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Monday, November 11, 2013

It's Not Because of the Homeless. It's Because of the Restaurant Business.

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Mon, Nov 11, 2013 at 11:59 AM

Maybe you didn't read the Oregonian's op-ed pages this weekend. But if you did, you might have learned something surprising.

The volunteers at Right 2 Dream Too, the controversial Old Town homeless rest area, are now apparently responsible for the vagaries and indignities of the notoriously fickle restaurant business. We know this because of the experiences of two different restaurants nearby, as related by failed Republican senate candidate James Huffman.

Huffman laments the purported decline of one old-timey joint, not-cheap Greek eatery Alexis at NW 2nd and Burnside, and the demise of another (that he invested in; it was partly run by his son), Ping at NW 4th and Couch. He's clear about his version of the reasons for both.

The biggest problem, however, is the homeless camp just one block away. Congregations of homeless people have always been a reality for Chinatown businesses, but the “Right 2 Dream Too” camp encourages even more while discouraging pedestrian traffic, particularly in the evening.

The camp is illegal. Yet it has been there for more than two years. Commissioner Amanda Fritz has tried to negotiate an alternative site, but that’s on hold because Mayor Charlie Hales is concerned about the effect of a new campsite on nearby business interests.

But what about the interests of Gerry Tsirimiagos and the other business people struggling to make a living in this neglected part of our city? I confess I have a small dog in this fight as owner of a small share of Ping, a nearby, once-thriving restaurant that had garnered national recognition. It is now closed, and has been since business plummeted right after the homeless camp arrived. Gerry says the camp had the same effect on his business.

He's right about a few things. Right 2 Dream Too does exist and has existed fore than more two years. Fritz really has brokered a deal that would give it a new home in the Pearl. But all the rest? It's malarkey—and the O should have known better than to give it any credence.

Alexis still gets good reviews. But it's not like it's not been running in what Portland used to charmingly call its Skid Row for years and years—a place filled with social services institutions and relief agencies that have long been a magnet for people on the streets looking for shelter, medical assistance, or a hot meal and some time out of the rain.

That reality preceded R2DToo and it will continue, sadly, long after R2DToo is gone. R2DToo hasn't changed the makeup of a neighborhood that must not have been so bad that Alexis, as Huffman remembers it, hadn't managed to thrive before. And if that kind of thing really does matter so much, then why hasn't the Chinese restaurant right next door to R2DToo—packed during lunchtime some days—closed its doors?

Moreover Huffman's own post alludes to some of the other factors that might be hurting the Alexis (beyond the notion that restaurants come and go and wear out all on their own, in any location):

Gerry has battled with the city over reduced parking on Burnside to accommodate buses. He got a few of those parking spaces back. But the city now bans nearby on-street parking after 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays so that police patrols won’t be obstructed by parked cars. Gerry’s pleas to move the prohibition back to 11 p.m. or midnight have fallen on deaf ears.

The problem with his Ping anecdote is far more clear-cut. The O's own reporting this fall broke the news that it would reopen as a commissary for Lardo, also co-owned by Huffman's son. Ping didn't close because of a homeless rest area. It's owners had been soul-searching about their future since before R2DToo arrived, when chef Andy Ricker bolted to promote his own empire. The place closed to remodel and rebrand, except that rebranding never happened. And yet it will still live on. Huffman, as a self-described investor, should know that history better.

Huffman does offers this caveat to his points.

Can he prove it? Probably not, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence from former customers and the balance sheets of both restaurants don’t lie.

Once again, he's right about something. Balance sheets don't lie. Or fudge facts. Or twist details.

Instead, that kind of work is left to an op-ed writer.

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