04 Nov

Portland Building a disaster as offices; a whole new option as housing

Last week, almost immediately after learning how much it would cost to fix the Portland Building, Mayor Charlie Hales decided to just clear out.

Any homeowner finding himself $195 million underwater knows exactly how Hales felt.

If only somebody held a mortgage on the building, the city itself could just walk away. But an abandoned building in the middle of the city ends up being owned by … the city.

It’s kind of a Catch-22.

Or a Catch-195 million.

The city’s best strategy might be to get the building rezoned outside the Urban Growth Boundary, and plant the area in soybeans.

That might be tricky – although moss is growing on the building, it’s not clear what else could – but another bold redefinition might help:

Reclassify the building as housing.

As the Portland Building, it’s the kind of workspace where Chinese adolescents assemble smart phones. As The Portlandia, it could become a prestige residence.

As an office building, it’s been depreciating for 30 years. Over that time, Portland housing has gone up about 300 percent.

As a workspace, it’s an illustrated catalogue of building code violations. As housing, it’s a charming fixer-upper.

The Portland Building has uneven floors, patches of damp, and areas with approximately the natural light of Guantanamo Bay cellblocks. As office space, this constitutes a human rights violation.
In housing, it’s called character.

This is true partly, of course, because real estate listings are the most American form of creative writing. But it’s also the product of Portland’s dramatic housing shortage, driving up rents and driving down available apartment space. As the home of Portland’s Water Bureau, Bureau of Parks and Recreation and other municipal offices, the Portland Building is problematic; as 15 stories of studio apartments, it has a whole range of possibilities.

As offices, the spaces are high-maintenance money-losers; as downtown one-bedrooms with kitchenettes, they’d bring in $1,800 a month.

Plus the city could charge for basement parking.

We might even be underestimating our opportunity here. Considering the size of the apartments now being built and offered in Portland, we might be able to fill the Portland Building with enough people to create a state Senate district.

The building would even fit neatly into the patterns of Portland’s current apartment-building boom: close proximity to public transit and geometrically implausible design. The real estate rule of “Location, location, location,” applies directly here: The Portland Building is just across the street from City Hall, making it convenient for residents to complain to the landlord about dampness and uneven floors.

Everybody realizes something dramatic has to be done with the building. Architect Michael Graves, before his death in March, suggested ripping out all the cubicles and replacing them with long work tables.

Once you’ve got tables, all you need to turn the space into housing is minikitchens and walk-in closets. The building already has bathrooms, although like everything else about it, they would take a lot of work.

It’s a plumbing challenge to turn an outside leak into a massage-head shower.

We know whatever is done to the building is going to cost heavy coin. From an early estimate of $95 million, the overhaul plan adopted by the City Council in late October is priced at $195 million – and anyone who’s ever been involved with a remodeling knows that the cost always comes in higher than the estimate, when it turns out that the electricians are working on overtime and the wallpaper is on back order.

No wonder Charlie Hales decided he didn’t want to spend the next four years checking contractors’ receipts and looking at fabric swatches.

Portland plans to pay for this by raising the rents that city bureaus pay to occupy the building.

The city can certainly do this, exercising its statutory power to take money out of one pocket and put it into another pocket. But if its financial strategy depends on raising rents, the city should definitely look at repurposing the building for housing, an area where Portland rents are shooting up on a monthly basis
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By the time the remodeling is finished, the rent of a downtown ministudio could approach the price of a Mini Cooper.

The city’s remodeling plan calls for its workers to vacate the building during construction, which shouldn’t be a problem.

The challenge may be getting them to come back in afterward.

On the other hand, we know there would be an immediate market for the Portland Building as housing.

After all, there are a lot of people sleeping on the Transit Mall already.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 11/1/15.

01 Nov

Contest would be useful, but Wheeler’s claim to mayor’s job is strong

This week, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales realized something that a lot of Portland voters had already figured out:

State Treasurer Ted Wheeler has a strong claim to Hales’ job.

The Portland area hasn’t had a great record on local leadership lately. Hales will be the third one-term mayor in a row, and nobody left happily. Tom Potter spent his term trying to get a vision of what he wanted to do, and Sam Adams, a lame duck from arrival, had his greatest success in avoiding being recalled. Hales himself seemed to get lost in Portland’s deteriorating streets.

Wheeler’s predecessor as Multnomah County chairman saw her board become dysfunctional even by congressional standards. Wheeler’s successor disappeared into a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding sex scandal.

And then there was Wheeler, who in four years running Multnomah County straightened out the budget and had the county board functioning. That led to his appointment as state treasurer; if that hadn’t happened, Wheeler might have gotten to the mayor’s office already.

It’s still five months until the filing deadline, and Portland needs a real mayor’s race. There are legislators and appointed officials who could make the race, and raise the questions Portland should be facing.

Ted Wheeler is a strong candidate for mayor. But one should never be enough.

NORE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 10/31/15.