, I recommend a far superior cheeseburger a couple blocks away at Fuller's Coffee Shop.