Neighbors apprehensive of ‘student ghetto’

Portland State is looking to acquire the Doubletree Hotel property at 310 S.W. Lincoln, an acquisition that could expand existing university space by a whopping 25 percent. But nearby neighbors are concerned.

The university has already received approval for the proposed acquisition from the State Board of Higher Education. Concerns of neighbors dwelling in nearby high-rise condominiums seem to be getting satisfied.

“It’s a really interesting site,” Jay Kenton, vice president for finance and administration, said. “It’s 4.03 acres of contiguous land. The Doubletree Hotel right now occupies only 116,000 square feet of space. That site actually has the capacity to carry somewhere between 800,000 and 1 million square feet of space. More than anything, I would like to have the development potential of having a site like that.”

When PSU brought the proposed purchase before the Portland Development Commission in September, neighbors objected, Kenton said. They live in the three tall buildings of the American Plaza Condominiums. The university at that time had already met with the board of directors of the APC association and planned to meet with a general membership meeting of the residents.

“Their concerns were about their property values, neighborhood safety, view blockage, that kind of thing,” Kenton said. “We have pledged to them, both verbally and in writing, to be a good neighbor, to involve them in the planning and designing, to have regular meetings with them to discuss any devious behavior or other problems that may occur down there.”

Kenton said he had the impression that some of the elderly residents are a little intimidated by students.

“Some of them were concerned we were going to let students rebuild their cars in the parking lot, make it kind of a student ghetto. We assured them that wouldn’t be the case.” He said the university is willing to discuss entering into a formalized Good Neighbor agreement with them that addresses possible concerns like safety, maintenance, noise and similar issues. The two areas are actually separated by trees and a wide paved walkway that would be Southwest Third Avenue if it were open to vehicle traffic.

Kenton said he has been informed that the condo association has met on the issues and has concluded that the university has made a good-faith effort to reach out to the residents and be good neighbors. The association also has concluded it does not have legal standing to block the purchase. Kenton said he and his staff have been involved in multiple meetings with the condo residents and are involving them in planning and expansion of the University District.

“We want to show them that we value their opinion and want to mitigate their concerns, so now they have now agreed to support us in this endeavor,” he said.

The PSU campus, today, he said, totals a little over 4 million square feet. The Doubletree acquisition could allow the campus to grow by 25 percent, increasing physical facilities with what Kenton called “one building footprint.”

The Doubletree has the added advantage of being located on the site of the proposed north-south light rail line. In purchasing it, the university would acquire both the real property and personal property. The hotel has 235 rooms, more than 11,000 square feet of conference space, a dining room, kitchen facilities and more than 230 parking spaces.

The proposed timetable shows conversion of the Doubletree to a PSU conference center and overflow student housing in June or July 2004. Incremental redevelopment of the site would begin in about 2007.

In a letter to the Board of Higher Education, PSU President Daniel Bernstine detailed the potential of the property. Citing the fact that it is within walking distance of the existing campus, he wrote, “It presents a tremendous opportunity to the University for a phased multi-purpose, multi-use development that will include housing for both students and possibly faculty and staff, conference facilities, academic uses, retail and parking.”

Bermstine’s letter stated he expected a fall-term enrollment of 24,300 students, yet PSU owns only 1,049 housing units, with another 500 provided by College Housing Northwest. He further wrote that 122 existing housing units will need to be demolished in the next two to four years because maintenance and repair would cost far in excess of their value. He cited a study that showed that the university needs an additional 700 to 900 housing units immediately, with an additional 1,500 to 2,000 units needed over the next 10 years.

Bernstine’s proposal said the transaction is scheduled to close in January. The facility would be leased back to the current owner until May 31, 2004, or June 30, 2004, at which time it will be converted to university uses.

“It’s basically a turn-key facility,” Kenton said. “We’re buying not just the real property but all the personal property in the building. They’re just going to walk away from it.” This personal property runs through everything from the TV sets in the rooms to the pots and pans in the kitchen.

“It’s not hard to see converting the facility into a housing complex,” Kenton said. “In fact, it could be one of the nicest ones.” There is a pool, although no decision has been made on what to do with it, since it is a potential safety hazard.

The president assured the board that the university’s agreement with the development commission calls for the underutilized site being redeveloped over the next 15 to 20 years to promote a range of housing, academic, conference and retail facilities while promoting higher density uses near the proposed light rail line.

Kenton said PSU has been eyeing the site for four years, with only marginal interest from the owners. However, the World Trade Center tragedy hurt the travel business and the Doubletree’s occupancy rate went from the upper 80 percent per day to the lower mid-60 percent per day, making the owners more interested in a sale.

One obstacle to acquisition was that legally the property could only be acquired through condemnation under the law of eminent domain. PSU found a way to involve the Portland Development Commission as relating to urban renewal issues. The commission would acquire the property by eminent domain and convey it to Portland State. The purchase price is $19.7 million and the university agrees to pay an additional $2.6 million for the personal property on the site for a total acquisition price of $11.3 million.

On Nov. 7, the Oregon University System will seek approval from the state legislative emergency board for the project. Both the development commission and the City Council will then consider the details of the development commission’s acquiring the site through the power of eminent domain.