After eight months of protesting the inclusion of a big-box retailer in the Burnside Bridgehead project, concerned citizens are beginning to see results. The fight for the coveted five-block area on which the project will eventually materialize is not over, however.
Two of the three development firms currently bidding to have their respective proposals approved by the Portland Development Commission’s Board of Directors, now say they won’t include big-box retailers in their project design.
At the meeting, the three developers gave presentations to the board and present community members, discussing their proposals, the developments therein and explaining why they think their design would be the most beneficial to the eastside community and the city at large.
Gerding/Edlen, the development group that, until recently, had intended to bring a Home Depot to the area at the head of the Burnside Bridge on the Willamette River’s east side, now has said they can go ahead with their project without big business support.
Beam Development, too, has left large-format retailers out of its project models and done so since its proposal was first submitted.
However, Opus Northwest announced at a public meeting Wednesday that it would stick to its initial plan to include a large-format company in their project design.
Over the last eight months, community members have voiced their concerns over big-box retailers in central eastside, due to fears that they could harm local businesses and tarnish the diverse integrity of the area.
The board is set to reach its decision Feb. 23.
City Commissioner Sam Adams, who has been publicly opposed to including big-box retailers in the project, made an appearance at the meeting, along with Karen Clemens representing Commissioner Erik Sten, who opposes the large-format retailers, as well.
Gerding/Edlen Managing Principal Mark Edlen, spoke on behalf of the company he helped create Wednesday, announcing the company’s decision to abandon their large-format centered development model.
"It is abundantly clear," Edlen said, that the community does not want big-box retailers on Portland’s central east side.
Edlen also addressed Gerding/Edlen critics, claiming the company is hardly the development "goliath" that it is sometimes portrayed to be in the media.
Adams, who came out against including large-format tenants in the project during his campaign for Commissioner, voiced questions about Gerding/Edlen’s sudden design overhaul and whether their initial large-format preference said anything about the integrity of the company.
Opus Corporation, on the other hand, apparently has no intention of altering their original big-box design.
Beam Construction was represented at the meeting by owner Brad Malsin and Peter Stark, president of Central Eastside Industrial Council.
"We believe we are, and continue to be, the only team that really understands the east side," Malsin said.
Malsin and Stark trumpeted the point that their design has remained essentially consistent throughout the entire process.
Attempting to add a dash of humor to what was otherwise a dry meeting, Malsin and Stark included a top 10 list of reasons why their proposal should be selected, topping the list with "Beam Development has always thought outside the big-box," to which the audience responded with laughing, cheering and applause.
Majority of City Council opposes big-box plan
Four out of five city councilors now agree that including a large format retailer, such as a Home Depot or Lowe’s, would be inappropriate for the Burnside Bridgehead project and potentially harmful to locally-owned businesses in that area.
Like Adams, newly inaugurated mayor Tom Potter came out against big-box retail at Burnside Bridgehead during his campaign and has, since election, maintained his opposition.
"I continue to be opposed to bringing a big-box
tenant to the Burnside Bridge project. I believe we must nurture the small, independent businesses that create family wage jobs and keep Portland dollars in Portland," Potter said, "I also don’t want the small hardware and paint shops now in the area to suffer if they are forced to compete against a giant outside company like Lowe’s or Home Depot."
"Whatever project is finally approved must address Portland’s housing needs and provide live/work space and housing for people from all income levels," Potter said.
Commissioners Erik Sten and Randy Leonard concur with Potter’s and Adams’ position.
"I am deeply concerned that a development could occur that would hurt existing businesses," Leonard said who, up until recently, had said he would consider a big-box retailer.
Rich Rodgers, Sten’s liaison to the Bureau of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services, spoke on behalf of the commissioner, saying Sten opposed large format retail, and emphasized the importance of public input in this decision.
"Erik thinks that PDC should work closely with the public in this decision, and he is against big-box retail," Rodgers said.
"In terms of the public sentiment expressed, it’s really unmistakable how they feel," said Rodgers.
Attempting to characterize that sentiment, Rodgers said that Sten’s office had received about 600 e-mails concerning the project, 99 percent of which, he estimated, were in opposition to big-box retail.
Christine Egan, Public Outreach Coordinator for the PDC, echoed Rodgers observation.
"We’ve received hundreds and hundreds of e-mails," Egan said.
Though Egan said she could not comment on the nature of the public’s inquiries and feedback, an analysis of recorded comments and questions from public meeting sessions, as well as e-mails concerning the project, posted on the PDC website show a significant constituency of citizens whom overwhelmingly oppose large-format retail.
Commissioner Dan Saltzman said he would still consider a large-format retailer for the project.
"I want to see whatever proposal is financially feasible," Saltzman said. "I don’t think that were in a position to say no to anything at this point."
Evaluation committee reports findings
The Burnside Bridgehead Redevelopment Evaluation Committee, a group selected by the PDC to examine and evaluate the pros and cons of each developer, also reported their findings Wednesday night.
The committee did not provide an overall recommendation to the board and the PDC has planned to host two more public events before the board is scheduled to reach its decision on Feb. 23.
Among the good points for Beam Construction, the committee recognized the developers’ innovation in providing space for artists and live/work space for the community, that Beam has the most protected job generation potential, and that the public seems to be overwhelmingly backing their proposal.
However, they criticized Beam for the design, which they called "boxy and clumsy," and said that the project is "the riskiest proposal to implement."
The committee commended Gerding/Edlen for providing the most affordable housing units in its plan, as well as the most office space, which they said is a priority for the CEIC, but wasn’t sure Gerding/Edlen could focus on a project of this magnitude, given the company’s involvement in a number of other projects.
Opus Northwest was praised for having the most attractive design and being internally financed, but the committee also felt the project "may become an island," and recognized the public’s resistance to "large-scale, corporate, ‘category-killer’ retail in general on this site."
Following the presentation, PDC Chairman Matt Hennessee expressed concerns over public perception that the PDC favors Gerding/Edlen.
"I just want to ensure that we have a level playing field here," Hennessee said. "I would love to see our city develop more developers."
Additional information on the Burnside Bridgehead project can be found on the PDC’s website at http://www.pdc.us.