The Bollard’s View

Ugliness in the Arts District

There’s something ugly in the heart of Portland’s downtown Arts District, and it ain’t hanging on a wall.

As Tom Bell reported in the Portland Press Herald on Feb. 25, several wealthy property owners in the district are opposed to plans by the non-profit Avesta Housing to develop 37 small, affordable apartments on an Oak Street parking lot. The opponents’ remarkably candid comments reveal a class-based bigotry akin to the invective directed at our immigrant community — charges that the mere presence of poor people decreases property values, increases crime and stifles the economy.

This bigotry has no place in our community and must be denounced whenever it rears its hideous head.

Among the opponents is Tom Moulton, a commercial real estate broker with The Dunham Group who developed luxury condos in a building around the corner from the lot and lives in the huge condo atop its roof. City officials “only look out for the underdogs,” he complained to the paper, adding, “Everybody is so concerned about political correctness, that sometimes gets in the way.”

Moulton’s right: It’s not p.c. for the rich to badmouth efforts to house the poor. But he and his fellow opponents are wrong about everything else.

(It’s particularly galling to hear Moulton mouth off about Avesta’s development. Three years ago, he and developer Kerry Anderson planned to build 16 “live/work” units on the same parking lot. The project never broke ground because — well, apparently they didn’t have the money.)

“When you add people who can’t do anything to the economic development of the community, you take up space,” carped Penny Carson, who owns commercial property nearby with her brother, the high-powered lawyer and lobbyist Harold Pachios.

Here’s an inconvenient truth: housing isn’t hurting business in the Arts District; art galleries are.

Aside from a few hours during First Friday Art Walks, galleries hardly draw anyone downtown. Most are closed at least half the week, and the foot traffic they generate when they are open is a trickle compared to the average retail store, and nothing compared to a coffee shop, bar or restaurant. (City officials have already taken steps to limit bars and music venues in the Arts District in response to condo-owners’ complaints about nighttime noise. It’s the condo dwellers who are stifling economic growth downtown, not the working poor.)

Bell said the project’s opponents — including Steve and Michelle Corry, owners of the upscale restaurant Five Fifty-Five, which fronts the Oak Street lot — contend downtown needs more people “who have money to spend at restaurants and art galleries.”

Residents of Avesta’s apartments, where rents would range from $500 to $750, would have money to spend on art and dining out — they just won’t be shelling out $31.95 for truffled lobster “mac & cheese” at Five Fifty-Five or spending thousands on a seascape that matches the sofa.

They will be having breakfast at Marcy’s Diner, eating tacos at Wild Burrito and ordering pizza at Otto. Most eateries in the district are well within the means of the tenants Avesta’s project would attract. Those tenants could also afford to buy art, either directly from the artists who have studios in the district or at one of the many non-traditional art spaces downtown, like Sanctuary Tattoo and Coffee By Design.

Besides being bigoted and pompous, comments like Carson’s show how ignorant the opponents are about their own neighborhood.

Avesta is keenly aware of the class battle it faces to get its project built. That’s why the agency’s officials are pitching it as housing for “artists,” knowing full well that people like me who can’t flesh out a stick figure are just as likely, and legally entitled, to live there as the next Vincent van Gogh. The 420-square-foot apartments would have large, stainless steel sinks and high ceilings, as well as exhibition space on the ground floor of the four-story building, but those amenities won’t make the units unattractive to people who can’t paint.

City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, whose district includes this part of downtown, is confident the city will approve Avesta’s project despite the opposition of its influential, moneyed opponents. The city has agreed to provide about $400,000 from its housing replacement fund to help the agency finance the development. That’s fitting, as a large chunk of the money in that fund came from payments made when the Portland Museum of Art demolished low-income housing at the YWCA on Spring Street to create a parking lot and some marginally arty landscaping.

“In many respects,” Donoghue told The Bollard, the predominately young, single people of limited means who’d love to live in Avesta’s apartments “are downtown’s economy.”

The opponents of the project quoted in Bell’s article “should be embarrassed, if not ashamed,” he said.

Ashamed is right.

— Chris Busby