PDC”s east Burnside pick befuddles community

The unexpected selection last week of Opus Northwest to develop the area of east of the Burnside Bridge has left many community members feeling slighted and the Portland Development Commission trying to build support for its decision.

Last Wednesday, the Portland Development Commission’s (PDC) Board of Directors bewildered a crowd of approximately 130 people, the overwhelming majority of whom supported local favorite Beam development, when Chairman Matt Hennessee announced the selection of Opus Northwest to develop on the five-block site at the east end of the Burnside Bridge.

The crowd filed out of the PDC conference room in befuddled quietude punctuated with disbelieving whispers and dissenting utterances. Despite their pleas, they had not convinced the board to confer Beam with the project.

Discouraged Beam supporters are voicing their displeasure, as Opus Northwest and the PDC prepare to move ahead with their project.

The commission voted unanimously in favor of awarding Opus Northwest with the project, on the grounds that the group’s proposal was the most financially sound of either Beam or Gerding/Edlen Development, who had all but dropped out of the bid before the board’s selection.

The selection was made against a high level of community support for Beam and its founder Brad Malsin, and in spite of the PDC-appointed citizen advisory committee’s recommendation that the board select Beam.

According to Hennessee, since the announcement he has heard feedback from people who “weren’t especially happy but understood.”

Philosophically, “some people are for it, some are against it,” he said.

Opus Northwest’s plans for the five-block site include over 120,000 square feet of retail space, as well as residential and office space. The project is expected to generate nearly $1 million a year in revenue for the city, according to the PDC.

A somber Malsin spoke of the collective disappointment felt by himself and his supporters.

“I think everyone is in shock, I think they’re dismayed, they feel disenfranchised. They’re trying to gather their wits,” Malsin said. “There are a lot of disappointed people. My phone has not stopped ringing. I’ve already received hundreds of e-mails.”

“Portland needs creative visionary developers,” he said, “and I believe I was one of those people.”

Development plans begin
The development project incurred scrutiny from community leaders beginning nearly a year ago, after it was announced that two of the three developers had included “big box” retailers in their development plans. Many were concerned the corporate presence would harm locally owned businesses in the area.

Now that Opus has been selected, they will begin to work with PDC to begin preparations for work on the site. To do that, Hennessee said the first step will be to open a line of communication between representatives from Opus and the central east side community.

“People were pretty focused and passionate about the proposal by Mr. Malsin,” Hennessee said. “Some healing is needed there.”

Opus Northwest had originally planned for a large-format retailer such as Lowe’s or Home Depot home improvement stores at the site, and expressed that they would continue with the plan as late as January. However, the plan was eventually dropped after continued protest from community members and objections to the plan from the Portland City Council.

Gerding/Edlen, too, had included a big-box retailer in their design’s early stages.

Only Beam development had left out the large-format element from the beginning, a point which made them popular with eastside’s corporate-opposed community.

Twenty-two public testimonies were heard at the meeting, 19 of which were in favor of the Beam proposal. Two supported Opus and one took no position.

No one testified in support of Gerding/Edlen.

Norman Chusid, owner of Ankeny Hardware and 50-year central east side resident, feels the central east side was disserved by the PDC’s selection. Chusid, who supported the Beam proposal “for its uniqueness, for its creativity, for the benefit it would do the central east side,” said he and other supporters feel “hurt and ignored” in the wake of the board’s decision.

“I was very hopeful that common sense and decency would prevail,” he said. “It is a shame.”

Though Chusid, who was among those who testified, was pleased that the PDC took time out to listen to the public’s comments, he said he believes “they underplayed the importance of the comments.”

Malsin echoed Chusid’s sentiment.

“I think the PDC and the city’s desire to have this open into a publicly formatted and publicly informed project has fallen short,” he said.

Low capability score major factor
The PDC evaluation committee scored Beam Development last in development capability, a qualification that Henessee said was most important to the commission. Still, the committee had favored Beam and suggested the commission select the development firm, with conditions.

Susan Lindsay, technology coordinator in the Department of Applied Linguistics at PSU and a member of the evaluation committee, said the committee suggested Beam “because we agreed that, while that proposal was riskier, it really showed the most promise.”

“It certainly does not provide the job potential or the office potential that Beam had.”

A resident of the central-eastside, Lindsay voiced frustrations at the commission’s apparently predetermined selection, noting that the decision was announced in a prepared, typed statement by Hennessee and the markedly short, closed off deliberation which preceded the commission’s announcement. A publicly disclosed deliberation, similar to city council format, would have been more conducive to fostering public involvement in the process, Lindsay said.

“The most important part of the public process would have been the revealing of the deliberations and the discussion,” Lindsay said. “It just created more mistrust.”

“Last night’s meeting certainly didn’t bring any new information that we hadn’t heard,” Hennessee said. “There was really no reason for us not to know which way we were going to go.”

The distinction of the apparent favorite for the development project changed hands many times during the year-long bidding for the contract. Gerding/Edlen was perceived to be the leader early on due to its notoriety and work on several other high-profile Portland building projects. The company fell behind, however, as their large-format retail concept became increasingly unpopular.

The 1.29 million square foot design includes several multi-use buildings, the tallest of which will rise 15 stories, overlooking the Burnside Bridge and Willamette River.