BY BRIAN LIBBY
"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
That line, delivered at the end of Roman Polanski's classic film, Chinatown, brings a simple message: however noble one's intent (in this case the protagonist played by Jack Nicholson), the calcified circumstances of place can't be easily reversed.
Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne weren't talking about Portland or its Chinatown. But that famous movie line occurred to me while reading Brad Schmidt's report in today's Oregonian about the latest effort to jump-start our Old Town/Chinatown district.
To jump-start this downtrodden district wedged between downtown and the Pearl, one of the city's most respected and venerable developers and civic leaders, John Russell, has proposed a new tax on surface parking lots. The tax would be not to raise revenue so much as to prompt change in Old Town/Chinatown and the broader Skidmore historic.
Surface parking lots are one of the neighborhood's biggest current problems and a sad part of its history.
In the mid-20th Century, many beautiful cast-iron-era buildings here and along the waterfront were torn down simply for parking lots. And all these decades later, many of them remain. They’re cash cows for landowners who needn’t bother with building buildings. Nevermind that the city is trying to foster high-density development, especially these sort of close-in, central-city districts. Nevermind they are soul-sucking forces in otherwise vibrant urban places (unless of course they're lined with food carts instead of cars, like on 10th Avenue downtown).
"Parking lots are the worst neighbor that you can have,” Russell told Schmidt. “I’ve joked that I’d rather have a brothel, because there’s at least something going on.”
Russell has been involved with numerous large-scale projects over more than 30 years. He developed the Pac West Center in 1984, for example, and in 2006 his 200 Market building renovation became the first office renovation in the United States to earn a LEED rating from the US Green Building Council. One of Russell's other projects, a renovation of Portland's oldest building, the Hallock-McMillan building on SW Naito Parkway at Oak Street, has languished in part because it's surrounded by surface parking lots. But he’s not making the parking lot proposal solely out of self-interest. Russell also has a long track record serving in a volunteer capacity for city bodies like the Historic Landmarks Commission, the Planning Commission, and as chair of the Portland Development Commission.
The real estate economy is ramping up both nationally and locally, with construction cranes and building sites scattered throughout the central city and beyond. Yet there has been relatively little development in Old Town/Chinatown. Though the district has taken positive steps over the years, such as attracting the University of Oregon's Portland satellite campus to the White Stag Block on NW Couch and Naito Parkway, and the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine across the street, this ideally situated neighborhood between downtown, the river, and the Pearl has not seen much private development.
Of course parking lots are not the only problem. It feels like a majority of the city's shelters and social service agencies are located here, as well as many of its dive bars. Old Town is an official Entertainment District, where late-night drinking leads to many a noise complaint and stained sidewalk. There has also been the presence of the Right 2 Dream Too homeless camp, right along Burnside, which has given the homeless another option should they eschew shelters but has driven away neighborhood investment.
Are the surface parking lots sticking around because of the district’s social and economic problems, or are the social and economic problems persistent because it’s a neighborhood with lots of ugly surface lots? Neither Russell nor his detractors can answer that chicken-egg question definitively.
In Schmidt's story about the proposed parking-lot tax, Russell's foil is the Goodman family, which owns a majority of the land that holds parking lots downtown and in Old Town/Chinatown. "Frankly, for somebody who’s done close to nothing in 20 years to say it’s the problem, I find agitating," Schmidt quotes Greg Goodman saying of Russell.
Goodman's family has actually made progress in recent years finally starting to turn these central-city surface lots into building projects, most notably the 12 West building in the West End at 12th and Washington (designed by ZGF and developed in partnership with Gerding Edlen). But the defensiveness of Goodman's remark may stem from the fact that there's more than a kernel of truth to Russell's argument: that parking lots and good urban place-making don't go well together. If Portland really is going to avoid sprawling as much as other western American cities, the city has to grow up and in, by taking advantage of and transforming low-density areas such as polluted brownfields and surface parking lots. Of course people still need places to park their cars, but in the center of a major city, that should be underground or at least in a multi-story garage.
The crux of the Russell-Goodman argument in Schmidt's article is not just chicken-and-egg but carrot versus stick. Whereas Russell is arguing for the stick, via a tax on surface lots, Goodman unsurprisingly recommends the carrot. Rather than taxing parking lots, he told Schmidt, "the city should be subsidizing development in an area where projects currently don’t pencil out."
This may already be happening anyway. Old Town/Chinatown is already one of the Portland Development Commission's official Urban Renewal Areas, and as Schmidt reported in The Oregonian last month, Mayor Hales and PDC are looking to offer subsidies of $7 to $20 million over the next five years to build hundreds of new apartments that could be reserved for low and middle-wage earners. But the plan has also met with skepticism. Schmidt notes the city’s own statistics indicate a surplus of such workforce housing, as it's called, "and a deficit of options for the city’s poorest residents." Yet to build low-income housing in this neighborhood would increase the crowding of the lower classes into one place, which is just as bad for place-making as surface parking lots.
Make no mistake: it's more important to care properly for the poor and the homeless than it is to develop a popular neighborhood that makes the likes of John Russell, Greg Goodman or other developers an extra buck. Social problems aren’t something to be swept under the rug. But part of the way a city best handles its neediest populations is with a mix of income levels and zoning in each neighborhood. Old Town/Chinatown will only thrive when we build a vibrant, high-density, well-rounded there. Let the shelters and the bars stay, but make them part of a growing high-density neighborhood with increased housing and office space added to the mix, and renovations of its wonderful historic architectural fabric.
Even the right incentives and subsidies don't always work out, and city government must do its part by making the process seamless and without surprises. Take last year's collapsed effort to redevelop the Grove Hotel, a crumbling halfway house at Fourth and Burnside.
The Grove project was set to become an intriguing and potentially catalytic project for the neighborhood: an Asian-themed youth hostel co-developed by Wieden + Kennedy executive John C. Jay in tandem with the late Ace Hotel founder Alex Calderwood. Those are people who know a lot about attracting people and creating a sense of place. The deal, originally struck in 2010, was being heavily subsidized by PDC, but according to reporting by Willamette Week's Aaron Mesh (and others) it fell through after the commission asked for an additional $900,000 in collateral. By that time, the deal was already threatened because of the presence of the Right 2 Dream Too homeless camp across the street. It’s an example of the continuing cycle of possibility and disappointment in Old Town/Chinatown.
Jay has long been active behind the scenes in the neighborhood, with projects such as the Ping restaurant, an ambitious pop-up gallery exhibition during the Portland Art Museum's "China Design Now" show, and an earlier effort to bring Asian grocer Uwajimaya to a surface parking lot at Fifth and Couch. When I interviewed him recently for a design-magazine article about his second-floor space in Chinatown, Studio J, for much of the conversation Jay would return to the wonder that so many of his visiting friends and colleagues express for Old Town/Chinatown. It could be millionaire Chinese investors, Paris fashion designers or Brooklyn graffiti artists but Jay says he hears about Old Town/Chinatown's beauty and potential more from people outside of Portland than people here do. "I don’t think locally we quite get it, the goldmine that’s sitting right here," Jay told me.
Every large city has a mix of neighborhoods: some rich and some poor, some trendy and others with boarded-up storefronts, some with beautiful historic buildings and others with banal strip malls. Yet the economic and social components of these neighborhoods are always changing. Look at how New York's SoHo went from Lou Reed to Luis Vuitton. It's not to say that Old Town/Chinatown needs to gentrify with condo towers and espresso bars. In many urban neighborhoods, development itself becomes the problem, pressuring owners to demolish lower-density buildings and driving up the cost of living. Yet the neighborhood needn't be caught on the other end of the spectrum either.
The Portland Business Alliance has joined Goodman in opposing the parking lot tax. Its leadership argued that taxing parking-lot owners wouldn't do anything to make developing the lots financially viable when the rents they could charge potential building tenants would not cover the cost of construction. And indeed, that's why city leaders have offered incentives, be it for the Grove Hotel project, the new workforce-housing proposal, or others. Leaders in the public and private sector know that the right project, if it attracts enough people, can be successful not only for its investors or occupants but in changing an entire neighborhood, which benefits when property values increase and new businesses cluster around the success story that got there first. The Grove might have been that project, or it might be something else. But the larger point is that Old Town/Chinatown is still searching for that catalyst.
Perhaps it's not fair, then, to single out the surface parking lots for a tax, because it places unfair expectations on their owners to build multi-million-dollar buildings at a loss. But Russell reminds us that sometimes it’s not enough to wait for perceptions or property values to slowly change over time, because sometimes that process can become bogged down for decades, as it has done in Old Town/Chinatown.
The good news is that this neighborhood, for all its persistent problems, has something great to offer, not only in its ideal location but the wonderful collection of old buildings there. The bad news in this neighborhood is that for every step forward there seems to be a step back, or a lack of steps at all, and there’s enough blame to pass around to private and public sector alike, as well as our collective citywide perceptions about Old Town/Chinatown.
In the movie Chinatown, which takes place in the mid-1930s, the Los Angeles district of the same name was known for its signs of corruption. Not long after the time in which the film takes place, the neighborhood was razed to make room for LA's Union Station. With Portland's Chinatown and Old Town, we need a more nuanced approach, one that favors density over parking lots, but with a balance of economic progress and social equity, and of the carrot and the stick. Whether one agrees with Russell's tax plan or not, we're better off at least having the conversation.