PSU becoming a retail center?

Imagine this: the usual cluster of students waits for a downtown bus at Southwest Sixth avenue and Montgomery street. Across the intersection they see, to their surprise, workers tearing out the entire southeast corner of the University Services building, one of the most solid buildings on campus.

What’s going on? They learn that this could represent a preview of a “new” Portland State, where the university becomes more a residential university and less a commuter college. Where the University district teems with ground floor retail businesses, somewhat comparable in mood and direction to the celebrated University district in Seattle, as well.

They’re not tearing out a corner of USB tomorrow, but it could happen sooner rather than later, as outlined by Jay Kenton, vice president for finance and administration

“We’re working on a retail master plan for the University district,” he said. “What that will entail is creating first floor retail presences in many of our buildings.” The USB project could come early in that transition. He sees the corner as prime retail real estate, currently underutilized by a carpenter shop and storage.

“We’re thinking about blowing out the corner here and bringing in a restaurant or brew pub kind of thing,” he said.

The Sixth and Montgomery bus stop is the busiest in the entire Tri-Met system. Retail chain tenants in that area, Kenton said, report more growth in sales of any stores in their chains.

Kenton admits that he looks at the situation through the eyes of a finance administrator. The prospect of the income appeals to him, yet he also sees the trend as producing a better institution of learning as well as a more exciting area of the city.

“We’re hoping that by using retail as the mechanism, we can extend our resources because the money we make on retail can be reinvested in other academic space or people to further what we’re trying to do as a university,” he said.

Some of this reinvestment he would like to see in buildings that look and function more like the Urban Center, Epler hall, the Native American Center and Broadway housing, and less like the blocky, 1960s-style Cramer and Neuberger halls.

As the university becomes less a commuter school and more a residential institution with a younger student population, Kenton sees positive changes for students, including more activism.

“They’re young, idealistic and they’re paying more of the bill, they want to have more say into what goes on,” he predicted. “To me, that’s a natural outgrowth of the direction we’re headed.”

He believes it should be an exciting time for student government, with more students getting involved in elections and in the governance of the university.

Becoming more residential, he believes, will create more interested alumni, with more sense of loyalty and allegiance to PSU.

“Being a commuter school, I’m not sure you always develop that sense of loyalty,” Kenton said. Commuter students tend to confront many of the more negative stresses of university bureaucracy, like the hassle to find parking space and secure financial aid.

Kenton admits that not everybody buys into his approach to university development.

“We have people who fear we’re being corporatized and that will compromise some of the objectivity that we have enjoyed as a university,” he concedes. “There’s a lot of people that are concerned with the direction we’re headed in some sense. I think they understand out of necessity we have to do some of it.”

He likened the situation to the saying that he who pays the piper calls the tune. If the state pays, it should be able to call the tune. If the students are paying, in the form of more and more tuition, they should be able to call the tune. If business and industry start paying the piper, they will want to call the tune.

“That can be problematic as far as some of the academic values and cultures,” he said. “You’re getting mostly a kind of a spin from a finance guy. Academics, I think, have different views of it, both positive and negative. Which is fine.”