Greg Goodman walks through downtown Portland every morning, picking a different route each day. Those walks have become increasingly frustrating for him over the last several months.
He sees trash bags and litter left out on the sidewalks, glass from broken car windows in the streets, buildings and benches covered with graffiti and small businesses with boarded-up windows.
Goodman, co-owner of Portland real estate giant Downtown Development Group, worries that those small businesses, and downtown Portland as a whole, will not recover without immediate intervention from the city.
“You are willfully neglecting your duties as elected officials to keep our city safe and clean,” wrote Goodman in a letter to Mayor Ted Wheeler and his fellow City Council members last Friday.
“What outreach have you had to small businesses and retailers to tell them that you have their backs and are going to help them?” Goodman wrote in the letter, first reported by Willamette Week.
Business owners have been expressing growing alarm about the state of downtown for many weeks, calling on city leaders to act. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has been largely quiet in response, though the city is in the early stages of developing a plan to address the issues.
Businesses and neighborhood groups say action isn’t coming nearly fast enough and are increasingly vocal about the threat to their organizations and communities. One major downtown employer, The Standard, has temporarily relocated some employees to the suburbs and suggested those workers will only return downtown after the pandemic if conditions improve.
Downtown’s crisis extends far beyond the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic catastrophe, according to Goodman and other critics of the city’s response.
Nightly protests downtown have given Portland a reputation for upheaval. But Goodman said he felt the issues downtown were not a consequence of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests, which he said he supports. He instead faulted the city for tolerating vandalism and lawlessness downtown and failing to keep streets clean and safe.
Meanwhile, the number of tents around downtown has grown as the city has limited cleanups of homeless camps during the pandemic.
In a letter to city officials on Aug. 14, Helen Ying, the chair of the Old Town Community Association, said that there are currently over 100 tents in Old Town and that there has been an increase in assaults, drug activity, human waste and people experiencing mental illness within the neighborhood. She called on the city to address the situation.
“Through all of our efforts, aside from a temporary added police foot patrol, we have seen no government assistance to help relocate people to safer alternatives, no mental health interventions which is so essential for many of the unsheltered, no additional sanitation facilities, and now, no assistance with regard to community safety,” Ying wrote. “We have a humanitarian crisis and we are responding with united efforts as volunteers. Old Town needs you, our government to do the same.”
WAITING FOR THE CITY TO RESPOND
The mayor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But earlier this month, Wheeler circulated a plan to revive downtown and help downtown businesses.
The three-page document focused on five target areas: Promoting public safety, addressing issues around homelessness and graffiti, cleaning up trash and developing a downtown retail strategy. The document said the city was still identifying funding for certain areas of the plan, including increased trash pickup.
Wheeler responded to Goodman’s letter last Friday by saying that he was working with city officials on “an enhanced livability program” and would have more details after Labor Day.
After 10 days, Ying received a response to her letter Monday when a representative from Wheeler’s office called to inform her that the Mayor was taking her concerns seriously and was working on a plan to address the issues in Old Town. She said the staffer told her the city will have more details within a couple weeks and that the mayor’s office would be back in touch with her later this week.
Wheeler met with the Portland Business Alliance at the end of July to lay out his plan to help downtown, but the organization says little has happened since.
“We’re just not seeing the action we need from our elected leaders at all levels of government,” said Andrew Hoan, CEO for the Portland Business Alliance, the city’s chamber of commerce. “Commitments were made several weeks ago and there’s been a failure to fully act on that plan and put in action toward long-term commitments such as toilets and cleaning stations for those in need and proactive graffiti cleanup and repairs after each night of damage.”
DOWNTOWN BUSINESSES REMAIN CLOSED
Goodman says he has heard from tenants who have been disappointed with the lack of outreach from the city and are looking to leave downtown. Other businesses have stayed closed since the start of the pandemic or shut their doors for a second time due to the issues plaguing downtown.
Apple has reopened its two stores in suburban malls around Portland but hasn’t reopened its downtown store since it was looted May 30 after a riot broke out following a peaceful protest in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
Two family-owned stores, Kassab Jewelers and the Mercantile, were among those ransacked that same night. The downtown stores have been closed ever since, although Kassab Jewelers reopened its Washington Square Mall and Lake Oswego stores.
Old Town Pizza & Brewing owner Adam Milne closed his downtown brewery in July, while Adorn owner Nicole Whitesell has not reopened her downtown boutique since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Both business owners have reopened their other locations.
Portland-based insurance company The Standard, which employs more than 2,100 people in Oregon, has required the majority of its workforce to work from home since March due to the pandemic. But a segment of its workforce had been working in its downtown office until recently, when The Standard decided to relocate many of those employees to its Hillsboro campus due to safety concerns and property damage downtown.
Bob Speltz, a spokesman for The Standard, said the company’s building has sustained significant and repeated damage over the last three months and that several employees and security contractors were assaulted near the downtown office, which contributed to the decision to relocate employees.
While he said The Standard is deeply supportive of a renewed focus on racial justice, he said the company is concerned about continued “criminal activity from opportunists not associated with the legitimate protests.”
“The safety of our employees is our primary concern,” Speltz said. “The pandemic and the protests have temporarily shifted the way we work, but we intend to return to downtown Portland assuming conditions improve.”
Earlier this week, a federal employee was allegedly assaulted while walking to work at the Hatfield Federal Courthouse. Oregon’s U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday that a Portland resident has been charged in the case.
As they wait for the city to act, some members of the downtown business community are working on their own to address the issues plaguing their community.
The Old Town Community Association started a GoFundMe earlier this month to raise money to help unsheltered people by adding toilets and cleaning stations and working with those that want to relocate to safer alternatives.
Maureen Fisher, executive director of Downtown Portland Clean & Safe, a nonprofit and affiliate partner of the Portland Business Alliance, has increased its pickup of trash and needles and cleanup of biohazards and graffiti by roughly 12% this summer.
“We are doing what we can to positively impact the city’s center, and our teams with Central City Concern have been quietly working around the clock these past five months, in the middle of a pandemic, providing basic cleaning services to the downtown district,” said Fisher in a statement. “It’s difficult but essential work and brings positivity to the heart of our city. I don’t even want to imagine what downtown Portland would look like without these efforts.”
Ying said the city did respond to requests for help from the Old Town Community Association in April by temporarily adding more foot patrol to the area. Prosper Portland, the city’s economic development agency, has also been working with the community association to form a COVID-19 response team in an effort to safely reopen Old Town. Hoan, too, said that he noticed several days of heavy cleanup activity in downtown earlier this summer.
But stakeholders say immediate, targeted and long-term action is needed to turn things around in downtown.
“It’s just a matter of taking care of your city, showing pride in what you have,” Goodman said. “Right now, it isn’t the case in how we’re maintaining our downtown and showing love to the small businesses that make Portland what it is.”
Subscribe to Oregonian/OregonLive newsletters and podcasts for the latest news and top stories.