Responding to intense public pressure, developers in a three-way competition to redevelop a site on the east side of Portland, Oregon, have dropped plans to include big-box retail in their projects.
The Portland Development Commission has been considering proposals to redevelop five city blocks at the base of the Burnside Bridgehead east of the Willamette River.
Initially, the competition pitted two large developers—Opus Northwest and Gerding/Edlen—both of which intended to make either Home Depot or Lowe’s the centerpiece of their projects, against local underdog Beam Development, which offered a proposal that eschewed big-box in favor of live-work lofts for artists and a mix of spaces designed to incubate and house small businesses.
“We propose anchoring the project with a collection of smaller traditional and modern industrial uses, with residential focusing on developing artists,” the Beam proposal read. “Supporting these uses we have proposed retail spaces, commercial offices, and market rate housing, all directed toward the industrial flavor and creative service environment of the eastside.”
All three proposals would require public subsidies estimated around $50 million.
As a smaller and less experienced developer, Beam seemed to stand little chance of winning approval from the PDC. The two larger developers, especially Opus, characterized the big-box components of their proposals as important to attracting investors and making redevelopment of the site financially viable. The PDC seemed inclined to agree.
But neighborhood concerns about the impact of a big-box retailer soon coalesced into a board coalition of more than one hundred local business owners, eight neighborhood associations, and scores of residents. They flooded the PDC with more than 1,000 letters and calls, and packed public hearings on the project, complaining that big-box stores would harm the area’s many hardware and supply businesses and undermine the character of the neighborhood.
Most members of the City Council (which has no authority over the PDC) came out against including big-box in the redevelopment plan.
With the public strongly in favor of the Beam proposal, the PDC—which has been on the defensive over persistent claims that it gives short shrift to public input—postponed a decision on the project until late April.
Now, both Opus and Gerding/Edlen have submitted revised proposals that do not include a big-box store and are similar in many respects to the plan offered by Beam.
After the PDC selects a developer in April, the project will still have to obtain financing and many aspects of the winning proposal could be altered substantially.
It will be worth watching what happens, as developers around the country commonly claim that big-box stores are necessary to finance redevelopment and new housing in urban areas, even with significant public subsidies. There’s plenty of evidence already that that’s not the case and Burnside Bridgehead would provide even more.