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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Right 2 Dream Too Breakthrough? $1 Million Transaction Will Give Pearl Group Lot 7, Pay for Relocation

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Thu, Feb 6, 2014 at 3:29 PM

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With almost disquieting speed, city officials now say they're preparing to vote next week on the latest stab at a breakthrough in a months-old impasse over what to do with Old Town homeless rest area Right 2 Dream Too.

The Pearl District developers working to block a move to a city-owned lot beneath the Broadway Bridge's Lovejoy off-ramp have agreed to buy that lot for $142,000—and then kick in nearly $900,000 more to fund R2DToo's move to some other undetermined lot and buy out a parking lease from a nearby apartment building for low-income seniors.

Despite only tentative support from R2DToo—whose board will meet to formally decide on the idea this weekend— both Commissioner Amanda Fritz and Mayor Charlie Hales are planning to file paperwork tonight putting the proposal on the city council and Portland Development Commission's respective agendas next Wednesday.

The PDC would formally approve the sale to the Pearl group, whose interest in the lot, spurred by the plan to move R2DToo onto it last fall, was first reported by the Mercury. The council, before that afternoon hearing, would approve an ordinance accepting the additional money and directing how it would be used. Depending on how R2DToo's board votes, some of the legal language in the proposal could change before the vote.

Nothing in the deal limits where Right 2 Dream Too can move using that money, which will be managed by the city. A real estate broker, working on a $1,000 contract, could bring back a list of potential sites within a 1.5-mile radius of the Portland Building as soon as tomorrow.

"It's been quick for me and them," Fritz said before a press release (pdf) announcing the deal was released today. "I found out about this on Friday."

But she was emphatic that the arrangement involved "no taxpayer money," something just as strongly expressed by Hales' office and Ibrahim Mubarak, a Right 2 Dream Too co-founder. Mubarak says he wrestled with the offer before embracing it and that many of the group's board members might not be ready to follow.

"I'm not going to say no to it, when we can do something to help people," Mubarak says. "It's good they are doing this. And I hope they are doing this to bring out their humanitarian spirit, and not just doing it like capitalists do, to just get rid of things and pay people off."

The deal comes amid reports of campsite sweeps by police downtown and in the Central Eastside this winter, something R2DToo has been talking over with police commanders and staffers in the mayor's office. It lands just two days after the unveiling of a police/business effort on homelessness awkwardly named "Prosper Portland." And it comes during some intense focus on the future of Old Town, putting extra pressure on a deal that makes everyone happy.

The PDC is looking to buy the rest area's current lots, and it just announced another stab at redeveloping the empty Grove Hotel across the street on NW 4th. Hales has promised not to keep burdening the neighborhood with social services agencies, talking about its future as an emerging high-tech hub, and telling neighbors he didn't want to keep R2DToo in the area permanently.

Fritz and Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes, minded some of that context when discussing the arrangement's terms. In a city where 1,700-plus people sleep outside every night, Fritz said she thinks Right 2 Dream Too is "here to stay." She says there isn't money to build adequate housing but that the city, until then, can't just leave people outside in doorways and sidewalks where they can be arrested or come into conflict with business owners.

Right 2 Dream Too, with its tents at NW 4th and Burnside, opened in October 2011 in the shadow of Occupy Portland. It hosts 100 people every night who might otherwise have nowhere else to go for a safe night's sleep. It also provides a sense of community for homeless Portlanders looking to transition back into housing and out of what can be a painfully lonely existence, especially if it's compounded by mental health or addiction issues.

"One of the alternatives is the model of the rest area," Fritz said. "We don't have anywhere where it's legal for people to be on the streets and sleeping.... We should think of it as being here for as long as people need it."

The hunt for a new home for R2DToo has been on for nearly a year. Fritz, upon taking over the Bureau of Development Services, spent last summer looking for a new spot as part of an effort to settle a lawsuit challenging some $20,000-plus in code fines that had been levied against the rest area under Dan Saltzman's reign.

The Pearl lot she found, called Lot 7, owned by the PDC, was her third choice of government owned (and thereby free) properties after navigating zoning issues and other challenges. Soon after she announced the deal and settlement in late August, Pearl neighbors and developers, including campaign funding players Dike Dame and Homer Williams, put on a full-court press to kill it.

They got a break in October after persuading Hales, during an occasionally nasty city council hearing, to let them take a stab at finding a location. The Pearl group, working with land-use attorneys, also filed a pre-emptive appeal of any move to Lot 7 with the state's Land Use Board of Appeals.

Their site search, however, proved just as nettlesome. R2DToo said it wanted locations close to transit, close to social services, and with an outdoor area. Going indoors, they warned, would play havoc with their low-cost emergency shelter model. They'd need to do tuberculosis testing. They wouldn't be able to let dogs in, one of their selling points. And dormitories might scare off someone who's not ready to be inside but wants to be safe—while at the same time hampering the communitarian sensibility that's blossomed at their current location.

Eventually, one option did manage to catch everyone's fancy, at least in city hall. Hales, already accused of favoring Dame and Williams and not working closely enough with Fritz or R2DToo, brought reporters out to an empty warehouse at 320 NW Hoyt. He pitched that as a no-nonsense obvious choice. But when officials realized it was too close to the Bud Clark Commons (moving in would trigger a zoning hearing) and would cost $335,000 to fix up, on top of its 15-month, $150,000 lease, it didn't matter that R2DToo never really was on board.

If the collapse of that deal stung for the mayor's office, it did seem to spur a change in rhetoric. So did threats by R2DToo to sue if the city didn't honor its legal agreement to move them onto Lot 7, the Pearl's LUBA challenge notwithstanding.

It's notable that Mubarak and others from R2DToo were in the same room as Fritz and Hales' staffers this morning. And that Fritz and Hales will both sign the ordinance on the current land-sale proposal—almost two months after Fritz pointedly wasn't involved in the announcement of the Hoyt warehouse offer. Hales has been in daily contact with his staff on the issue, despite working from a climate change conference in South Africa, some 10 hours ahead of Portland.

Asked if this deal means the Pearl group was worried about losing a LUBA appeal, or at least the amount of time and energy it might spend before the board making its case (not to mention in court, if R2DToo sues), Hales' spokesman declined to speculate on what they might have been thinking. Fritz, however, said she felt the city had a strong case in front of LUBA.

"We would have won," she said.

The deal would render that challenge moot. But it wasn't clear if this would trump the settlement agreement reached last year—including the promise that R2DToo could move to Lot 7. That promise had been one of the group's legal cudgels and a bit of leverage they're still loath to consider giving away. The group's attorney Mark Kramer, also representing the land owners hosting R2DToo at 4th and Burnside, said the arrangement was a "win-win-win" scenario in a press release prepared today by Haynes.

Fritz says there's no firm timeline for finding another location, other than "as soon as possible." R2DToo will be able to stay at NW 4th and Burnside until a good spot is found, even if and/or after the PDC buys it from its current owners. Fritz says she wants to promise a spot that meets R2DToo's three main priorities, meaning no one wants to push them out to the hinterlands where the homeless people they serve are unlikely to reach them.

Neither Fritz nor Haynes got into details on how the eventual price tag was decided. Dame and Williams, who have a Marriott hotel nearby, no doubt want more parking for their customers. But they didn't approach the city about Lot 7, the PDC has confirmed, until after talk emerged about a Right 2 Dream Too relocation. The lot, already a parking lot, has not been heavily used. It's also not available for development, what with a bridge ramp squatting right over it. The PDC had the land appraised, with the $142,000 price tag on the low end of the figures it received back.

"They are making a gracious contribution to finding a suitable site for Right 2 Dream Too," Fritz said of the Pearl developers.

The money due to help Right 2 Dream Too, some $846,000, could be used to lease or buy and improve the right piece of property. Some possibilities include taking over a paved or gravel lot and putting up bathrooms as part of a trailer.

It's possible there might be money left over, and that money will be set aside to help the homeless. Potentially, though no one would commit to something so far ahead, for another site working under R2DToo's model.

"Of course we would try to acquire another lot," Mubarak says. "There should be four of us."

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